North Conway is synonymous with New England ski history. In reality, it’s synonymous with the broader history of New England outdoor adventure. Which is why the Cranmore Inn, just a few steps from Main Street/Route 16, is such a wonderful throwback, a continuous thread that runs through generations, connecting past and present.
“We’ve always liked to highlight the inn as a boutique hotel that is family friendly,” said innkeeper Christopher Bellis. “We pride ourselves on helping people to feel comfortable, like they’re visiting family in an environment where they can say this is their home away from home.”
Mission accomplished. The gleaming white, three-story inn, with its expansive front porch, is a self-contained refuge, offering an unmistakable sense of another time, but providing the modern amenities that any modern traveler justifiably expects. Like so much of the village of North Conway, the property simply bleeds history and authenticity.
The original owner, J.A. Whitaker, first invited travelers to his new Echo Inn on Kearsarge Street in 1863, two years after the Carriage Road on Mount Washington had opened in 1861. After the Whitakers sold the property to the Robertson family in the late 1800s, the name was promptly changed to the Robertson Inn.
When the skiing craze brought alpine excitement to the Northeast, the property underwent another name change, to the Cranmore Inn, reflecting the draw of the new ski hill that opened in the winter of 1937-38. The inn was ideally situated between the Mount Cranmore ski area, which continues to thrive today, and the North Conway train station, built in 1874. The station was the destination of the celebrated snow trains that brought adventure seekers north from the big cities of New York, Boston and New Haven for a quarter-century between the 1930s and early 1950s (before falling victim to the rise of the automobile).
On Labor Day Weekend in 2012, the current owners, Bellis and Eddie Bennett, took the reins of this landmark property, the oldest continually operated inn in North Conway. It was a trial by fire, but the couple, who married in a commitment ceremony in March 3, 1996, and legally married 16 years later, were up to the task.
“We’re pleased to own an inn with historic significance, and took on the challenge of how to maintain the sense of an older property while ensuring there are enough modern amenities so our guests would feel comfortable,” said Bellis. “We’ve gutted and rehabbed every room in the property over the past eight years, and continue to add amenities and improvements, including a heated walkway for our guests coming into the inn from the parking lot.”
The care that Bellis and Bennett bring to the property is readily apparent. They’ve embraced the ethic of a true New England inn, which puts a premium on the guest experience, and they’ve put that commitment in writing. Their shared vision is “to be the leading bed and breakfast accommodations in the White Mountains, recognized for our unique blend of signature home-style charm and comfort, genuine hospitality, and impeccable cleanliness while providing cherished experiences for our guests and colleagues.”
That’s a high bar, and one that Bellis and Bennett obviously strive to meet. In the innkeepers’ “promise” to their guests, they “pledge to understand and meet the individual needs of all who we deal with. In so doing, we strive to build long-term relationships with our partners, our colleagues and, of course, our guests. And we hope you will honor our commitment by letting us know how we’re doing during your stay.”
Not surprisingly, the Cranmore Inn staff is remarkably attentive, even going out of their way to find shelter for our mountain bikes when heavy rains swept through the village, or providing ice for post-adventure beverages. Both the common areas and the 19 guest rooms (the dormitory-style rooms are long, long gone) are spotless, thanks in part to the couple’s decision to bring the laundry services in house. That adjustment was among the several changes that Bellis and Bennett implemented when they took the plunge and became inn owners.
“Transitioning to being innkeepers was relatively easy, although the biggest change was adapting to the concept that you’re ‘on call’ 24 hours a day as opposed to having the ability to clock-out at a certain time,” said Bellis. “I also know that if my husband and I were not the ‘people’ people we are, then we might have experienced challenges. Because, as a successful innkeeper, guests keep on arriving at your door. For us, that’s one of the benefits.”
As befits a building that is more than a century and a half old, the wooden floors at the Cranmore Inn creak and groan subtly with each step, and the upstairs hallways have swales that would make a greenskeeper at Augusta National nod with admiration. The hallways also are adorned with a fabulous collection of old inn brochures, which not only served as a testament to the property’s legacy, but also a sobering reminder of the inexorable march of inflation.
Perhaps most important, the guest rooms are beautifully appointed, with quality mattresses and luxurious bedding that promise a good night’s rest, whether you’ve spent the day pedaling on local trails or power shopping at local retail outlets. The inn’s two apartments (one- and two-bedroom versions, each with a maximum of six guests) also feature full kitchens with dishwasher and stainless steel appliances and are particularly appealing for families.
If you’ve been hiking or cycling (or even competitive shopping), the outdoor hot tub on the back deck is a godsend. It’s open to all guests, though reservations are currently required during the pandemic. It’s worth the wait. After a full afternoon of downhill mountain biking in Maine, my wife practically had to pry me away from those soothing jets with a crowbar. And around the corner, a sparkling kidney-shaped pool (reminiscent of the oh-so-mod 1960s) is the perfect spot for a refreshing dip.
