Rediscovering romance in the Mount Washington Valley
Leave town for a weekend and experience slow food, pampering accommodations, and non-strenuous activities that will make you breathe deeply without trying.
Before the holidays roll in like a freight train, or an express bus without at driver, there’s nothing like a romantic getaway to vaporize stress and deepen a relationship with someone you love. The strategy is simple: relax proactively. Leave town for a weekend and experience slow food, pampering accommodations, and non-strenuous activities that will make you breathe deeply without trying.
One of the best places to do this is the Mount Washington Valley, a mountain-flanked saddle on the Maine-New Hampshire line where you can steep in winter splendor you don’t have to be a skier or snowmobiler to enjoy. Through centuries and seasons, this snowy oasis has drawn painters and photographers who stalk the best vantage points for immortalizing shifting light on wintry scenery — moment-in-time vistas that can vanquish the most annoying to-do list in your pocket.
Even if life has dampened the ardor and the magic of spending time together, you can rekindle closeness and rediscover the reasons you’re a couple in atmospheres of peace and quiet. The equation is technology-free activities that lead to wonder and joy, lingering multi-course dinners starting with cocktails you’ve never heard of, comfy chairs with sumptuous views at a cozy inn where no one nudges you to get up or go to dinner; and making the journey to get there part of your adventure — so that when you sit down, you have something new to talk about. No sightseeing that runs on the hour, or a marathon of physical activity that will result in a medal for one of you. Nothing that prevents you from staying up late to look at the stars.
Make your road trip part of your mini-vacation.
There’s nothing quite as peaceful as winter in the woods. The whoosh of snow rushing to the ground after mounding up on a pine bough, the squeak of cold boots on cold snow, the eerie creaking and snapping of branches in the nose-freezing cold. They’re part of the same early-winter lullaby, when the air is crisp and still.
Your journey contains mood-shifting experiences that creep up like a spell and force you to slow down. Your road trip is your orientation, with memorable stops to soak up the elixir of where you are.
From Boston travel north on Interstate 93 to Exit 32 for Lincoln and head east on the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112) past Loon Mountain. Here you’ll begin a 36-mile stretch of high, winding road with mountain views, trails for quick walks, waterfalls cut into gorges, roadside rivers with enormous boulders, and small, quiet ponds beyond the first layer of trees that look borrowed from fairy tales.
Lincoln Woods is a popular spot for wintry walks on a wide 2.6-mile logging road that traces the West Branch of the Pemigewasset River. It’s perfect for fat biking, dog walking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or just meandering and talking.
As you head east toward Conway village, there are frequent pullouts with postcard views. One noteworthy stop with an easy and beautiful trail is Sabbaday Falls, which follows a stream to a cascade that cuts through granite. From the parking area about midway been Lincoln and Conway, the 0.7-mile round trip starts as a path through forest and ends in railed wooden walkway that zigzags to closeup views, and plenty of icicles hanging from rock that grow longer and toothier as winter progresses. This trail is popular for all ages, including grandparents with grandchildren hiking for the first time.
Just before the Kancamagus ends at Route 16 in Conway, stop at Rocky Gorge in Albany, where you can park and trace the bank of the Swift River as it runs an obstacle course of flat, snow-covered rocks. Follow the walking bridge across the river to a path encircling quiet Falls Pond — a one-mile loop, a well-timed break from driving that feels like you’re exploring.
If walking is not in your playbook, try watching nature through the windows of a slow-rocking vintage train car on the Conway Scenic Railway in North Conway.
Mike Lacey, chief engineer, has driven its 53 miles of track for five seasons and knows the therapeutic effects of gazing out train windows. “You see the mountains, you see the farms, you’re seeing classic New England country. You’re looking at New England the way it would have looked 50 years ago. The world’s going by, and you’re not having to do anything about it.”
The Conway Scenic Railway runs 55- to 90-minute excursions to Conway and Bartlett through the first week in January, when it offers a final six-hour “Steam in the Snow” round trip to the Notchland Inn halfway through Crawford Notch. It’s designed for train and photography buffs, and makes photo stops.
