All in fa­vor

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ZOFIA SMARDZ smardzz@wash­

An Old-World-style re­sort in far north­ern New Hamp­shire gets the vote.

Across the frozen lake, snug­gled against the moun­tains as the wind blows snowflakes in crazy cir­cles against the cot­ton-bat­ting sky, the ho­tel looks like a lit­tle Dis­neyesque Swiss vil­lage ina snow globe. A lit­tle self-con­tained world of its own.

It’s per­fectly lovely, and I’d love to stand here longer just gap­ing at the view, butmy fin­gers, un­gloved for pic­ture-tak­ing, are so stiff that they’re about ready to snap off, and my toes are feel­ing numb-ish and it’s a long trot back to the warmth of that beck­on­ing world. So I pocket the cam­era, and the six of us hoof it up the road, walk­ing briskly into the bit­ing wind.

The ho­tel lobby and heat are within reach whenmy sis­ter El­iz­a­beth sug­gests that we have a look at the ice-skat­ing fa­cil­i­ties. My re-gloved fin­gers have warmed up, so the two of us and broth­erin-law Char­lie clam­ber up the slope to the up­per park­ing lot, which has been flooded to cre­ate a small rink of smooth, un­marked ice. Clearly no one’s taken to the blades yet. I step out onto the glassy sur­face and glide a ways inmy boots. “Okay, I’ve skated,” I say. “We could still come out for real later,” El­iz­a­beth says op­ti­misti­cally.

“Yes,” I be­gin, and then I think, right. Like when? There’s less than an hour be­fore the ho­tel his­tory tour we want to take, which is just be­fore the com­pli­men­tary Mon­day-night cock­tail re­cep­tion, which is just be­fore din­ner, af­ter which— con­sid­er­ing our al­ready full day of break­fast­ing, kitchen-tour­ing, hall­wayphoto-caption-read­ing, shop­ping and hik­ing (in the cold!) — we prob­a­bly won’t be up for much more than a game of bil­liards or sit­ting by the tav­ern fire in a stu­por.

Whew. My sis­ters were right. Youdon’t get bored here. The two of them have been com­ing to the Bal­sams Grand Re­sort Ho­tel, just a stone’s throw from Canada in New Hamp­shire’s Great North­ern Woods, for up­wards of 20 years, and they’ve been sing­ing its praises for­ever. So okay, I thought, it’s fi­nally time to tag along and check the place out.

An 8,000-acre en­clave at the foot of the Dixville Notch, a pass through the White Moun­tains that has long been used as an east-west trade route, it is in fact a lit­tle world of its own. Orig­i­nally a sum­mer re­sort, with two golf cour­ses (one de­signed by the le­gendary Don­ald Ross), a 16-acre man­made lake (dug in 1898!), hik­ing and bik­ing trails and more, it’s now a year-round op­er­a­tion, with ski­ing (down­hill and cross-coun­try), snow­shoe­ing, skat­ing, snow­mo­bil­ing, cook­ing demos, wine-tast­ing, etc. And al­most ev­ery­thing is in­cluded in the nightly rates.

All that, of course, is if you want to gogogo. But if you’d pre­fer to stop­stop­stop, the Bal­sams is just the place for that, too. With its ta­ble d’hote din­ners in the gra­cious din­ing room, where you get your own as­signed ta­ble and wait staff for the length of your stay, the many loung­ing ar­eas and fire­place cor­ners where you can curl up with a book, the no-TV rooms (ex­cept for 18), a stud­ied avoid­ance of the lat­est in­dus­try fads (a re­cent man­age­ment com­pany was dis­missed af­ter try­ing to in­tro­duce too many), and the gen­eral air of yes­ter­year that seems to waft from the very wood­work, it of­fers a step into a se­cluded, slowed-down uni­verse.

That the ho­tel is for sale, per the terms of the late owner’s will, and that this at­mos­phere might dis­si­pate, seems like a bum­mer. But gen­eral man­ager Jef­frey O. McIver says that the prop­erty will only be sold to the “right” pur­chaser, i.e. some­one who’ll keep the Old­World ap­proach.

“ The idea is that you can come here and re­ally va­cate, in the orig­i­nal mean­ing of the term ‘vacation,’ ” says McIver, who ob­vi­ously has the North Coun­try laid-back­ness bred in his bones, see­ing as he’s com­pletely un­ruf­fled when I just walk into his of­fice and start ask­ing ques­tions even though he’s be­tween meet­ings and prob­a­bly has a lot of stuff to catch up on. “You can park your car in the lot and never move it for a week.”