Rooms also offer efficient temperature controls (for both heating and air conditioning), flat-screen televisions, and nicely stocked private bathrooms. WiFi is free throughout the inn, though the signal is weak in some areas. Comfortable upholstered chairs make for restful quiet moments. A number of rooms at the back of the inn also have small decks, offering a terrific spot to enjoy a private cocktail hour.
Unlike bygone days, when skiers congregated at the inn for three family-style meals in the “Tyrolean dining room,” guests today will need to find lunch and dinner out on the town (if they don’t have kitchen facilities). Admittedly, I mourn the loss of that shared experience, but I certainly understand that adding meals is a huge undertaking for inns, with an unpredictable return on that investment. And, in reality, it’s not much of an imposition for guests, given the number of excellent restaurants nearby (the inn can provide listings of local dining options, and recommendations are just a request away). I just miss the opportunity to make new friends, sitting across a table, sharing an après ski (or après adventure) meal.
The inn’s common areas are fabulous, practically begging guests to come, sit down, relax and rub elbows with the benevolent ghosts of yesteryear. A hopeless nostalgic, I love the sepia-toned photographs of skiers past gathering in these open spaces, sharing meals, drinks and stories from the hill. Unlike the backyard hot tub, the inn’s sitting room is a large alcove, with stain-glass craftsmen lamps, big comfy couches and easy chairs, and a calming paint scheme that make curling up with a good book seem like the height of luxury.
“We aim for a simple aesthetic that is pleasing to the eye and embraces the heritage and history of the building and the location,” said Bellis. “I’m not sure that we have coined a phrase (regarding the inn’s style of decor), but I might lean toward vintage elegance.”
A television room beside the main staircase combines a flat-screen high-definition TV with the inn’s retro collection of old VHS movies for any guests who prefer to go wandering down Memory Lane. There’s also a public computer, if you need to check emails but want to travel sans laptop.
Like many regional hotels, the Cranmore Inn also gives guests a menu of several packages that offer discounts to surrounding activities and dining establishments. The ski-and-stay packages are perhaps the best-known partnerships, with local areas including Cranmore Mountain, Attitash, Wildcat and Bretton Woods, though the innkeepers always are exploring new relationships. Two of the more unique packages are the Inn to Inn Holiday Cookie Tour in mid-December, and the Journey to the North Pole, which includes a train ride to the North Pole Theater plus hot chocolate and a visit from Santa Claus. Both events benefit local nonprofits, so you can enjoy a good time while contributing to good causes.
“The packages we offer are generally taking products from local attractions and bundling them with rooms,” said Bellis. “This year, that has been more of a challenge since attractions have been more up in the air about hours and what’s open” due to the pandemic.
“Folks can always visit our website and use the ‘booknow’ code to get the lowest price available for accommodations,” he said. “We’ll work with them to identify the attractions or activities that they’ll enjoy doing while they’re with us.”
Best known as a skier’s bed and breakfast, the Cranmore Inn is no one-trick pony. While my visits to the Mount Washington Valley usually coincide with some outdoor pastime, whether mountain biking, road cycling, hiking, rock climbing (Cathedral Ledge should be on any climber’s bucket list), ice climbing or hitting the slopes or cross-country trails, I also understand that my wife and daughters don’t always share my enthusiastic-if-single-minded approach. For them, North Conway often translates to a “shop ’til you drop” extravaganza. Again the Cranmore Inn delivers.
Within walking distance, guests can visit a truly delightful array of shops, from the traditional North Conway 5 & 10 Cent Store and Zeb’s General Store (100 percent New England-made products), the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, jewelry shops and art galleries, in addition to specialty food shops (House of Jerky is a personal favorite), little cafes, coffee houses, bakeries and a chocolate haus to Horsefeathers restaurant.
A short drive away, the outlet malls such as Settlers Green, Settlers Village and Settlers Crossing offer more than 70 brand-name discount shops. For me, it’s an exhausting, and intimidating, list of retail stores, though my girls find it positively invigorating. Go figure. For an interesting change of pace, live theater fans can take in a show at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse, where Christopher Bellis recently directed a production of “Bakersfield Mist.”
To start each day, the inn serves a hearty breakfast, complete with coffee, fruit juices and fruit cups, cereals, egg-and-bacon dishes, waffles and pancakes. The menu isn’t extensive, but every item is served fresh, and should help provide a nice base for whatever adventures you have planned. The blueberry pancakes, with real maple syrup, are an absolute must, in my humble opinion.
Finally, the innkeepers at the Cranmore Inn understand that these are not normal times, and have doubled down on precautions recommended by the state. My wife — a healthcare professional — was impressed by the inn’s overall earnestness in providing a safe environment for its guests.
“We are staying aware of (national) Centers of Disease Control and World Health Organization recommendations, as well as state guidelines and adapt as needed,” said Bellis. “Our goal is to keep all of our staff, as well as our guests, safe and healthy throughout the pandemic.”