For some people the words "snow" and "North Country" automatically lead to dreams of packed powder and ideal ski conditions. But the rest of us - the ones who would rather wear a hair shirt than a ski parka - have found our own ways to enjoy the cold months in New Hampshire's stunning winter landscape.
So when hubby and the kids are hitting the slopes or your wife is off with her friends snowboarding, don't be afraid to head north with them. We may not ski. But we do shop, eat, spa, enjoy theatre and museums and even hike. We love a roaring fire and a great meal, but we also love the great outdoors, just not a great outdoors rushing by as we slide down a slippery mountain with boards strapped to our booted feet.
While our ski bunny buds are schussing and snowplowing at Cranmore we head to Conway to get our thrills from a healthy dose of retail therapy. The section of Route 16 from Conway Village to North Conway is shopping heaven with literally hundreds of outlet stores, boutique shops and art galleries.
If your idea of a winter sport is reading a good novel with a hot cup of coffee in your hand, you can't beat North Conway's White Birch Books (www.whitebirchbooks.com) in a funky old Victorian house on 2568 Main St. for an independent book store with gratis hot drinks, lots of cozy corners and a great section of New Hampshire books for browsing.
The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (www.nhcrafts.org) in North Conway village has won numerous awards in travel magazines as one of the great reasons to head north in New Hampshire. You can take your time looking through the amazing selection of pottery jewelry, furniture, woodwork, blown glass, fiber, wearable art, art prints, photography, ornaments, metal work and home décor made by juried New Hampshire crafts people. Founded in 1932, the League of N.H. Craftsmen is one of the oldest and most prestigious craft organizations in the country, so bring a piece of New Hampshire craft history home. And don't worry about schlepping your wares in your car if full of ski boots and luggage - the store will ship your treasures for you if you like.
There is also plenty to offer the non-skiing antique lover. Visit 52 Main St. in Conway where you'll not only get to browse vintage treasures at Drummer Boy Antiques but also see some colorful posies among the snow at The Flower Drum, a florist shop that shares the same location (www.flowerdrum.com).
For the winter bargain hunter, some feel the outlet malls in North Conway are tantamount to perfect packed powder conditions. Who says you can't enjoy fresh air and shop at the same time? Places like the Settlers' Green Outlet Village (www.settlersgreen.com) have more than 60 outlet stores, but not confined to a crowded, overheated mall. This is an outside shopping mecca. You get to look at the blue ridges of the Presidential Range between stops at The Gap Outlet and J. Jill. Grab a hot chocolate at Brandi's and take a look at the huge mosaic snowman in the center of the complex.
You and your skiing travel mate will want to find a great place to lay your head down after all that activity.
Want to spend the night in a treehouse or maybe the jungle? How does an evening at a Roman spa or New York penthouse sound? You can do all that and never leave North Conway at Adventure Suites, (www.adventuresuites.com) a theme hotel on Route 16. Each theme suite includes a two-person Jacuzzi, free movies, breakfast and use of an outdoor fire pit overlooking the mountains.
For those seeking more traditional lodgings there's plenty to be found near Cranmore (www.cranmore.com). In the North Country, good eating is often linked with good lodging. Such is the case of the 51-room Wentworth Inn (www.thewentworth.com) in Jackson with miles of snowshoe and cross-country ski trails nearby. Several suites have hot tubs on private porches so you can enjoy hot water and cool air at the same time. Music is piped into the bathroom and the hot tubs areas, so don't forget your favorite romantic CDs. Recent menus have included slow-braised blancet of veal cheeks and prosciutto wrapped all natural Hatfield Farm tenderloin of pork.
The 1785 Inn (www.the1785inn.com) on the west side of Route 16, at the Intervale Scenic Overlook, was built by a veteran of the American Revolution on a hill with a panoramic view of Mount Washington that some say is the most frequently photographed vista in the country. Your cross-country skiing companion will love the surrounding trails, and the inn's restaurant is considered one of the best in the region.
If you want to be close to your pooch while the hubby and kids ski Cranmore and King Pine (www.kingpine.com), you might consider staying at the Lazy Dog Bed and Breakfast in Chocorua (www.lazydoginn.com), which not only allows dogs as guests in their 1845 farmhouse, they're crazy about them. So cuddle up with your warm puppy until the family comes down from the slopes.
After dinner and before going to bed, you and your skiing chums might want to get together and take in a flick. And if old movie houses appeal to you, cozy up with popcorn at the Majestic Hometown Theatre in Conway Village (www.hometowntheatre.com). The interior is Art Deco and there's even the original red velvet curtain dating back to the 1930s. This is an art movie house as befits its retro setting and there's a café for a light meal before or after the flick right on site.
