The Five and Dime on Main Street is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The League shop at 2526 White Mountain Highway is also a glass-blowing studio for the owner, Philip Jacob.Photos by Susan Laughlin.
Dan Brown has walked its streets. So have other best-selling authors with New Hampshire connections like Jodi Picoult and Lisa Gardner. Robert B. Parker’s fictitious rugged Beacon Hill detective Spenser has visited its sidewalks and restaurants. The town is no stranger to readers of Stephen King, either — the village is referred to in many of his works. The legendary Mainer is known for popping unannounced into the local bookstore — White Birch Books — to sign his books, make some purchases and hit the road.
“We’ve built a solid connection with them over the years,” says White Birch owner Laura Lucy. “These were relationships built over the years and cultivated. Dan Brown has signed here for every one of his books. The first time he sat at a desk and nobody knew who he was. That’s changed a bit.”
So has North Conway. Like an independent bookstore in a land of expanding corporate offerings, the village continues to retain its small hometown character as big box stores enter the playing field nearby. It is a place where personal connections are built — Lucy has owned the store for two years and worked there seven years before that — and visitors flock to whether they are there for the first time or back again to use their second home or ski club.
Synonymous with outlet stores and standstill traffic on the worst of days, North Conway is also the Mount Washington Valley gateway to the state’s picturesque White Mountains, offering year-round activities, shopping and dining opportunities.
Tourists, if you count Darby Field, credited with the first Mount Washington ascent, have been visiting as early as 1642. Fast-forward to the 1800s and families like the Crawfords opened a Crawford Notch inn. Hotels and inns sprang up in the mountains, and trains would transport the masses from Boston and New York for summer vacations and winter ski weekends. The area boomed in the 1920s and ’30s, especially as businessman Harvey Gibson brought Austrian ski legend Hannes Schneider to teach at Cranmore in 1938. Artists came to paint the landscape while hikers trekked to the challenging peaks in the White Mountain National Forest. North Conway evolved into a resort town.
Of late, the village has seen a facelift. With the addition of the North-South Road that parallels Route 16 for a stretch, it’s now possible to walk around the block. The hammering of village construction for two years resulted in a manicured downtown with brick sidewalks, historic lighting and visible crosswalks where motorists stop for pedestrians. The “Streetscape Project” took place with the involvement of the North Conway Village Association, the Mount Washington Valley Preservation Association, the town and the Department of Transportation.
Now, it’s time to do business again.
The village by foot, with its side streets and alleys, is a place to discover. The nose knows the freshly baked goods at Seavey Street’s Old Village Bakery. Well worth the walk, be sure to make that trip Wednesdays when the savory olive and rosemary bread is baked.
Finding a shot of java in the village is an easy and energizing task. The Frontside Grind — named after a snowboarding maneuver — inside the Eastern Slope Inn is compact and comfortable for that morning espresso and cappuccino. A couple blocks away by the tall inverted ski pole is the tiny Teeny Bean, located in the spot of the former Morning Dew, where the village’s love affair with high-end coffee began years ago. Next door in a brick ex-bank is The Met. Part art gallery and part wireless hub, lounge about indoors on the purple couch or linger outside at the tables to watch the world go by.
Andrea Masters is a village java junkie. She’s the librarian at the old granite North Conway Public Library and revels that she has a number of choices within a five-minute walk.
“We just renovated the front facade of the library last year and it’s nice to have this gorgeous exterior now surrounded by a beautiful center of the village,” she said. “I particularly love the new brick sidewalks and the antique street lights.”
For a small town, North Conway has a hefty and tasty variety of restaurant choices. It may lack Mediterranean and Eastern European themes, but the parade of options along Route 16 into the village and beyond holds its own in New England ski towns. Drive down the “strip” and choose from an international menu of familiar chains to locally-owned establishments serving Thai, Mexican, Italian, fine romantic dining, pub grub, Indian, Irish, steaks, pizza and more.
Start the day at steady Peach’s or upstairs at the Stairway Café with its array of pancake choices and Mexican accents. In season, the North Conway Country Club by Schouler Park serves three-egg omelet breakfasts with a Moat Mountain view.
Horsefeathers is a funky Main Street legend with its unconventional attitude and treats like the black pastrami Harvey and baguette-bounded Bermuda Schwartz sandwiches. Around the corner on Kearsarge Street, Decade’s serves up steaks and worthy martinis surrounded by collectibles, while Hooligan’s is a North Conway mainstay with its barbecue pork.
