By Zofia Smardz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; F06
Across the frozen lake, snuggled against the mountains as the wind blows snowflakes in crazy circles against the cotton-batting sky, the hotel looks like a little Disneyesque Swiss village in a snow globe. A little self-contained world of its own.
It's perfectly lovely, and I'd love to stand here longer just gaping at the view, but my fingers, ungloved for picture-taking, are so stiff that they're about ready to snap off, and my toes are feeling numb-ish and it's a long trot back to the warmth of that beckoning world. So I pocket the camera, and the six of us hoof it up the road, walking briskly into the biting wind.
The hotel lobby and heat are within reach when my sister Elizabeth suggests that we have a look at the ice-skating facilities. My re-gloved fingers have warmed up, so the two of us and brother-in-law Charlie clamber up the slope to the upper parking lot, which has been flooded to create a small rink of smooth, unmarked ice. Clearly no one's taken to the blades yet. I step out onto the glassy surface and glide a ways in my boots.
"Okay, I've skated," I say.
"We could still come out for real later," Elizabeth says optimistically.
"Yes," I begin, and then I think, right. Like when? There's less than an hour before the hotel history tour we want to take, which is just before the complimentary Monday-night cocktail reception, which is just before dinner, after which - considering our already full day of breakfasting, kitchen-touring, hallway-roaming, photo-caption-reading, shopping and hiking (in the cold!) - we probably won't be up for much more than a game of billiards or sitting by the tavern fire in a stupor.
Whew. My sisters were right. You don't get bored here. The two of them have been coming to the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, just a stone's throw from Canada in New Hampshire's Great Northern Woods, for upwards of 20 years, and they've been singing its praises forever. So okay, I thought, it's finally time to tag along and check the place out.
An 8,000-acre enclave at the foot of the Dixville Notch, a pass through the White Mountains that has long been used as an east-west trade route, it is in fact a little world of its own. Originally a summer resort, with two golf courses (one designed by the legendary Donald Ross), a 16-acre manmade lake (dug in 1898!), hiking and biking trails and more, it's now a year-round operation, with skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowshoeing, skating, snowmobiling, cooking demos, wine-tasting, etc. And almost everything is included in the nightly rates.
All that, of course, is if you want to gogogo. But if you'd prefer to stopstopstop, the Balsams is just the place for that, too. With its table d'hote dinners in the gracious dining room, where you get your own assigned table and wait staff for the length of your stay, the many lounging areas and fireplace corners where you can curl up with a book, the no-TV rooms (except for 18), a studied avoidance of the latest industry fads (a recent management company was dismissed after trying to introduce too many), and the general air of yesteryear that seems to waft from the very woodwork, it offers a step into a secluded, slowed-down universe.
That the hotel is for sale, per the terms of the late owner's will, and that this atmosphere might dissipate, seems like a bummer. But general manager Jeffrey O. McIver says that the property will only be sold to the "right" purchaser, i.e. someone who'll keep the Old World approach.
"The idea is that you can come here and really vacate, in the original meaning of the term 'vacation,' " says McIver, who obviously has the North Country laid-backness bred in his bones, seeing as he's completely unruffled when I just walk into his office and start asking questions even though he's between meetings and probably has a lot of stuff to catch up on. "You can park your car in the lot and never move it for a week."
Right you are. That's because the 202-room Balsams is the biggest - and about the only - thing in the town also called Dixville Notch, which is most famous as the first place in the nation to cast and count its votes in every presidential election. This it's able to do because the sum total of its voting population at present is 21 (down from a high of 38 in 1988 but up from a low of nine in 1960) so the whole caboodle, which starts at midnight, takes about 10 minutes. (It's not really a bellwether, however; it went unanimously for Richard Nixon in 1960 and traditionally leans Republican, though Barack Obama won by a 15-6 landslide in 2008).
A pilgrimage to the ballot room is of course de rigueur, so we dutifully repair there to pay obeisance. Tucked in a far corner of the hotel, it's a square room with a blue star-spangled carpet and an ornate white sign on one wall proclaiming Dixville Notch "First in the Nation." It's set up for a meeting, with rows of padded chairs and a lectern at the front, where Charlie naturally insists on snapping a shot of my onetime political-operative husband pretending to give a speech. (Similar shots are displayed in countless living rooms, I'll bet.)
The framed campaign memorabilia covering the walls is pretty entertaining - look, Lamar Alexander's flannel shirt! - but there's a lot more of this one to investigate. Rooms upon rooms and endless hallways, in fact - prime prowling territory - and on every wall a photo or a news story marking some moment in the life of the resort, from its 19th-century origins as the travelers' rest stop known as the Dix House to the 1918 opening of the Rhenish-style Hampshire House, a.k.a. the "new" wing (which really doesn't go with the earlier white clapboard section, but as Elizabeth says, that makes it unique, doesn't it?)
On the wall of fame in the hallway between the two wings, we examine the photos of the many illustrious names who have graced the resort over the centuries - John Philip Sousa (his band played at the opening of the new wing), Teddy Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding (brother-in-law Skip, the history buff, makes sure to point them out), Jerry Lewis (he was a waiter there in pre-fame days), Frank Sinatra and many more. Our family claim to celebrity-spying fame: former Mamas and Papas singer Michelle Phillips, daughter Chynna and son-in-law Billy Baldwin, who one year asked my sister Anna to show them where Sunday services were held.
I'm on the lookout the two nights we're there, but no celebrities. Ah, well, who cares? The whole idea is to pull back from the glare, from pop culture and digital distractions and all words such as "efficient," "quick" and "now," and to ease into a calmer, gentler rhythm.
Which we manage famously. After dinner on our last night and the end of a hiking/touring/too-much-activity-according-to-my-husband day, Anna retires early as is her wont, Elizabeth and I take up a jigsaw puzzle in the library, and Charlie and my husband head off to the billiard room (who knows what Skip got up to). The wind is howling outside and still sending the snow dancing in dizzying drafts across the sky, but it's just a backdrop to our cozy preoccupations.
After a couple of hours, we've had enough playing but still don't want to give up the night, so we head into the Tavern downstairs and order a round of drinks. And sit there, chatting some but mostly staring into the fire, lost in a delicious kind of stupor.
In our own little world.