Sugar Hill: The Place to Be This June

Catch Sugar Hill's meadows in bloom

From the bay window in our room at the Inn at Sunset Hill, we looked directly into the sunset sky this hilltop is famed for. When we stepped onto our east-facing balcony, we could see Mt. Washington’s summit, rosy in the glow of the sun’s last rays.

Sunset Hill House, the grand hotel that once stood at the crest of the hill, is long gone, but its golf course and smaller hotel building are now the Inn at Sunset Hill, where we’d come to take part in Sugar Hill’s annual Celebration of Lupine. June is the time to see these floral blossoms that paint the meadows along Sunset Hill Road and elsewhere in Sugar Hill.

Like the inn, the lupines stem from the hotel that once crowned the hill. Lupines were a favorite in the gardens that surrounded the grand White Mountain hotels a century ago, and unlike most showy garden flowers, they naturalize well and spread. (Another place you’ll find a field blue with lupines is in Jefferson, across from the site of the former Waumbek Hotel.)

Of course, all Sugar Hill’s lupines didn’t come from the hotel grounds; they were a favorite in private gardens of the people who built summer homes in this hilltop village. Sugar Hill has a history as an aerie for well-heeled “summer people” who started coming here in the late 1800s to escape the cities’ summer heat. Their fine homes line the village, shaded by the maples that gave Sugar Hill its name.

The inn is a perfect base for enjoying this spectacular June display, as the biggest concentrations of lupines are in the sloping fields a few steps away. As a backdrop to these meadows painted in shades of blue, purple and pink are the mountains of the Franconia and Presidential ranges.

It wasn’t just lupines that brought us here. We’d heard of the inn’s new young chef, Rob Bullek, and wanted to sample the pub and restaurant for ourselves. Dinner began with ginger-squash bisque made with pickled ginger and fresh herbs; its savory flavor and pleasing texture tempted me to cancel my entrée and ask for another bowl. Meltingly tender southern sage fried chicken was wrapped in an herby coating of crunchy crumbs and served on potatoes mashed with Harman’s famous aged cheddar. My 10-ounce sirloin was tender, cooked exactly as ordered and richly flavored (surprisingly so for sirloin). It was topped with caramelized onions and roasted red peppers, and served on a bed of barely wilted spinach that blended with the savory juices. The generous wedge of apple pie we shared had a buttery crumb crust and the fragrance of cinnamon.

New inn owners Dick and Sally have not attempted to recreate the inn as an opulent grand hotel, but rather a comfortable and hospitable country retreat. Individually decorated rooms are stylish, often incorporating historic architectural elements.

There’s plenty more history in Sugar Hill. Right here at the inn is NH’s oldest nine-hole golf course and its 1900 clubhouse. Of the town’s nearly 1,000 summer residents in the 1890s, a number were Episcopalians, and Sunday services were held in the hotel’s ballroom. In 1894, the small St. Matthew’s Chapel opened down the hill on Rte. 117, with colored paper simulating stained glass. The four windows that were soon installed are beautiful examples of early 20th-century stained glass, one attributed to Tiffany.

While these summer chapels are not unusual in New Hampshire, Sugar Hill’s history has a less-conventional religious phenomenon. It was a hotbed for Millerites, followers of a preacher who prophesied that the world would end on October 22, 1844. His Sugar Hill followers didn’t harvest their fall crops and prepared for the day by gathering at the Sunnyside Cemetery, dressed in flowing white robes. They were disappointed, but we found the hilltop cemetery with its old stones far from disappointing.

In the center of town we stopped at Harman’s, itself a historic landmark, for a chunk of the famous cheddar cheese before learning more about the past at the Sugar Hill Historical Museum. Here, along with horse-drawn carriages and a 1939 Ford fire truck, we found memorabilia of one of Sugar Hill’s most famous summer people. Actress Bette Davis, a huge star in her day, came in 1939 to escape the tensions of Hollywood, and here met Arthur Farnsworth, her second husband. We’d heard bits of their story in Littleton, where one of her films premiered in 1941, and learned more as we explored Sugar Hill.

So on our way home we sidetracked onto Rte. 116 to follow the Coppermine Trail to Coppermine Brook, where we found the rock with a plaque that reads: In Memoriam to Arthur Farnsworth/The Keeper of Stray Ladies/Pecketts 1939/Presented by a Grateful One — in reference to his finding her there when she had not returned from a hike.

Categories: Summer Roadtrips, Weekend Trips