by Judith Fein
When I was a child, living in New York City, my family loaded themselves and their belongings into a car every August and headed for New Hampshire. There was never any question about going somewhere else; we had allergies and Bethlehem, New Hampshire had no pollen. In a fit of hopeless nostalgia, I decided to go back this past summer, to see if I could find the locus of the sneeze-free bungalow colony where we stayed. And, being a travel addict, I decided to check out what else there is to see in New Hampshire with 10 days, a car, and a desire for culture, charm, a foodie infusion, local attractions, art, nature, and quirk.
I discovered that New Hampshire is a year-round destination: Fall foliage viewing, skiing, and Presidential primary candidate viewing that starts in the Winter, and touring and hiking in the Summer.
Before I tell you my recommendations, I will whisper in small letters that New Hampshire is affordable, uncrowded, and the little-known gem of New England. Now back to the regular font.
In Manchester, after you stretch your legs from flying or driving, go local and inexpensive with 24-hour food at almost-a-century old original Red Arrow Diner at 61 Lowell Street. You may want to try the Portuguese special with chorizo sausage and onions scrambled into hash browns, or the pork pie or mug o’ bacon, but I opted for waffles topped with chocolate and peanut butter chips. I was glad I didn’t see any presidential hopefuls with chocolate all over my face, but the waitperson said they often show up at the diner in season, and they feature among the signed celeb photos on the wall.
Then take a walk to the Millyard Museum where, without being a total spoiler, I’ll suggest some of the Manchester notables you’ll learn about—Seth Meyers, Adam Sandler, the inventor of the Segway, the bros who founded Revlon cosmetics, and the Revolutionary war general who wrote what would become the state’s in-your-face motto: Live Free or Die. The museum also brings to life Amoskeag Manufacturing (from 1831-1836 they were the largest producer of textiles in the world). For those who despair about corporate indifference and disregard for workers, it’s heartening to learn that Amoskeag provided housing, education, places of worship, playgrounds, and many opportunities for French Canadian immigrants. In fact, when the latter arrived, it was the beginning of what is today Manchester’s multi-cultural population.
When you leave the museum, take a stroll along the river on the Riverwalk. And then head over to the Currier Museum and make sure you have advanced reservations to board the bus to their largest exhibit: the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Zimmerman house, where every item, object, and piece of furniture is considered a three-dimensional work of art. The long, lean house, which is built on a diagonal, was customized for the musical Zimmermans, with brick pillars and cushions that would absorb sound and hallways designed to carry the sounds of chamber music throughout the house. It is the only publicly-visitable Frank Lloyd Wright home in New England.
Back at the Currier museum, with its surprisingly rich and varied international acquisitions, check out the paper weight collection, which includes some Baccarat; John Singer Sargent’s last portrait; and Laura Alma Tadema’s painting, “A Knock at the Door.” Hint: there is no door in it. Another fave is Jan Gossaert’s haunting portrait of a man, executed between 1470 and 1533. It may be a painterly selfie.
We walked around Concord, shopped, window-shopped, and talked to locals who recommended we take the 25-minute drive to Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner. Every day there is a free 2 p.m. docent-led tour of the surprisingly comprehensive museum, which includes exhibits of clothing, art in every medium, functional, ritual, and ceremonial objects from native tribes all over America.
We spent a long time talking to Vera Longtoe, the curator of the Abenaki outfits exhibit. Besides learning how she and her daughter Lina Longtoe incorporate Abenaki-related accessories into their very modern dress, we also found out that their people had been subjected to forced sterilization and lobotomies in the past. It was dangerous to observe their tribal traditions openly, but they kept up their ways privately and secretly, and they learned how to adapt outwardly in order to survive.
It was a twenty-minute drive to New Hampshire Craftsmen Fair in Sunapee. Known throughout the country, the fair is a high-end, high quality summer happening with clothes, weavings, jewelry, sculpture, pottery, lamps, dishes, glass, to adorn your home and your person. Kids practice passing clothes through a wringer like their great grandparents did, while their parents shop, and attend craft demos and workshops.
We spent the next two days at Waterville Valley, which has a colorful past, including the story of Tom Corcoran, an Olympic skier. He flew over the land looking for a place to build a Western-style ski resort, saw Waterville Valley, told the pilot to land, and he purchased the entire town. It opened in 1966 as a ritzy, glitzy ski resort. He planned the whole community, way ahead of his time, as a pedestrian-friendly, crime-free, serene town surrounded by national forest.
It went bankrupt in 1989, when the real estate market crashed, and today it is casual, low-key, very family-friendly destination. Included in the room rate is a Freedom Pass, which includes free access to kayaks, paddleboats, bikes, golf, tennis, a chair lift –for skiers in the winter and hikers and viewers in the summer– and transportation to all attractions. According to signage on the property, the Reverend J.M. Buckley thought that Waterville had everything but a ruin, so he built one, and today it is named Stone Tower. Nearby is the Rey Cottage, which was the home of Hans Augusto and Margret Rey, the creators of the Curious George books. Needless to say, the gift shop is bursting with Curious Georges.
If you are on a family trip, Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves is de rigeur. Adults climb up and down 1100 steps to experience the10,000-year old, glacier-formed Lost River. They wait patiently as their children climb in and out of caves with instructions to slither sideways like Superman, or crawl on their hands and knees like a bear.
Once the kids finish crawling and slithering, head for the “other” Woodstock and have lunch and beer (indoors or outdoors) at the Woodstock Inn, which was originally the Lincoln Railroad Station, built in the late 1800’s. Our waitperson said the duck wings would change my life. I am not sure that happened, but I look at chicken wings now as has-beens.
