During my wild youth — OK, my 30s — before the turn of the century, my wife and I had the opportunity to attend a media event to celebrate the first winter season at the Mount Washington Hotel, almost a century after the legendary building set out the welcome mat for its first guest. Winterizing the hotel was a massive undertaking, a $3.5 million project that included replacing 800 windows, installing 100 new radiators and 300 individual thermostats, and adding extensive amounts of insulation.
The hotel launched its winter sequel the day before Thanksgiving in 1999, a grand way to ring in the new millennium. But my strongest memory was the unshakable sense that the hotel felt like it had always been open for winter. The setting was simply too perfect.
With a fresh blanket of snow covering the expansive grounds, the distinctive, sprawling white hotel with its bright red roof (imitating Spanish tiles, in keeping with the structure’s Spanish Renaissance Revival architecture), set high on a promontory, simply demands your attention. One writer friend, Steve Jermanok, once brilliantly described the Mount Washington Hotel as a giant wedding cake. To see a horse-drawn sled sliding across the hotel grounds, with the majestic Presidential Range serving as a backdrop, is to watch a Robert Frost poem come to life.
Inspired one morning during that media weekend, as Lauri slept soundly, I snuck outside just after sunrise. The air was crisp and cold and remarkably clean. With my snowshoes, I marched out to the rolling field behind the main dining room and created a giant arrow and a heart, inscribed with “I love you, Lauri” (which got some hilarious reactions as we sat down later for breakfast). That’s the kind of goofy, romantic act you might expect from a lovestruck Irishman, but it’s also the kind of emotion that a truly special place can engender. A place like the Mount Washington Hotel.
The following winter we returned with our girls, then 5 and 3. Coming around the bend in Route 302 from the east, our 5-year-old, Maddi, caught her first glimpse of the hotel and gasped, “It’s a castle!” I’m certain Maddi was not the first person, adult or child, to have that reaction. And I guarantee she won’t be the last.
When staying at the Mount Washington Hotel, you owe it to yourself, your family and the other guests, to be on point. This magnificent structure is defined by a grace and style of a bygone era. Imagine, having an elevator operator, not to mention a small army of bellhops always at the ready (the hotel boasts 600 year-round employees, and 1,000 in the winter). When Maddi made her “castle” comment, Lauri and I seized on the opportunity to establish the “Princess Rules.” In short, that meant the girls had to be on best behavior. And the girls bought in immediately, and completely.
Even today, we bring extra cloths — really nice cloths — so we can dress to the nines when dining at the hotel. I don’t have any proof, but I’m fairly certain that my vodka martini — dirty, dry, with three olives — tastes just a bit better when I’m wearing a crisp suitcoat and tie, which I attribute to the hotel’s “Great Gatsby” aura. But there’s also a correlation between how well my girls dress, and how well they behave (this isn’t a universal rule, admittedly, but I think it’s a fairly safe statement).
The food, the beverages, the service, the views and the atmosphere at the Mount Washington Hotel are all first-rate. Staying at the Mount Washington Hotel is not cheap, but everyone who loves the North Country and the finer things in life should have this experience.
The Mount Washington Resort, which includes the ski area and the grand hotel, as well as the nearby Bretton Arms Inn, The Lodge at Bretton Woods, and assorted townhouses, was purchased in June 2006 by CNL Lifestyle Properties. The Omni Hotels & Resorts group took over management of the resort in 2009, before purchasing it outright in 2015. It’s been a happy marriage for the giant wedding cake.
Since 2006, the property has undergone close to $100 million in renovations and expansions, including a $1.2 million restoration of the Great Hall, construction of a new wing that now houses a state-of-the-art conference room and the hotel’s outstanding 25,000-square-foot full-service spa; refurbishing of the main dining room; and the addition of 69 more rooms (bringing the total to 269 guest rooms and suites, 65 of which have a private patios or balconies).
Rooms range from the cozy European and Traditional models (under 300 square feet) to Deluxe rooms with queen or king beds to Corner Vista rooms and spacious Family and Luxury suites (up to 625 square feet, or half the size of my house). All are immaculate, featuring comfy beds, well-stocked bathrooms, large flat-screen televisions and complimentary Wi-Fi (if you absolutely have to bring work with you). Many have fireplaces, adding to the hotel’s sophisticated ambiance.
The real attraction of the Mount Washington Hotel, however, comes outside the four walls of your private room or suite. The public spaces are simply exceptional. To step into the grand dining room is to peel back the decades, if not a century. More often than not, you’ll find a piano player or live jazz band, and attentive waitpersons scurrying about tending to each guests every need. This is an uncommon treat, whether for families or for couples (the latter will want to make reservations no earlier than the second seating, if they want to avoid younger guests). The individualized attention is unmatched, and the pace is luxurious, so you can thoroughly enjoy yourself, your partner, your friends, the music and the surrounding atmosphere. Couples with children can even take advantage of the in-house babysitting services for a romantic getaway.
