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Destination: New Hampshire

Skiing Small

History and low-tech style at a New England resort

January 18, 1998|I. HERBERT GORDON

BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — Edging off the chairlift that had carried us to the summit of Bretton Woods ski area, we stopped for a moment to let our eyes admire the wild beauty of the snow-covered White Mountains. On the far side of the wooded Ammonoosuc Valley, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast, dominated the skyline. Below us was the elegant Mount Washington Hotel.

My wife, Gail, our teenage twin daughters and I were having a wonderful holiday skiing at a family-oriented resort with a vertical rise of 1,500 feet and a few short trails steep enough to excite powder hounds. But we also were experiencing something dramatically different: low-tech skiing in an age of mega-resorts, in a region that is quintessential small-town New England. (Despite recent ice storms in the Northeast, Bretton Woods spokesman Ben Wilcox said his area had not been hit by power outages and had remained open throughout the inclement weather.)

We had chosen the Mt. Washington Resort at Bretton Woods instead of a dazzling mega-mountain for reasons only those who frolic at any of the alternative, low-key gems scattered throughout North America can appreciate. We wanted the pleasure of skiing slopes packed with powder, not with skiers, where even the most impatient can't growl at a two-minute wait to board a lift. Yet Bretton Woods is a 2,600-acre ski resort with 32 runs ranging from easy to black diamond for downhill skiing, 60 miles of cross-country trails, the Mount Washington Hotel, the Bretton Arms Country Inn, the Bretton Woods Motor Inn and the comfortable and pleasant Townhomes at Bretton Woods. My family and I stayed in the latter, and enjoyed skiing from our door directly onto the slopes.

Nor do your credit cards complain because prices for everything from a juicy hamburger and crisp fries to ski school lessons and lift tickets are from 10% to 30% below the soaring costs at most U.S. mega-resorts. At Aspen and Vail, Colo., for example, one-day weekend lift tickets are $55 and up, compared with $44 at Bretton Woods.

When we ski the big ones, we feel under unspoken pressure to ski, and ski every day, as much of the mountain as possible. By contrast, after our first day at Bretton Woods we had skied every run that interested us. Now we had the easy pleasure of knowing that the next day we could ski them again, or take a few hours off to explore a corner of the United States where villages predate the American Revolution.

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Lured by history, we slipped away from the slopes on several occasions. On our sightseeing journeys we admired white wooden churches with soaring steeples where today's congregations serve the same savory corn bread, ham and turkey their predecessors dished out at church suppers 150 years ago. Such dinners are served, we were told, at St. Patrick's Church at nearby Twin Mountain and Eaton Village Church in Eaton Village. We drove past rustic inns whose first customers arrived in horse-drawn carriages to sleep in their four-poster beds. Among them are the Bretton Arms, near the base of Bretton Woods ski area, and Eagle Mountain House, near Jackson.

With the exception of ski resorts and shopping malls in the larger cities of Conway and Littleton, the entire territory has changed little in the past 100 years.

On our second day of skiing the exceptionally well-groomed slopes, we stopped for a lunch of gourmet sandwiches in the noisy, busy cafeteria in the Bretton Woods base lodge. My wife fell into conversation with two friendly women skiers. Almost as soon as we finished lunch, my wife explained that we were going to quit skiing early the next day and drive to the town of Littleton.

"What's in Littleton?," I asked.

"Antiquing. They told me the best antique stores are in Bethlehem and Littleton. They gave me some names."

It took us about 45 minutes the next afternoon to reach Littleton, about 20 miles west of Bretton Woods, driving on roads with signs warning motorists to "Brake for Moose." We saw one in a snowy field. The twins screamed with delight.

We visited several shops stocked with fine antiques and objects made by local artisans. I bought a miniature fur-covered raccoon toy, then left my family to their bargain hunting while I wandered over to look at the famous stained-glass windows in the historic Community House, and the architecture of the vintage Opera House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Our next off-the-slopes adventure was an all-day loop trip that included a drive through the village of Franconia, about 20 miles southwest of Bretton Woods, to visit the Robert Frost house. It was closed for the season but usually reopens by May. Frost once said everything he wrote had a touch of New Hampshire.

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