Clark’s Trading Post, a short distance away, is a family-friendly attraction, but it’s also entertaining for adults. Besides Chinese acrobats performing in the circus rings, there is also a bear show. Ordinarily, I don’t like this sort of anthropomorphized animal show, but the trainers come from a family that raised the bears, love them, protect them, and have even erected tombs for deceased former performing show bears. The steam train ride is definitely for young ones, who apparently remember into adulthood their encounter with Wolfman, who chases the train. Kids (and a surprising number of grownups) follow instructions to yell “Scram, you old goat,” every time Wolfman threatens the train.
The next stop came straight out of Memory Lane. As a hayfever-free kid, I recalled visiting Franconia Notch State Park, and especially the Flume Gorge. I was afraid that I would be disappointed going back to the magnificent natural attraction. But it was even more moving and dramatic than I recalled. We walked between granite walls and rushing, gushing glacial waters. The surrounding mountains of the Franconia range are, like the rest of the White Mountains, among the oldest in the world, dating back to more than 400 million years ago. At the end of the Ice Age, the old ice melted and left the gorge the way you see it today. It’s the kind of place where you feel lucky to be alive so that you can experience such beauty.
In the evening, we checked into a newly-restored historic property, the Inn at Sunset Hill. It was dark, and we had no idea what the surroundings were like. In the morning, after we awoke in our four-poster bed, we trundled down to the breakfast room and beheld, through a picture window, a mountain range, and the mountain where famed Olympian Bode Miller learned to ski. And down the road we discovered Sugar Hill Sampler, a craft and gift and food store with a terrific museum about the family homestead that was once visited by President Eisenhower.
A sign I saw while we were driving triggered memories of Echo Lake. It is still there, the lake placid and clear, the picnic tables and grills where they always were, the expansive views of mountains across the lake, and the roped off area where my father taught all the kids to swim.
Any sentient being would fall in love with this White Mountain area. Every turn in the road offers spectacular mountain views, railroad tracks from the 1870’s, rocky outcrops, romantic covered bridges, signs announcing moose, plein air painters still influenced by the 400 White Mountain Art painters in the l9th century, and clouds seemingly perched on the tops of peaks.
Our favorite visitor experience was the Mt. Washington Cog Railway. In the museum at the base of the mountain, be sure to check out the slides that the railroad workers used to careen down three and a half miles of mountain in three minutes. They were the fearless, hotshot skateboarders of their day.
The cog railway, the first of its kind in the world, chugs up 6,228 foot Mt. Washington at a grade that reaches 37 degrees. And, at the top, the one-year-old Extreme Mount Washington Museum is a must see: it is all about the site where you are standing, which boasts the worst weather in the world. Even in mid-summer, it may be 25 degrees, and the highest wind velocity measured at the summer was a staggering 231 miles per hour.
Our fave restaurants in the area were the historic Horse and Hound in Franconia; and dinner with the international guests at the Adair Country Inn and Restaurant. Our favorite nostalgia meal was at the Omni Mount Washington Resort, the last of the great resorts that was built during the era (which ended in the early 1900’s), when the landed gentry came to the White Mountains for the summer. Before leaving, even if you don’t stay or eat there, you must take a walk around the hotel’s veranda for 360 degree views.
And then, we suddenly found ourselves in Littleton; I remembered the name of the town from my childhood. Things have changed a lot, to be sure, and Outside Magazine named Littleton’s Main Street as the #1 Main Street in the U.S. There is still enough authenticity to inspire photographers—the Jax Jr. movie theatre (where Bette Davis came in 1932 for the opening of The Great Lie); the longest candy counter in the world at Chutters (112 sweet feet long); the Littleton Diner from the l930’s; and the Polyanna statue in front of the library. Eleanor Hodgman Porter was born and lived in Littleton, and Polyanna, the fictional heroine she created, embodied the “gladness of optimism.” She named her birth town “the Glad Town.”
And then, gulp, be still my heart, we found the remnants of the bungalow colony in Bethlehem. I knew it at once: the Stone House, the Farm House, the Barn, the place where I played with frogs in the pond; the land where the Chicken Coops once stood. I asked the caretaker if other people besides me came looking for their past: “All the time,” he said. “Recently a man in California bought the glass phone booth that used to stand on the property. He said it shipped all the way across country. Can you imagine that? And others have told me that Woody Guthrie—that famous folks singer-- was a camp counselor here.”
Walk around the town, as we did, which today is quaint, laid-back, and under the radar. But imagine that Cary Grant and Barbara Hutton once frequented Bethlehem, which was known as “the town of 30 hotels.”
I spent hours at the Heritage Society building, pouring over records about the town, which attracted people like my parents, who came when ragweed was destroyed and the pollen count was nil. Because of its reputation, that certainly stretched to the East Coast, where we lived, Bethlehem became the New England version of the Catskills.
Linda Herrman, the Vice President of the Heritage Society, told me that she grew up around the legendary Sinclair hotel. “It was like Dirty Dancing” or “Sweet Lorraine,” she said.
But when I went to Bethlehem, I was too young for grinding on the dance floor. It was all about Mah Jongg, catching frogs, excursions to Echo Lake and the Flume Gorge, and a much, much simpler time.
IF YOU GO:
TIP: It can be quite expensive to pay for each of the attractions individually—more than $1100 per person. But we found out at a roadside visitor center that for $349 you can buy a Value pass that gives two people (of any age) entry to the l7 major attractions in the White Mountain area.
All photos by Paul Ross
Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel writer, keynote speaker, workshop leader, and she sometimes takes people on exotic trips with her: www.GlobalAdventure.us