Right you are. That’s be­cause the 202room Bal­sams is the biggest— and about the only — thing in the town also called Dixville Notch, which is most fa­mous as the first place in the nation to cast and count its votes in ev­ery pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. This it’s able to do be­cause the sum to­tal of its vot­ing pop­u­la­tion at present is 21 (down from a high of 38 in 1988 but up from a low of nine in 1960) so the whole ca­boo­dle, which starts at mid­night, takes about 10 min­utes. (It’s not re­ally a bell­wether, how­ever; it went unan­i­mously for Richard Nixon in 1960 and tra­di­tion­ally leans Repub­li­can, though Barack Obama won by a 15-6 land­slide in 2008).

A pil­grim­age to the bal­lot room is of course de rigueur, so we du­ti­fully re­pair there to pay obei­sance. Tucked in a far corner of the ho­tel, it’s a square room with a blue star-span­gled car­pet and an or­nate white sign on one wall pro­claim­ing Dixville Notch “First in the Nation.” It’s set up for a meet­ing, with rows of padded chairs and a lectern at the front, where Char­lie nat­u­rally in­sists on snap­ping a shot ofmy one­time po­lit­i­cal-op­er­a­tive hus­band pre­tend­ing to give a speech. (Sim­i­lar shots are dis­played in count­less liv­ing rooms, I’ll bet.)

The framed cam­paign mem­o­ra­bilia cov­er­ing the walls is pretty en­ter­tain­ing — look, La­mar Alexan­der’s flan­nel shirt! — but there’s a lot more of this one to in­ves­ti­gate. Room­supon rooms and end­less hall­ways, in fact — prime prowl­ing ter­ri­tory— and on ev­ery wall a photo or a news story mark­ing somem­o­mentin the life of the re­sort, from its 19th-cen­tury ori­gins as the trav­el­ers’ rest stop known as the Dix House to the 1918 open­ing of the Rhen­ish-style Hamp­shire House, a.k.a. the “new” wing (which re­ally doesn’t go with the ear­lier white clap­board sec­tion, but as El­iz­a­beth says, that makes it unique, doesn’t it?)

On the wall of fame in the hall­way be­tween the two wings, we ex­am­ine the pho­tos of the many il­lus­tri­ous names who have graced the re­sort over the cen­turies — John Philip Sousa (his band played at the open­ing of the new wing), Teddy Roo­sevelt andWar­ren G. Hard­ing (brother-in-law Skip, the his­tory buff, makes sure to point them out), Jerry Lewis (he was a waiter there in pre-fame days), Frank Si­na­tra and many more. Our fam­ily claim to celebrity-spying fame: for­mer Ma­mas and Pa­pas singer Michelle Phillips, daugh­ter Chynna and son-in-law Billy Bald­win, who one year asked my sis­ter Anna to show them where Sun­day ser­vices were held.

I’m on the look­out the two nights we’re there, but no celebri­ties. Ah, well, who cares? The whole idea is to pull back from the glare, from pop cul­ture and dig­i­tal dis­trac­tions and all words such as “ef­fi­cient,” “quick” and “now,” and to ease into a calmer, gen­tler rhythm.

Which we man­age fa­mously. Af­ter din­ner on our last night and the end of a hik­ing/tour­ing/too-much-ac­tiv­ity-ac­cord­ing­day, Anna re­tires early as is her wont, El­iz­a­beth and I take up a jig­saw­puz­zle in the li­brary, and Char­lie and my hus­band head off to the bil­liard room (who knows what Skip got up to). The wind is howl­ing out­side and still send­ing the snow danc­ing in dizzy­ing drafts across the sky, but it’s just a back­drop to our cozy pre­oc­cu­pa­tions.

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours, we’ve had enough play­ing but still don’t want to give up the night, so we head into the Tav­ern down­stairs and or­der a round of drinks. And sit there, chat­ting some but mostly star­ing into the fire, lost in a de­li­cious kind of stu­por.

In our own lit­tle world.


The Bal­sams Grand Re­sortHo­tel has ac­tiv­i­ties for skiers, hik­ers and skaters but is also a per­fect place to read by the fire.

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