BETHEL — Dr. John George Gehring, a young physician from Cleveland, sought quiet refuge in this quaint village in the late 19th century after suffering a physical and mental breakdown.
Gehring recovered through a regimen of medicine, mental stimulation, and recreation in the abundant nature around him. More than a century later, Gehring’s creaky health remains Maine’s gain through a classic New England inn he built for patients in need of a lung full of bracing mountain air.
That destination, the century-old Bethel Inn Resort, continues to provide a curative balm for guests. But these days, its lodgers are more apt to lace up their hiking boots, lash on a pair of cross-country skis, or pull out a 5-iron than settle down for hours in a nerve-calming rocker.
A 3½-hour drive from Boston, the resort retains much of the comfortable, rustic ambience that drew Gehring’s frazzled patients to Bethel in the first place. The main inn, built in 1913, is a three-story gem of muted yellow clapboards nestled near a small bandstand at one end of the charming, oval Town Common.
Driving up to the entrance, as I did when snow still blanketed the ground in this White Mountains corner of western Maine, had a time-traveling effect. A soft coating of white, an unfamiliar quiet, and an absence of steel and concrete architecture created the soothing sense that this was a place apart.
The inn bills itself as a four-season resort, which separates this destination from many of the large, old hostelries in Maine that draw much of their appeal from a front-door view of the Atlantic. The ocean is tourism gold in the summer. But in the cooler months, the sight and sound of cold, crashing surf is enough to send many people scurrying for cover instead of an Adirondack chair.
But at the Bethel Inn, its managers say, every season is in season. At least, that’s what hooked Dick Rasor, a New York advertising executive who rescued a money-hemorrhaging place that had closed its doors in 1979 with no assurances it would ever reopen.
Rasor, who divides his year between Bethel and Florida, still owns the resort, which has doubled in size to 200 acres since his purchase, grown from 60 rooms to 160, and expanded its golf course from nine to 18 holes. In addition to rooms in the main inn and nearby satellite buildings, the resort has one-, two-, and three-bedroom townhouses a quick stroll away.
After scrambling to attract 3,000 overnight guests in 1979, the inn now accommodates 30,000 a year.
Brad Jerome, the inn’s director of sales and marketing, extolled the resort’s laid-back ambience and proximity to the outdoors as prime selling points. But he also walks the walk. When Jerome isn’t skiing in the winter, he said, he’s fly-fishing in the warmer months on some of New England’s best rivers and streams.
The Bethel Inn, which offers concierge service, isn’t attractive only as a jumping-off point for activities somewhere else, he said. The resort, for example, has a year-round outdoor heated pool and whirlpool, where billows of steam rose above the snow-covered ground during my visit. And inside, parts of the main inn function as a miniature museum, with original Victorian and post-Victorian art and antique furnishings ranging from a wooden rolltop desk to an old-fashioned house phone to an imposing, century-old safe whose combination has been lost to time.
Outside, there’s a resort-owned lake house with canoes and kayaks on nearby Songo Pond, mountain bike rentals, golf lessons, a tennis court, spa, and health club with fitness equipment. A conference center is located across the street on the short walk to downtown Bethel, a delightful, compact town with appealing architecture and several intriguing boutiques and small restaurants.
The Bethel Inn seeks to provide reliable, guest-friendly, family-style service. That’s not a new philosophy, of course, but it’s one that the resort wants embedded in its commercial DNA.
One of Rasor’s mantras is: “The answer is yes. What’s the question?”
That cuddly kind of “be our guest” warmth, however, was not immediately apparent at the check-in desk in a comfortable lobby featuring plush chairs, thick carpeting, and a grand fireplace. The receptionist, speaking barely above a whisper, quickly asked if my car was parked in front. If so, she said, I should move it immediately to a side lot and carry the bags up an outdoors staircase to the second-floor room. Never mind that a set of indoor stairs to that same room were only a few feet away.
The issue, it seems, was keeping enough parking spaces for arriving guests. I glanced outside: plenty of room. Having recently moved from a neighborhood where double-parking is an Olympic sport, I was struck dumb. “Toto,” I thought, “you’re not in South Boston anymore.”
The room, a Deluxe Standard that overlooked the Town Common, was spacious but showed its age. The plain but tasteful furnishings evoked a time when hotels and inns, especially in an out-of-the-way place like Maine, reflected a simpler, almost spartan, sensibility. The bathroom was small, at least compared with modern resorts. There was a temperature-triggered fireplace for additional heat, but I couldn’t figure it out. Ditto for the alarm clock.
Part of the appeal of grand inns is their connection with the past, and I have a fondness for history and adventure. So, roll with it, I told myself. This isn’t the Back Bay, and that can be a good thing.
After the long drive, a good chunk of it in a snowstorm, I was beckoned by the possibilities of the downstairs Millbrook Tavern, a dark, cozy bar where an afternoon “Taps and Apps” promotion combined drinks and free appetizers to warm one’s insides after, perhaps, a long day of skiing at nearby Sunday River or Mount Abram.
Large-screen TVs flashed a heaping smorgasbord of sports, along with a solitary TV devoted to Fox News, above a loud, energized crowd that was much more interested in amped-up conversation than watching the tube. For me, that’s a thumb’s-up for the Bethel Inn’s clientele.
My companion also flashed a big thumb’s-up for a bloody Mary deposited at our table, a monster drink — more of a meal, really — that was garnished with lemon, lime, a big stalk of celery, two olives, and two oversize shrimp dangling off the rim.
She was less enthused about the dinner in the main dining room that followed, a reasonably priced, four-course offering for two that included a bottle of wine. If the tavern had been full-court sensory overload, the uninspired meal was a hushed antidote. The large room, one floor above, was less than half full. The background noise consisted of a few, murmuring voices and a heavy air of polite formality.
Maybe this was what Gehring’s jittery patients preferred, but I found the dining experience a little too quiet. Not to worry, though. The next day, a Sunday, changed all that, beginning with a hearty, all-you-could-eat, buffet-style breakfast in the same room. This time, though, the place — with large windows overlooking a rustic tableau of trees and hills — was crowded with excited, chattering guests eager to explore the natural offerings of the White Mountains.
Many of them were headed to Sunday River’s 135 ski trails via a free shuttle bus that provided door-to-door service to the ski lodge, where college friends soon arrived for a few hours of laughs and catching up. The apres-ski scene was followed by a shuttle ride back to the inn’s tavern, which was jammed with rollicking, wind-chapped skiers. A band from Portland belted out a steady stream of classic rock, and my memories of the inn’s irritating introduction had all but disappeared.
In the morning, I strolled to the resort’s Nordic center, where newlyweds John and Arwen Agee of Gardiner, Maine, were removing their boots after a jaunt around some of the resort’s 40 kilometers of cross-country ski trails.
They were married a month before and had invited a couple of dozen wedding guests to the inn for a weekend of relaxed afterglow. The Agees hadn’t looked at their car the entire stay, they said, indulging instead in the inn’s various options for winter recreation — cross-country, downhill, and snowshoeing.
“We’ve had a great time here,” the recent bridegroom said.
On reflection, so had I.