Cradled in the Wildcat River Valley just south of Pinkham Notch and the Presidential Range, the town of Jackson has been a cross-country ski center for decades. Local resorts and touring groups maintain more than 325 kilometers of trails in the area. The Jackson Ski Touring Foundation (www.jacksonxc.org) alone maintains more than 150 kilometers. Visitors may ski inn to inn, stopping for lunch along the way. There are plenty of options for all abilities and just as much to do for your friend who would rather tour while you're gliding through the woods.
For example, you could get in touch with the Sasha Cohen within and try some ice skating at Nestlenook Farm (www.nestlenookfarm.com) in Jackson Village, where you can take a sleigh ride after a few triple axles.
For shopping/gallery gazing, stop by the White Mountain Photography and Photo Gallery (www.whitemountainphoto.com) housed at the Snowflake Inn in Jackson. It features, among other stunning images, panoramic photos of the majestic Whites Mountains and other New Hampshire scenic photography.
If you like your recreational retail tinged with a touch of history and funk, head to Jackson Village and visit Ravenwood Curio Shoppe, which alone is worth the trip.
Ravenwood is funky all the way - pieced together out of found objects like some giant Joseph Cornell shadowbox by Larry Siebert, who literally took years to complete the whimsical structure and its mesmerizing sculpture garden. While a kind of museum of funk in and of itself, Ravenwood is, after all a curio shop, and the gifts are offbeat and original.
Flossie's General Store and Emporium (www.flossiesgeneralstore.com) beside the covered bridge in Jackson is named for the woman who once lived in the building, the late school teacher Flossie Thurston Giles. According to legend, she was named after her uncle's horse when she was born in Conway at the turn of the 20th century. After she married, Flossie eventually moved to Jackson and served as town clerk and post mistress for more than 25 years.
The shop named for her is all about country chic and sells penny candy, puzzles, cards, souvenirs and home décor. You can even buy a detailed wooden replica of the Jackson Covered Bridge.
"We have a lot of people who come up here in the winter and don't ski," says Pat Davis, who has worked behind the desk at Wentworth Resort Hotel for the past 23 years. The Wentworth has been around since the grand hotel era - built in 1869 as a private residence, a wedding gift for Georgia Trickey and her husband Gen. Marshall Wentworth, and as legend has it - the inspiration for Wentworth by the Sea. The resort has recently gone through a major renovation and is known for its five-course candlelight dinners.
"Look around, it's just so beautiful," says Davis. "People come to the Wentworth, to Jackson, the North Country, just to relax where it's quiet and beautiful. It's nice if you ski to sit by the fireplace in your room or get in the hot tub, but it's also nice if you just want to get away from it all."
Located on a hill overlooking Jackson Village, the Christmas Farm Inn and Spa (www.christmasfarminn.com) is among the oldest inns in the area. It has welcomed guests since 1786. It now has more than 40 guest rooms and cottages with special spa packages and girlfriend getaway packages that include massages, pedicures and manicures. Its restaurant and pub are opened to the public.
The cozy Inn at Ellis River (www.innatellisriver.com) at the edge of Jackson Village was recently named one of the top 12 inns worldwide by beadandbreakfast.com. It has 20 rooms, most with fireplaces and many with hot tubs. There's a heated outdoor pool and sauna overlooking its namesake river. The inn offers special winter packages including those for lovers, shoppers and one called Sleigh Bells and Candlelight, which includes a two-night stay, gourmet breakfasts, afternoon noshes, a ride in an Austrian sleigh, a candlelight dinner at a local restaurant plus roses, champagne and chocolates in the room.
While the rest of the family is taking advantage of the 434 acres of ski and snowboard trails at Bretton Woods, you can dawdle over a leisurely lunch at the magnificent Mount Washington Hotel (www.mountwashingtonresort.com) with a breathtaking view of the snow-capped Presidential Range or get a facial or massage at the grand hotel's new 25,000-square-foot spa.
Or, of you're feeling more adventurous, you can rocket 1,000 feet down the hillside on the new zipline canopy tour that opened at Bretton Woods last December (2008) (www.mountwashingtonresort.com/activities/canopy_tour/overview).
The first ziplines were developed by biologists, who set up a cable and pulley system in a Costa Rican rain forest so they could study wildlife in the jungle canopy. The technology has been adapted for thrill-seekers and there are now several zipline courses in the United States, with three in New Hampshire.
The zipline at Bretton Woods begins with a chairlift ride and descends down several ziplines, two "sky bridges" and three rappelling sites before ending in an unusual dual, side-by-side drop. Another zipline at Alpine Adventures in Lincoln, (www.alpinezipline.com) near Loon Mountain, descends a half-mile down Barron Mountain with seven lines connected by a series of platforms, walkways and a rope bridge. Yet another, at Wildcat Mountain, (http://www.skiwildcat.com/summer.html) is a half-mile ride over treetops, ski trails and a river.
For avid snowboarding, downhill and cross-country skiers who love their winter experience to take place in a traditional and historical North Country ski resort, it's all about The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel (www.TheBalsams.com) on 15,000 acres in Dixville Notch.
