Note: This was written shortly after a visit in 2008. Many details, especially about the hotel, may have changed since then.
Each ski / snowboard resort has its unique history, but few can match Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, when it comes to historical significance. It’s also a decent ski area, too, with an emphasis on old-school luxury and mellow skiing.
During World War II, leaders from over 40 nations gathered at the Mt. Washington Hotel to hammer out some details that would govern international commerce. The Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference, as it was known, led to the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. At the time, the Mt. Washington Hotel was a summer, not a winter resort. (It did not open for year-round operations until 1999.) In another tie-in with high-finance, the hotel was briefly owned by the FDIC, the federal agency that insures bank deposits, in the 1990s. Today you can go to the hotel and visit some of the rooms where the big shots of the day held their meetings. But few people purposely seek out the hotel for that purpose. The rest go, at least in the winter, for skiing and snowboarding.
Downhill skiing did arrive on the scene until 1973, with some major expansions of terrain not coming until 1983. The skiing and riding, by the way, do not occur on Mount Washington. That happens on 460 acres that are across the street: Mt. Stickney (lots of glades); Mt. Rosebrook, and West Mountain. Rosebrook is for cruisers, and West is home to the double-diamonds.
The sign at the entrances proclaims it as being “the largest ski area” in New Hampshire. Perhaps. The terrain comparison page of the web site OnTheSnow.com gives that honor to Waterville Valley, with 500 acres, followed by BW (434) skiable acres, with Loon (312), Attitash (283), and Wildcat (225) closing out the top 5.
So what is Bretton Woods, the ski area like? It feels a bit like the playground of the stereotypical upper-middle class managerial boomers who inhabit skiing generally, but even more so here. There’s some music playing at the base of the mountain when I arrive, and it isn’t “Tiny Toy Guns” (whoever they are) who recently played at the U.S. Snowboarding Open. Nope, it’s a review of the 1970s: Billy Joel singing “Just the way you are” (which reminds me of either a commercial for either a Lexus, Volvo, or company selling diamonds); Elton John’s “Island Girl,” and “We are Family” by the one-hit disco wonder, Sister Sledge. Oops. I knew all of these songs. Have they nailed the the demographic?
BW has a reputation of being a family-friendly place. One feature that typifies that reputation is an innovative ticketing system. Parents can buy single transferable lift ticket, which means that parents can swap off childcare responsibilities while the other is out skiing and the other is hanging out in the room or at the base. There’s a little playground at the base, with slides, swings and other traditional playground equipment, as well as what might be described as a carousel on snow.
BW is also well-known for its grooming. I was able to see what that was like by participating in a First Tracks event starting at 8 a.m. It was quite enjoyable to glide over groomed snow that hadn’t yet been skied on. Since this is spring skiing time, grooming is more necessary to provide a reasonably pleasurable experience than an outstanding one. Groomed softer snow is fun; groomed hard snow is good mostly because of the fact that it’s not chunky ice.
We took in a representative sample of all the areas in the mountain, except for the glades (too icy!). We stopped to look at Mt. Stickney, where an expansion might take place. BW owns land on that mountain, which means that one barrier to expansion—getting approval from the U.S. Forest Service—isn’t there. If the trail map is to be believed, the expansion would clear 5 trails, all of which would empty onto Two Mile Road. That could leave some riders and even skiers wishing for more vertical at the end of the new runs. We also stopped, at the other end of the area, atop West Mountain to look on the other side into the valley. Our guide pointed out Cannon Mountain, Stowe, Jay Peak, and even Canada. BW has no plans to expand into the valley on the back side of West Mountain—it’s Forest Service land—but members of the ski patrol have been known to strike out on their own. Loon is 25 miles away, and you could ski to there.
My favorite run, though a short one, may be Deception Bowl, marked as a black diamond. It’s steepest at the top, but not terribly so. It’s a “road” trail, but it twists and turns. It also has some rollers and for a brief time goes back uphill. Watch your speed! I caught a little bit of air, and could have caught a lot more, on one of the rollers.
My lunch companions opted for other choices after lunch so I took a few runs on my own. “Two Miles Home” is the longest marked run at BW. Though it’s marked as a blue, it’s a Colorado green (a typical comparison, I think). It meanders through the eastern edge of the ski area on what might be a two-lane road with generous shoulders. It has both pine and deciduous trees, whereas (in my experience) similar roads in Colorado are lined by evergreens. So it had something of a Midwestern feel.
We had lunch at the Slopeside restaurant. The food was good. Though it was a step up from cafeteria food, it wasn’t foo-foo. One oddity is that it has restrooms on the ground floor (standard for mountain areas) but also on the second floor—but not on the main floor.
BW has two quad lifts plus some some smaller ones. But I found two problems with them. First, some of them seem to approach the exit ramp rather slowly. Several times I had to wait, after standing up, for the chair to push me down the ramp. Another problem is that the chairs load very low to the ground—lower than any I remember. Perhaps that’s to accommodate the large number of children the mountain attracts, but sitting in the quad chairs definitely leaves you with a feeling of plopping down onto a frat house couch.
The learning area has its own lift, which is good. Unfortunately it is very close to a trail. Riders who are expecting to take that trail to the B double chair or beyond that, the Bethlehem quad, will anticipate keeping up a lot of speed just as they slide past the top of the learning center quad. Unfortunately there’s no advance warning –the “Almost Home” trail goes through the woods and comes upon the top of the learning center quad at the last minute—leaving the more advanced rider or skier startled.