If you like going over the river and through the woods in winter, try a day or night-time sleigh ride at Attitash Mountain Village on Route 302 west of Glen. Horse-drawn sleighs leave every half hour between 1 and 8:30 pm Friday through Sunday and during holiday weeks, and cost $20 per adult.
Your accommodations are key to power of ambience.
The most important characteristics of a getaway location are someplace quiet and tucked away, with a cozy interior, and breathtaking mountain views far from highways and traffic. A benevolent ghost wouldn’t be first on my list, but it’s an interesting feature.
Greta Plusch, a cigar-smoking innkeeper from Switzerland, and one of first owners of the Snowvillage Inn in Eaton Center, N.H. (southeast of Conway), is said to be the feisty poltergeist in charge of things that suddenly fall off the walls of the intimate bar inside the inn.
After Greta passed away, her husband, Max, returned to Switzerland. In correspondence with the inn’s current co-owner, Kevin Flynn, Max “always described this place as his 30 years in heaven — you never really own it, you just take care of it.” The Snowvillage Inn has a magical life of its own, which is apparent as soon as you walk in.
A small living room with an enormous fireplace and a cozy fire is rimmed with bookshelves with games and books you want to wind down with. There are small chess and checker tables against porch windows that look out at distant blue mountains and skies that turn fluorescent at golden hour. The wooden bar with deep red walls is a stage for quiet conversation, exotic cocktails, beer, and single-malt scotch. Regulars occasionally stop in from Eaton village, and come for Saturday dinner. A recurrent favorite is crabcakes, from the inn’s original recipe handed down through chefs. The current chef has added open-fire cooked game, entrees of duck, daily fresh fish, and rack of lamb to comfort food such as New England baked haddock.
The inn’s suite of choice for lovers has king-size bed and couch facing wall-to-wall windows with mountain views that shift in color and silhouette, depending on time of day and the weather, plus sounds of songbirds, owls, or whistling wind.
“I think a romantic getaway is when you’re able to unplug and have a place that makes you feel good, and be who you really are, and turn to your partner and just enjoy where you’re at with a glass of wine,” said co-owner, Jen Kovach, a crafter. She curates local art for the inn’s walls. Guests talk, look at the mountains, read or knit by the fireplace. “We tell people to take a half-day off work on Friday, settle in here and have a late dinner, and take Saturday to unwind.”
If you call ahead, the owners will have wine or locally made truffles waiting in your room.
“A lot has to do with the atmosphere,” said co-owner Flynn. “This place is unpretentious. You don’t have to worry about your clothes, or doing the right thing.” Some guests come to breakfast in their pajamas. A defining concept Flynn recently discovered in a travel magazine is uitwaaien, a Dutch expression that means “Take a refreshing break outdoors to clear your head.”
Nearby are forest-cloistered trails that are ideal for hiking and showshoeing — including for beginners and part-time enthusiasts. Some trails start at the inn; most are less than a 5-minute drive. Around the corner is 1,600-foot Foss Mountain, which offers a 1.5-mile, 20-minute hike to 360-degree vistas of the Presidential Range, Conway Lake, and Ossipee Lake. Ten miles away, Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, a 200-seat theater in a refurbished barn, hosts folk and blues artists, a half-hour drive on back roads. The Inn and Stone Mountain offer package discounts, including romantic getaways.
If you have time (you do because it’s part of the adventure), don’t retrace your steps. Even if it’s the most direct way on the map, or GPS says is the most efficient route.
Continue north on less-crowded roads that parallel or diverge from Route 16 between North Conway and Jackson and Glen. Enjoy mind-restoring Jackson Falls, and snowshoe and hiking trails that lead from the local road beyond Black Mountain ski area.
After 3:30 p.m., you can wend your way back to I-93 by driving west across Route 302, passing through Crawford Notch and Bretton Woods, and stopping for a beverage on the back porch of the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, which has the area’s best views of Mt. Washington and skies that turn pale pink at sunset.
You may feel it’s time to wind down, but don’t let your passenger nap. The drive through Hart’s Location, Bretton Woods, and Bethlehem will furnish ideas for your next adventure.
Roberta Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.