The original resort on the location first opened just after the Civil War as the Dix House and in 1895 a Philadelphia mogul, Henry S. Hale, purchased the hotel and renamed it The Balsams and since 1866, the resort has had only six owners.
But for as long as there have been skiers at the resort they've been accompanied by those who prefer other winter pastimes. Dining at The Balsams is an event for which people still dress. There's a charming library with books, puzzles and board games for guests and in the evening there's entertainment in the form of live music in the Wilderness Lounge.
You're likely to hear about the Colebrook Winter Carnival, which will take place on Valentine's Day this year. It's a particularly family friendly event with snow tubing, dog sledding and Little Jack Frost and Snow Flake pageants for the wee ones. There will also be a cribbage tournament and bocce competition.
If you are in the company of winter sports fans who flock to Cannon Mountain (www.cannonmt.com) to ski you can find a way to be close without actually strapping on a pair of skis.
Any clear winter day is a great time to bundle up and take the Cannon Mountain aerial tramway (http://www.visitnh.gov/tram/index.html). Once at the 4,180-foot summit take a breath of fresh, cold air and snap a panoramic photo of your own. On a clear day you can see the mountains of four states and Canada. The summit has scenic walking paths, an observation deck and a cafeteria where you can grab a hot burger and coffee before heading back down.
Then visit the New England Ski Museum in Franconia Notch State Park (www.skimuseum.org), at the base of the Cannon Mountain Tram. Hey, you might even be able to get the kids off the slopes for a few minutes to join you.
This is only one of four ski museums in the country and the only one in the East. Exhibits include vintage photographs and videos as well as equipment and clothing dating from the 19th century to the present.
This year the museum opened a satellite exhibit in the former Carroll Reed Ski Shop in the Shops at Norcross Place, Kearsarge Street and White Mountain Highway, in North Conway. The free exhibit spotlights the career of Hannes Schneider, the pioneering ski instructor who relocated to North Conway from Austria in the days before World War II.
After that set out on your own for a shopping and dining trip to Bethlehem and Littleton for one-of-kind clothing boutiques, bookstores, music and cigar shops.
For shopping with a social conscience check out the Women's Rural Economic Network Gallery (www.wrencommunity.org) on 2013 Main St. in Bethlehem, where the fine crafts, jewelry pottery, textiles, baskets and more from over 200 local artists are displayed and sold. It's feel-good shopping knowing you're helping women all over the state make a living from their hand work. Pentimento at 34 Union St. has a host of clever items for gift-giving.
Littleton also has Jax Jr., (www.jaxjrcinemas.com) a first-run movie theater on Main Street open year-round. You can take in a movie all by yourself and never have to share your popcorn with anyone.
Or visit the Bethlehem Heritage Society, (www.bethlehemwhitemtns.com/heritagesociety.html) housed in a former restaurant now a museum of Bethlehem artifacts and history. The museum has a changing exhibit of Bethlehem memorabilia that reflects the town's historic role as a vacation destination for world travelers. At one time the village had over 30 grand hotels. The collection includes hotel china, silverware, glass and menus. There are also historical items from Bethlehem's two Donald Ross-designed golf courses, the town's fire and police departments, Stonecrest Colony, The National Hay Fever Relief Association and Chase Tennis Camps. Winter and spring hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday-Saturday or by appointment.
For lodging consider the Palmer House in the Inn at Crystal Lake (www.innatcrystallake.com) in Eaton, where you can sip a martini and nibble some baked brie en croûte at the vintage walnut bar that was originally situated in the Ritz-Carlton in Boston. When your table is ready, sit down to some vegetable paella or maple-ginger salmon.
And while your best friend might choose to spend her time downhill skiing at Loon, you can take in the vista by mountain climbing without leaving your car. Take a 34-mile scenic cruise over the Kancamagus Highway through the White Mountain National Forest from Conway to Lincoln. One of the most scenic roads in the country, it's usually packed during the foliage season, but is much less traveled during the winter months where you might see a moose at dawn or dusk. There are plenty of scenic overlooks to park in and drink in the spectacular snow-covered granite crags and ice-crusted streams as the road climbs nearly 3,000 feet toward the summit of Mt. Kancamagus before dropping into the valley near the base of Loon Mountain.
Then for a little night life, get off the Kancamagus and head south to Plymouth for some live entertainment at the Silver Center for the Arts at Plymouth State University. (www.plymouth.edu/silver) Upcoming performers include second-generation jazz guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli, familiar to TV viewers as the voice of Foxwoods Casino ("The Wonder of it all"), the virtuoso pianists of the Claremont Trio and poet C. D. Wright.
Tune into 95.3 FM or 1050 AM when you're in the region - home of Visitor Information Radio (www.wmwv.com) sponsored by the White Mountain Chamber of Commerce. It's a great source of information for skiers and their non-skiing companions. There's information about everything from the latest dinner specials at local restaurants, the best ice fishing spots to advice about what to do if you see a bear.