There’s a blue bump run, Agissez, that has an interesting sign at the top. It says “bump run, please do not groom.” I ended up riding through it when I got separated from the rest of my group.
In the days that followed I made extensive use of the woods in Bretton Woods. Most of the glades on West Mountain have been thinned a lot, especially as you move towards the base, which means that there’s plenty of room for maneuvering among the trees. Start up higher on the mountain and you may have some steeper lines that require following a path. The “Wild West” glade is thinned and not too steep. Advanced tree riders may find it tame.
West Mountain is one expansion implemented in recent years. The Rosebrook glades are another. You can drop into them from Two Miles Home. A good place to start is the Black Forest Glade, which gives you plenty of time going through widely spaced trees. In fact, the greatest problem with this blue slope is that your board may run out of speed. But keep moving and you can do laps on the Rosebrook Summit quad. By contrast, if you want to spend a lot of time in the Rosebrook Canyon Glades—genuine double diamonds—you’ll have to, once you get out, take two chair rides. (Ride down to the Bethlehem Quad, drop down to the base of the Rosebrook Quad and then start all over.)
The one double diamond that I took was Roz’s, which twists through some tighter trees on a steeper terrain, serves up rollers, takes a narrow path over a stream, and ends up in a fairly narrow bump runout to Deception Bowl.
Bretton Woods is open for nighttime skiing and riding, on a limited basis (major holidays and school break periods). As is the case with many destination resorts, there are plenty of things to do off the slopes, including dog-sled tours, sleigh rides, and Nordic skiing trails. Snowmobile trails are nearby, and if you want the children (ages 4-13) to come along, there’s a small park where they can learn how to safely operate a machine, under adult supervision.
The Mount Washington Hotel was established as an ultra-modern hotel in 1902. It was, as noted above, home to the famous conference, but even so, suffered some decay over time. When I visited, there was some extensive renovation going on. That was a good thing for this building, on the National Register of Historic Places: One night, parts of the bathroom ceiling fell down, missing me by about 1o feet.
During my stay the hotel reminded me of a place that your grandmother would find to be the height of opulence in her youth: reddish wood, dark red carpeting, wallpaper with floral prints, chandeliers all about, very tall ceilings with woodwork, tall columns, Tiffany windows throughout the main hall, Windsor chairs in the expansive lobby, and old, old wood floors. The keys at the front desk were kept in cubbyholes that appear to be of rather solid quality. There’s was a sweeping (though not terribly spectacular) staircase in the lobby that leads to the four residential stories. If walking up flights of stairs doesn’t sound all that interesting (or if you just can’t do it), there is a tiny elevator that is so old … that there’s an elevator operator.
The rooms (or at least mine) are big enough without being huge. They have some solid features without having a lot of creature comforts. They have heavy doors, with large transoms that have been painted over. There’s a desk, wardrobe/dresser/TV stand, coffee table, end table, and a bed, all made of dark wood.
The first thing you might notice coming into the room is the furnace-room-quality heat, delivered by a radiator (think: old school hot-water radiator) in both the main room and the bathroom. The king-sized bed has a white pinstripe duvet and a multitude of pillows, and the new 10-feet high windows (in two sections) have a plain white sill and frame. The window has a both pull-down roller shade and heavy drapes. The bathroom window lacks the drapes.
The room has a large walk-in closet that seems out of place for a building this age, but it works. It needs some painting. The bathroom has a shower stall, a claw-foot bathtub, and another radiator.
The age of the building does present certain challenges. Fortunately taking a bath in the tub isn’t one of them; the bathroom does have a shower. The tub had cracked paint. Polarized electrical outlets—or at outlets that have 3-prongs—are scarce. The outlet closest to the desk isn’t polarized, but there is one near the nightstand, which means that for typing I need to sit in a sidechair and type at a low table rather than the desk. Also missing: a coffee pot and a microwave—things that you might find in, say, a Hampton Inn. You’ll almost always find a working TV in any hotel room. Oddly, both the power and the coaxial cable are disconnected from the TV in this room. For a luxury hotel, there’s another curious omission: bath robes.
Here’s something else you won’t see, which at times has an appeal: a formal dining room. Jeans and shorts are prohibited during dinner, and jackets are required. The formality also extends to the staff, who are dressed in the best fashion that a black and white outfit can procure.
It’s only when I sit down to start typing that I notice the best part of the room: a great view of the mountains and the various colors they contain. There’s the white of the peaks, plus a few ribbons of snow on the lower part of the mountains. There’s also the generally nondescript dark brown or black, with a few variations of shadow from the sun visible. This must be a spectacular place in the summer, which is where the region got its fame years ago; skiing started here only in the 1970s. There is also a brochure in the room, inviting guests to consider purchasing real estate in the region. A new project is underway.
Everyone sells Starbucks and similar coffee these days—it’s to be found even in local ski areas—but expensive tea is less likely to be found far and wide. So one thing that stood out at the Mt. Washington hotel was its selection of teas from Harney & Sons (www.harney.com), which come in silk sachets, wrapped in foil bags. The English Breakfast was a good blend. Tea leaves wrapped in silk? That sounds over the top, but then again, being over the top is the point of the Mt. Washington hotel.