Husband-and-wife-owned Chef’s Market on Main Street is an airy lunch spot with lots to go, while the nooks and crannies of Reporter Court with its shops has the Old World favor of Maestro’s Deli and Cafe. Both have upscale groceries.
At Chef’s Market, Bryant and Patti Alden drew on their hospitality and culinary backgrounds to open the eatery two years ago.
“We are surrounded by some great chef-owned operations which attract a certain kind of consumer,” said Patti. “We were able to find a place that we could renovate and add our own personal touch to make it our own.”
When the sun goes down, a couple of restaurants become night spots. Delaney’s and Horsefeather’s groove to live music on select nights while it’s tough to beat quaffing locally brewed beer at Moat Mountain’s concrete bar. The Upcountry’s the spot for games, karaoke and dancing while Club 550’s dance floor grooves along with darts and billiards. Mae Kelly’s features live music with an Irish flavor Friday nights and Sunday afternoons while Rafferty’s on Kearsarge has acoustic music on certain nights. Patrons don’t have to venture far for lodging as inns, B&Bs, motels and hotels are blocks away.
Shopping is a serious sport with more than 100 outlets, shops and stores. Bargain hunters cruise the outlets hunting for tax-free specials. Big names roost in the walkable courtyard of Settlers’ Green’s 60-plus outlets like Old Navy, Nike, Orvis and Brookstone. End-of-season sales are glorious, but there’s always the chance of picking up inexpensive loud-colored clothing that seem like a good purchase at the time. L.L. Bean is a treasure chest for the outdoor-oriented, while Chuck Roast’s fleece is toasty for a winter’s night.
Venture north along the mile-long strip to fanciful Zeb’s General Store, where two floors of specialty products will delight all senses. Lids are everywhere at Aaron Hats, Spruce Hurricane is upscale fashion, the Penguin is whimsical, the salmon-colored Handcrafters Barn has crafty gifts and Norcross Place has floors to explore. The village’s oldest continuously operating retail store is the five and dime store — yes, there’s fudge — at the corner of Main and Kearsarge. The Village Cigar Emporium is where cigar lovers light up.
There’s stuff for kids to do, too. The Conway Scenic Railroad runs almost year-round from the yellow Victorian
Above from left: Zeb’s General Store harks back to the good old days with an authentic pickle barrel and claims the largest stock of packaged New England specialty foods in the country.
The Conway Scenic Railroad Valley Train is scheduled to operate through December on the Polar Express and the Santa Holiday Express runs.
Service begins again in April with the Valley Train and in June for the Dining Car Chocorua (1929), and the Notch Train with the dome car Dorthea Mae (1955).
Pictured above is the Gertrude Emma, built by the Pullman Palace Car Co. in 1898 as a sleeper-parlor-observation car and now serving as a café and observation car. Photos by Susan Laughlin.
The HandCrafters Barn is an outlet for artisan crafts and cottage-style décor.
Photo by Wendy Wood
New England Charms and Imports Too has relocated to Kearsarge Street. They offer a wide variety of handmade crafts from around the globe. Photo by Susan Laughlin.
The Naked Bohemian in Reporter Court offers eight rooms of handmade furniture made from exotic woods, antiques, antique reproductions, bar signs, lighting, hand-blown glass, wine racks, Oriental rugs and hundreds of other imports.
The Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center has interactive exhibits — fun for kids and grown-ups alike. The replica of the shack where the record 231 mph wind was recorded simulates the sound and shaking that occurs as the wind increases. A wave tank demonstrates the fluid dynamics of waves. The gift shop is stocked with a variety of items, from weather-related books about Mt Washington weather to high-end weather instruments.
Essence-of-Art is a cooperative retail space and working studio for developmentally-challenged individuals. Each artist receives a 50-percent commission on the sales of their pieces, ranging from woven clothing, pillows, placemats, napkins and towels to bowls, plates, tiles and assorted whimsical houses.
Manager Cheryl Hurst was one of the founding members 15 years ago. She was unable to find contract work for the developmentally challenged as institutions were being closed. Initially they started with weaving, but now have potting facilities, too. Northern Human Services underwrites the project.
10 Seavey Street
Where to Stay
White Mountain Hotel
Nestled below the ledges
A cozy B&B
The Cranmore Inn
Located steps from Main Street
The 1785 Inn
Fine dining with a fantastic view
Eastern Slope Inn
Right on Main Street
The Kearsarge Inn
42 Seavey Street
A classic B&B
with an onsite restaurant
This article appears in the March 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine