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How an East Boston couple created a Nordic oasis in the White Mountains

Lumen Nature Retreat, an upscale campground on 20 acres, offers nature with panache

The interior of a lykke-category cabin at Lumen Nature Retreat in Woodstock, N.H.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

NORTH WOODSTOCK, N.H. — The rain stopped just in time for sunset, and what a gloriously bizarre sunset it was.

I had been listening to raindrops loudly drum at the windows of my 150-square-foot cabin at the Lumen Nature Retreat for an hour and assumed I’d be spending the remainder of the evening listening to David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” and watching cat videos because that’s pretty much my definition of a perfect rainy night.

But when the clouds broke, my definition quickly changed. The sky glowed orange, and as a result, the swiftly-moving brook that ran directly behind my minimalist, Nordic-inspired cabin also glowed orange. I had never seen anything like it. Although the skies had cleared, there were still patches of fog that stubbornly clung to a few trees, giving the impression that monumental clouds of cotton candy were randomly placed in the nearby forest.

Before you jump to conclusions, I was not under the influence of any illicit substances. The brook was orange, there were cotton candy trees, and the Nordic-style cottage in the White Mountains was real.

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The story of how the Lumen Nature Retreat, an upscale campground (I’m stubbornly not a fan of the term glampground) in North Woodstock, N.H., came to exist is almost as unlikely as the orange brook on the property. Owners Susan Zhao and Boris Mordkovich never camped until well into adulthood. Zhao, who grew up in China, said camping “wasn’t a thing” for her. Mordkovich, who grew up in Lithuania, had also never camped.

But in 2018, the couple decided to put their corporate jobs on hold, bought a 20-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser, and took an epic road trip from Boston to Argentina. It was a last hurrah before starting a family and moving into the next stage of their lives. They slept in a tent on the roof of their SUV for seven months, with occasional breaks at hotels, as they drove south through the Americas.

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“It was magical,” Mordkovich said. “I think the camping experiences were significantly more memorable and story-worthy than typical hotels. We couldn’t shake the whole camping idea when we came back. It was stuck in our minds.”

East Boston couple Boris Mordkovich and Susan Zhao were inspired to start Lumen Nature Retreat in New Hampshire after a seven-month road trip. Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Even Zhao, who seemed a tad less enthusiastic than her husband about roughing it, was enchanted by her experiences.

“The most memorable moments were the nights we actually were outdoors, sometimes just by ourselves,” she said. “We had a night when we camped out in a little national park in Peru and the entire Milky Way was just lit up in front of us. It’s just so fascinating and you just remember forever.”

But once back in the real world, immersed in their day jobs and now with a daughter, the pair still thought about camping and played with the idea of opening a campground. It was more of a loose concept than a plan, but when they spotted the former Waterest Campground for sale in 2021, they quickly reached out to the owners and purchased the 20-acre campground, plus 50 adjoining acres. The property abuts the Pemigewasset River, has the Eastman Brook running through it, and includes two ponds. For the moment, they have no plans to expand beyond the 20 acres.

One of two saunas at Lumen Nature Retreat has views of the countryside.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Their idea for the campground, which they renamed Lumen, was to create a place where people could go camping without bringing all the bric-a-brac involved with camping. Mordkovich and Zhao wanted to create a place where people could just bring their toothbrushes and start camping. Spoiler alert: You need more than a toothbrush.

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There are four categories of lodging at Lumen (beginning with least expensive to most): A-frame tents, safari tents, lykke Nordic cabins, and hygge Nordic cabins. Rates range from $100 to $400 a night depending on which type of dwelling you choose and seasonal demand. Cabins contain a kitchen with cookware, an induction cooktop, and refrigerator. They have Bluetooth speakers, leather couches, and, of course, beds, linens, and towels. All sites have Adirondack chairs, smokeless fire pits, and beds, linens, and towels. Even the tents are outfitted with electricity and some appliances. Check-in is contactless and done through your phone and email.

As an added bonus, there are two saunas. You can book a private session so you don’t find yourself with towel-wearing strangers.

A safari tent at Lumen Nature Center in the White Mountains.Handout

I’ve stayed at glampgrounds, campgrounds, Airstream hotels, and hipster tiny cabin getaways to varying degrees of success. They all have their pluses and minuses. I found the biggest plus of staying at Lumen to be the privacy and the surroundings. There are 35 tents and cabins on 20 acres. I wasn’t on top of my neighbors the way that I’ve been at other places. (I’m looking at you, AutoCamp.)

A lykke cabin at Lumen Nature Retreat in Woodstock, N.H.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

I was also impressed that most of the cabins and tents were either overlooking the brook or one of the ponds. I could see the brook from the back window of my cabin and felt like I was in nature.

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The downside is the bathhouse. Meaning there are no showers or toilets in the cabins. Instead, everyone uses a large, centrally located bathhouse. If you’ve ever gone camping, you know the kind that I mean. It’s a large building with toilets, showers, and a long counter with sinks. In the case of Lumen, Zhao and Mordkovich have tried to make the bathhouse more like the bathroom in a boutique hotel with great lighting and posh soaps. But, the bottom line is that when nature calls in the night, you need to take the rechargeable lantern in your cabin or tent and make your way down the road. It’s dark, so don’t forget that lantern. I also recommend a spritz of insect repellent.

The communal bathhouse at Lumen Nature Retreat is designed to be an upscale version of a standard campground bathhouse.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

Given that I have a childhood background in camping (and the scars to prove it), I know the routine. While no facilities in the chic, minimalist cabins means there’s more room for relaxing, it also means there’s no running water. So if you cook, you’ll need to do your dishes in a designated area outside of the bathhouse. Remember, it is camping, after all.

Speaking of roughing it, the other amenity missing at Lumen is Wi-Fi. This is by design. It gives you the option of truly escaping by turning off your laptop and instead taking in the brook or hiking in the nearby White Mountains. But don’t worry, cellphones have reception here. If you encounter a rainy night, you’ll still be able to listen to David Bowie and watch kitten videos in the comfort of your dry lodgings.

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Sunset casts an eerie orange glow on the Eastman Brook at the Lumen Nature Retreat in North Woodstock, NH.Christopher Muther/Globe Staff

11 Sugar Plum Lane, N. Woodstock, N.H., 603-764-7244. stayatlumen.com.


Christopher Muther can be reached at christopher.muther@globe.com. Follow him @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.