Hitting New Heights at The White Mountain Hotel & Resort
By Bart Beeson
Peering over the edge of White Horse Ledge in North Conway, New Hampshire, I had to fight the urge to grab on to a nearby tree. The smooth granite rocks slope away and then drop off precipitously, leaving the impression that you could just slide right off the cliff. It’s hard to believe that people actually scale this giant rock slab, but along with the neighboring peak Cathedral Ledge, it’s actually one of the more popular rock climbing spots in the northeast. For those like me who prefer to stay a little more grounded, White Horse also makes for a great loop hike, affording spectacular views of the White Mountains.
I had come to North Conway to visit the White Mountain Hotel & Resort, which is perched on a hill directly at the base of White Horse Ledge. The hotel recently completed a $3.5 million renovation, during which they redesigned all guest rooms and suites and made extensive exterior improvements. Driving up to the resort, it’s hard not to appreciate how the sheer cliffs of White Horse provide a dramatic backdrop to the hotel. And from my Mountain View room I could look out to the surrounding mountains of Cranmore and Mount Kearsarge north (not to be confused with New Hampshire’s other Mount Kearsarge in the southern lakes region).
The resort is a family-run affair, and owner Gary Sullivan related how the original plan was to increase the size of the hotel by 40 rooms, but eventually they decided on a “down-to-the-studs” renovation. Chief Architect Kim Deetjen shared how the project’s design was inspired by its natural location, and that by using materials such as white oak wood and local granite for dresser tops, the renovation was imbued with a “love of place.” That love of place can also be seen in the new artwork installed throughout the hotel – unique framed black and white nature scenes taken by local photographers. And on a more practical level, the renovation also included the addition of guest beverage pantries on every level, with coffee, tea, hot chocolate and a soda water dispenser.
On the first day of my visit I wanted to get the lay of the land, so I set out for the hike up White Horse Ledge. The trail up the cliff conveniently starts right behind the hotel, so I crossed the parking lot and made my way around the loop clockwise, leisurely stopping to pick wild blueberries along the trail. The way down was much steeper than the trip up, but also afforded some magnificent views of the surrounding mountains and Echo Lake State Park below (not to be confused with New Hampshire’s other Echo Lake in Franconia Notch). While I just chose to do the White Horse Loop, it would be easy to add on a short hike over to neighboring Cathedral Ledge.
Having worked up an appetite, I made the short drive over to ‘the strip’ in North Conway – the section of route 302 that’s packed with outlet stores, restaurants, hotels and other tourist destinations. I stopped at Barley and Salt Taphouse and Kitchen, which serves elevated pub fare and has a great tap list of craft brews, including many from local breweries. After indulging in a sizable Korean BBQ taco and a cold brew, I made my way back to the hotel, which, while only a few minutes’ drive, feels a world away from the hustle and bustle of the strip.
For the rest of my stay, I didn’t have to leave the hotel to stay busy, trying my hand at pickle ball on the hotel’s courts, making the 10-minute walk down to the Echo Lake for a quick dip and walk along the forested trail, and lounging by the hotel’s outdoor heated pool (open year-round). While I am not a golfer by any means — to call me a duffer would be a compliment — the hotel is home to an Albert Zikorus-designed championship nine-hole golf course, Hale’s Location, which, like the hotel itself, has fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. While most visitors will also want to get out and see some of the area’s many outdoor attractions (the very popular swimming spot Diana’s Baths is located nearby), between the golf and other activities, the ability to walk to the cliffs and Echo Lake, and onsite dining options, the Ledges Restaurant and Tullamore Tavern, it would be very easy to spend a weekend at the hotel without getting in your car. And while it is possible to take climbing classes on White Horse and Cathedral Ledges, after getting a taste of how it felt just peering over the edge, I think I might be better off keeping my feet on the ground.
Bart Beeson is a Plymouth, New Hampshire-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.