Clear horizons and budget rates in Waterville Valley.
New Hampshire's hybrid season falls between the foliage and the snow. In the few weeks after the leaf peepers have headed south and before the skiers come north, resort communities like Waterville Valley stir in off-season tranquility that they call a perfect break from the autumn rush or resting up for the holiday blitz.
Waterville Valley's fall interregnum mirrors outer Cape Cod in early spring, minus the seagulls and the salt air. It's an outdoor destination, and you try to slip in and back out again before the first snow spoils it. The atmosphere is deceptively still, but just below the surface is the energy of a resort community limbering up for its busiest season. Almost nobody goes there now -- and that means uncrowded streets, fast seating at local eateries and serious savings for a family weekend of couple's getaway.
You get to Waterville Valley from I-93. The drive seems designed for a Prius, with long stretches of open highway winding up through the Lakes Region or south through Franconia. In the summer you might wish for a muscular convertible, but the upscale interior provides welcome shelter from the early November chill, and 51 highway miles per gallon offer a low-energy ride to regeneration.
There's just one route into the valley. From Exit 28, state highway 49 (also known as Waterville Road) meanders northeast out of Campton along the course of the Mad River. In November the river runs low, so there won't be kayakers challenging the Class III-IV rapids that flow in season between the Route 49 bridge and Campton Pond, but at the Flat Rocks just outside Waterville Valley you can hop cobblestones out to midstream without soaking your shoes. It's also a good spot for bass fishing, and one-day licenses are available.
(And don't be misguided by Mapquest. Tripoli Road from Woodstock and the northeast is actually a dirt road that closes for the winter. Even considering the Prius' 138 horses and constant velocity transmission, it's a road best left to Hummers and high-power, high-stance vehicles with Thule racks on their roofs.)
Call ahead for lodging reservations. Although low off-season traffic means accommodations are almost always available, a little advance planning and shopping around by phone or online can reveal the best deals at the town's grand resorts. The savings can be dramatic -- in early November, condos at the Golden Eagle Lodge rent for $109 plus taxes per night, compared to $224 in the summertime and $250 for ski season.
And the nights come early to northern New Hampshire in November, but that's actually a good thing. Waterville Valley was one of the Northeast's first Dark Sky towns, equipping itself with shielded streetlights and other appliances that help prevent light pollution, so on a clear night the Milky Way arches through the sky from the buttressing valley walls, silhouetting the mountains before a starscape that staggers brightlanders.
The Man in the Yellow Hat can tell you all about it. Waterville Valley was the summer home of Margaret and H.A. Rey and the birthplace of his famous Curious George series of children's books. The Rey Center and the Curious George Cottage in the Town Square offers art, science and adventure programs including astronomy throughout the year.
When the sun returns, the town's 76 kilometers of still-unglazed Nordic ski trails lead hikers across closed golf courses into the surrounding forest. The brisk mountain air is extraordinarily clear, and with trees bare of leaves along the trails, it's the best time of the year to experience amazing views of the peaks and glimpses of wildlife, including moose, deer and even bear.
The Waterville Valley Indoor Ice Arena is also alive during every month but May. Entering its farewell season as the home of Plymouth State University's ice hockey programs (the school expects to open an arena on campus in 2010), it schedules regular "hockey hours" for casual public skating with sticks and pucks, as well as freestyle figure free skating. Many resorts provide complimentary passes for guests, otherwise admission is $5 for adults and $4 for skaters under 12, and $7 per person for Hockey Hour. Skate rentals are available for $4.
On the mountainsides preparations are underway for the winter season. Snow first touched the summits in October and snowmaking starts on the high ski terrain as soon as the nights grow cold enough. Chairlifts and gondolas are in motion, too, as crews practice up for the season opener, optimistically targeted this year for November 22, and snow guns shoot geysers into the sky as long as the chill persists.
And a low-key bustle pervades the town. The streets become an annual "winter wonderland" by Thanksgiving, and the decorations go up in the fleeting weeks between foliage and snow. You'll be doing your own holiday trimming soon and shopping a downtown that's decking its halls early provides a gentle start to the season.
The one route into Waterville Valley is also the only route out. It's just as serpentine going as coming, but if you depart in the afternoon, you'll actually cruise into the sunset. Whether you slip out of town before the first snow or get caught in an early flurry, savor the notion that the road will soon be lined with plowed snowbanks and packed with skiers in SUVs forcing their way home. It's a little like getting off Cape Cod ahead of the in-season crush, but instead of heading back to work, you're hybriding into the holidays. NH
This article appears in the September 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine