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Thursday, August 6, 2009

Whitefield, New Hampshire

by Daniel Drolet, The Ottawa Citizen, 27 June 2009

It’s 6:40 p.m., just before supper on a warm and still June evening. I am sitting by myself in an Adirondack chair on the front lawn of the Mountain View Grand Hotel. Technically, the hotel is in the small town of Whitefield, New Hampshire, but in reality it’s far from any built-up area. I can hear birds twittering, the quiet conversation of hotel guests on veranda just behind me, and not much else.

I sit mesmerized by the view before me – an uninterrupted swath of the White Mountains’ majestic Presidential Range, from Mount Madison to Mount Lafayette, all lined up neatly on the horizon.

With such a grand vista, it’s no wonder there’s a historic grand hotel in this spot.

A century ago, there were hotels just like the Mountain View Grand all over New Hampshire. These “grand hotels” were large and often elegant places, built to offer fresh air and summertime relaxation to city folk.

But one by one, the grand hotels closed. Today, only four remain.

During a recent trip to New Hampshire, I stayed in two (Wentworth by the Sea and Mountain View Grand) and visited a third (Mount Washington).

What this trio has in common, apart from magnificent locations and plenty of history, is the fact that during the last few years they have all been saved from oblivion. Restored, repackaged and rebranded, they have been reborn as elegant 21st century resorts in their spruced-up 19th century wooden structures.

And that combination of history, location and up-to-date elegance gives them great cachet.

The Mountain View Grand is the oldest of the three. Opened in 1866 as a guest house on a family farm, it grew to a very large hotel whose guests included U.S. presidents.

The Wentworth dates from 1874 and had its moment in history in 1905, when for a month it hosted delegates to the peace conference that ended the Russo-Japanese War.

The Mount Washington was built in 1902 and in 1944 it was the site of the conference that led to the Bretton Woods Agreement, which structured the world economic system after the Second World War.

The hotels’ stories are all similar: In their heyday, they catered to well-to-do families who would come by train and stay for weeks at a time. Guests relaxed on spacious verandas and spent a lot of time socializing.

But car travel changed tourism patterns after the Second World War and the hotels went into serious decline.

The Wentworth closed in 1982, the Mountain View Grand in 1986. The Mount Washington never closed, but by 1991 was renting out only about 60 of its 200 rooms and was in need of serious renovation.

The Mountain View and the Wentworth were essentially gutted, their furniture and fixtures sold off. The Wentworth was in such bad shape it was used for the filming of a 1999 horror movie, In Dreams. Locals were sure it was going to get torched one Halloween.

But then, during the 2000s, each of the hotels – quite independently, since they have separate owners – got a new lease on life.

The Mountain View Grand was bought by an ambitious Massachusetts businessman and reopened in 2002 after years of renovations. The Wentworth reopened the following year after a $30-million reconstruction. And the Mount Washington was bought in 2006 by new owners who this year added a new wing and are in the process of upgrading and renovating the rooms.

And from shabby, the hotels have gone to chic.

Architecturally, they have a similar look: They are built of wood, are only three or four stories high, and have massive front verandas. The Mount Washington and the Wentworth are white, with red roofs, while the Mountain View is painted yellow – the colour it’s always been.

My room at the Wentworth was done in what I’d call “elegant country,” with an up-to-date bathroom and solid, traditional furniture. (The hotel’s Stephanie Secord said that because the hotel was in such bad shape, the interior had to be completely rebuilt. That allowed the builders to put in some 21st century conveniences such as wireless Internet that otherwise couldn’t be added to a historical property.)

My room at the Mountain View Grand was done in a similar country style – think floral prints and dark furniture.

The renovation there left some quirks. The carpeted hallway floors, for example, are rather warped in some places. It gives the place character, say hotel staff.

I didn’t stay at the Mount Washington, but I walked around enough to know it too has character despite the renovations: The floors creak just like you’d expect them to in an old place.

And the updated lobby is not an open space, but a room full of columns – which gives it an older feel. The decor mixes country with elegance: There’s a huge moose head above the fireplace in the lobby, for example – but there are also chandeliers.

In their new incarnations, the three hotels are taking aim at travellers in search of relaxation: All have spas. The spa at the Mount Washington is brand new, opened earlier this year in a discreet new wing built to harmonize with the old.

And they all offer fine dining with a bit of tradition thrown in.

At the Mount Washington, a sign outside the dining room announces that gentlemen must wear sports coats for dinner; it also states that no jeans, tennis shoes or ball caps are allowed.

Patrick Corso, the president and CEO of the Mount Washington Resort, says they polled guests about the dress code and nearly three-quarters were in favour of keeping it.

“I think it’s a niche for us,” he said. “Our niche is the very traditional experience.”

The Mountain View has a lovely dining room too – but the highlight, as far as dining goes, has got to be the hotel’s wine cellar.

It contains 9,000 bottles of wine – and a private dining room with its own kitchen that can be rented out for small groups.

Each of the hotels offers resort-style amenities for guests.

The Wentworth sits on an island and boasts that most rooms have a water view.

I walked to the marina, but couldn’t see a beach. Sales manager Lindsay Chapman told me later I’d walked in the wrong direction and that there was a beach a few hundred metres away. The hotel owns a few memberships in a golf course next door and these are for use by guests. And guests can do such things as ocean kayaking and harbour cruises.

(I actually didn’t hang out much at the hotel; I did, however, visit nearby Portsmouth – a charming and walkable historic town.)

The Mount Washington has turned itself into a large-scale resort offering such things as golf, ziplining and skiing; it has plans to include a Tremblant-style village in the development in a few years.

And the Mountain View, in addition to golf and a spa, has a small movie theatre with 17 reclining seats, popcorn and bar service. Guests get to choose the movie. “You can fit a lot of kids in here,” says the hotel’s activities director, Paula Harris.

For me, the mountains are the attraction.

I know the peaks of the Presidential Range well. I have, over the years, hiked up many of those summits.

The hikes were arduous, and the amenities up in the mountains were very basic. We’re talking five days without a shower here.

Sometimes, from the mountain trails, I would get a glimpse of the Mount Washington Hotel down below and I would fantasize – in my grubby state – about staying in one of the grand hotels.

I’m glad I was finally able to do it.

If you go:

New Hampshire has four “grand hotels:”

* The Wentworth-by-the-Sea is on the Atlantic coast near the historic city of Portsmouth and is operated by Marriott. Rates vary and packages are available; expect to pay about $300 U.S. a night in summer, $179 in the off season. www.wentworth.com/, 603-422-7322.

* The Mount Washington, which is at Bretton Woods at the foot of Mount Washington in the White Mountains, is operated as the Mount Washington Resort by a group of New Hampshire businesspeople. Rates start at $99 U.S. per person per night, based on double occupancy. Packages are available. www.mountwashingtonresort.com/, 1-800-314-1752.

* The Mountain View Grand, a short drive north of the Mount Washington, is owned by Great American Insurance Group, which runs historic hotels in the U.S. Packages start at $80 U.S. per person per night, based on double occupancy. www.mountainviewgrand.com/, 1-866-484-3843.

* The Balsams, in Dixville Notch in the far northern part of the state. It’s the only grand hotel I did not visit. It’s also the only one of the grand hotels that has been operating continuously, with the same owners since 1954, according to general manager Jeff McIver. You can get a package for about $200 U.S. per person per day that includes all meals and amenities, or pay less for packages that don’t include meals. www.thebalsams.com/, 1-800-255-0600.

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