Views from the three … remaining properties left over from a bygone age when anyone who was anyone summered in and around the White Mountains. Today they’re often a bargain to book
For the fifth-smallest U.S. state, New Hampshire does seem to have a lot of vistas.
You come to the Mountain View Hotel – and its 1,690 acres set on a rise – through an especially beautiful vista, up along a road bordered on each side by farmland and stout mountains and not much else.
You’re about two and a half hours’ drive from either Logan or Burlington International here. If arriving from Boston, those famous New Hampshire landscapes will start grabbing you as soon as you cross the border from Massachusetts along the I-93.
Officially known today as the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa, the hotel is a survivor from a lost era, when the development of railways led to the opening of grand hotels all over North America. For Manhattan’s robber barons, summering in the White Mountains and other spots in eastern New Hampshire was the thing to do.
New Hampshire as a whole remains a great place to holiday. Today, a trio of surviving properties from the era of grand railway hotels – the Mountain View, the Omni Mount Washington and the Wentworth by the Sea – afford in-the-know visitors to New England a chance to take part in the region’s seasonal activities, which include skiing, sailing and playing golf – not to mention soaking in those views (that one is available year-round).
You’ll be doing all this for not too much money, and in an atmosphere touched by Gilded Age opulence.
Back in the heyday
At the height of the region’s popularity, as many as 50 trains a day arrived from New York and Boston, packed with paunches and corsets and ringlets and the trunks needed to support wealthy guests for their one-, two-, or three-month stays. Dozens of grand hotels sprang up to accommodate all that lucre. A few kilometres away from the Mountain View, one of the grandest, the Mount Washington, was finished in 1902.
But lucre being whimsical by nature, the hotels started closing a decade or two into the 20th century, as shinier things caught the eye of Manhattan’s moneyed classes, who by this time ere also acquiring their first Dusenbergs. By 1942, the Mount Washington closed on account of the Second World War, only to be re-opened in 1944 to host the Bretton Woods monetary conference that set the stage for the post-War global economy and saw the foundation of the International Monetary Fund.
The Mountain View, for its part, was shuttered between 1986 and 2002, when it reopened following a $20-million renovation. It would have made a perfect Rocky Horror-style haunted house during those years of desuetude, but these days – a golden yellow sprawl of multiple additions made over the generations – it’s much as it was in its heyday.
Travelling between the grand White Mountain hotels, wide panoramas start to be replaced by notches, which is New Hampshire-ese for what the rest of us might call gaps or passes.
On the way, you’ll pass Sugar Hill, where Bette Davis had a house in the 1930s. She was one of the first passengers on the aerial tramway, the oldest in North America, up Mount Cannon. (It was what people did before ziplines.) You’ll see Bette memorabilia popping up randomly in souvenir shops all over the area.
New Hampshire has a long memory. Locals take pride in their kitsch, and seem reluctant to let it go. The most popular souvenir image – you’ll find it on plates and coins, dish towels and sweatshirts, fridge magnets and snow globes – is the Old Man of the Mountain, a rock formation on the site of Mt. Cannon that, when seen from a certain angle, looked like a human profile. This, despite the fact that it crumbled and fell back in 2003. They even still have a marked and railed roadside lookout where you can stand in the place where you used to be able to see it.
The Omni Mount Washington
From there, it’s about 35 kilometres (22 miles) to what’s now known as the Omni Mount Washington, which is right in the middle of the mountains.
The first thing you’ll notice about the old place is that despite an impressive amount of interior detail, including sconces and plaster castings of the most intricate sort, it’s entirely whitewashed.
There is, of course, a story: After the hotel was shuttered due to the dwindling carriage trade from New York, and before it was re-opened for the Bretton Woods conference, the military was brought it to spruce it up. They saw there would be quite a bit of work to get everything looking shiny again, so instead of sanding and polishing and generally sprucing, they just painted it all white.
There’s no word on what John Maynard Keynes thought of the refurbishment, though we do know, thanks to institutional memory, that he stayed in room 219 and kept the diplomat in room 119 awake at nights with his post-meeting drinks parties.
The public areas are still excellent for drinking and strolling, but probably the biggest attraction is the Cog Railway 15 minutes east, the world’s first (and still, one suspects, one of the only) mountain-climbing cog railway, an hour-long, 6,000-foot climb at downright parlous inclines to a summit view of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.
Wentworth by the Sea
The third and final surviving and currently operating grand hotel is the Wentworth by the Sea, Hotel & Spa by Marriott, in New Castle – that’s near Portsmouth, a couple of hours southeast of the Mount Washington. Like the other hotels, it’s luxurious in a certain old-fashioned way (some will recall the style from Canada’s pre-renovation Fairmonts).
The common areas are sumptuous with cane chairs interspersed among leather and velvet wingbacks, 10-metre (30-foot) ceilings, grand dining and ballrooms, views for miles and collections of artifacts and memorabilia attesting to its storied past. (The Japanese still revere this place for being the site of the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russo-Japanese war in 1905 and elevated Japan to the world stage.)
Most rooms, however, are small, and the bathrooms mostly modest by today’s standards (and don’t expect the double marble sink, rainforest shower and geothermal-heated floors).
On the positive side, nightly prices for the Wentworth and the other grand hotels of New Hampshire can be surprisingly low. They sometimes dip below US$100, offering that rarest of things: grandeur on the cheap. It can be addictive.
We’ll admit some rooms in these properties look chintzy. Some, like this one, are pleasingly contemporary