Stickney’s Steak & Chop Pub — the hotel’s former billiards room — offers a laidback atmosphere with an upscale menu, while the Rosebrook Bar serves cocktails that rival the stunning views. I’d recommend an Unfiltered Martini, Negroni or the intriguing Anejo Old Fashioned. Though the Cave, a cozy Prohibition-era speakeasy tucked away in the rough-hewn stone-wall basement, is currently closed due to COVID restrictions, you should put it on your bucket list once it reopens. The place simply oozes nostalgia. Peering out the grated windows in the granite walls, you can just picture the old paddy wagons driving up the long, sloping driveway back in the Roaring ’20s.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, discussing après-ski options before talking about all the daytime activities. The obvious draw is the Bretton Woods ski area, which has really flourished under CNL Lifestyles and Omni Hotels ownership. And the complimentary shuttle makes getting to and from the slopes a snap.
But if variety is the spice of life, Mount Washington serves up a sizzling mid-winter buffet for the adventurous traveler. And, fortunately, many of the hotel’s activities take place outside, with natural social distancing, making them a terrific choice to keep active during the pandemic.
Want to feel like a kid again? The tubing hill alongside the Stone Pillar Lodge by the Bretton Woods Nordic Center is your answer. The Stone Pillar Lodge also is where you can find cross-country ski and snowshoe rentals (you can even rent pull sleds for youngsters not old enough to tackle the trails by themselves). The resort, including the hotel grounds and the ski area, boasts 100 kilometers of terrain (95 percent of which is tracked and skate groomed) and 45 trails (34 percent novice, 45 percent intermediate and 21 percent expert) over 1,770 acres and 1,200 feet of vertical.
Snowshoers have access to the same Valley Trail System enjoyed by cross-country ski buffs (nordic trail passes are required). Guests who purchase a trail pass but would like to experience the Mountain Road or lift-served terrain can purchase an additional pass for a ride up the Bethlehem Express Quad, extending their experience to include Bretton Woods Ski Area and the resort’s high-country trails.
The new generation of fat bikes, with oversized low-pressure tires that practically float over the snowpack, are almost as much fun as tubing, but with the added benefit of a heart-pumping cardiovascular workout. Bring your own, or opt to rent one of the resort’s front suspension-equipped Scott “Big Ed” fat bikes. Trail passes for the Deception Trail System from the Nordic Center or the Fabyan Fields trail system from the Bretton Woods Demo Center are required (helmets also are required, and included with rentals).
Due to state COVID restrictions, the resort won’t be offering its tremendous Guided Winter Adventures, but if you enjoy pushing the envelope, you really should keep this program in mind. Led by Steve Nichipor, the resort’s director of guided programs, these adventures can include a winter ascent of Mount Washington, backcountry skiing in Tuckerman Ravine, or ice climbing on Frankenstein Cliff. The possibilities are endless, and the programs can be tailored for just about anyone, from beginner to expert.
Sadly, the resort’s ice skating, Kids Snowmobile Park and Canopy Tour also have been mothballed for the 2020-21 winter due to the pandemic but are expected to return next season. Likewise, the Slopeside Climbing Wall at Bretton Woods is closed until further notice (check the resort’s website, BrettonWoods.com, for updates).
At the resort, guests can keep “in the know” with The Daily Bugle, a newsletter that lists all the extra-curricular offerings, things like Movie Night at the Grand Ballroom or informative, interactive presentations like Wilderness Encounters, as well as all the hours of the shops, restaurants and services (such as being able to grab breakfast at the main dining room or Morsel’s as early as 7 a.m.).
Even shoppers have in-house options, with sportswear and souvenirs at Cabot’s, kids’ specialty items at Critters, and fine jewelry at Sterling Works. Finally, no cold-weather visit to the Mount Washington Hotel is complete without a horse-drawn sleigh ride, which leave from the stables just a few quick steps from the hotel.
In addition to great dining options, there are other ways to relax after a day on the slopes or roaming the grounds on snowshoes, cross-country skis or fat bikes. The indoor pool and fitness center is open daily, from 6 in the morning until 9 at night (the heated outdoor pool was closed at the time of publication, though resort officials acknowledged that it might open later in the season).
The hotel’s fabulous spa (rated one of New England’s top 12 spas by the readers of Boston Magazine), which opened in 2008, offers a comprehensive menu of treatments, from massages that aim to increase circulation and flexibility through stretching and manipulation, to facials and skin care, nail treatments and super-soothing hydrotherapy. The deep-tissue massage gets to some of my chronic “hot spots,” while my wife is a big believer in the aroma massage, a tension-melting treatment that includes a warm oil scalp treatment.
Fair warning, though. If you opt for an après-ski spa treatment, make a later dinner reservation, so you’ll have a chance to nap beforehand. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mysterious millionaire, Jay Gatsby, I’m sure, would approve.