Final Frontiers: New Hampshire's North Country

IT’S HARD NOT TO FEEL LIKE A MODERN-DAY EXPLORER WHEN traveling to the upper reaches of New England. Make the extra effort of driving an additional hour or two, and you’ll be treated to a rugged wilderness of mountains and lakes, where the wildlife outnumbers the people and history is preserved in the 19th-century architecture and village greens. And, yes, they have plenty of amenities in this northern tier—including one of the finest hotels in the northeast—quaint restaurants, and a slew of outfitters to get you on those lakes and up the mountains. Immersing yourself in the spectacular scenery is the allure, especially for those of us in dire need of Mother Nature’s embrace.

New Hampshire’s North Country

ALL ONE HAS TO DO IS LOOK UP FROM ONE OF THOSE Adirondack chairs placed on the veranda of The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel to be rewarded with the same majestic view that has left visitors to this resort awestruck for the past 141 years. Just beyond the sloping lawns, colorful gardens, pool and pond is the twisting carved granite they call Dixville Notch. A wall of mountains hems in the tennis courts and Donald Ross-designed golf course. Add cross-country and downhill ski trails in the winter, mountain biking in summer, and a gluttonous feast at every meal, and you understand why this grand dame is still the preeminent retreat in northern New England.

North of the White Mountain National Forest, New Hampshire is really defined by the tranquil settings of its lodgings. Go upscale with The Balsams or down-home with the Philbrook Farm Inn, where owners have been dishing out dinner and a dose of repose to guests since 1861. If you tire of looking at hummingbirds in the feeder or staring at the uninterrupted views of meadows and mountains spread out before you, there are a slew of trails just behind the rambling house that lead to hidden waterfalls and mountain summits. At Paradise Point Cottages, just east of The Balsams on Route 26, owners Linda and Ricky Blais were fortunate to have their place built on the shores of Lake Umbagog before the 8.5-mile body of water became a National Wildlife Refuge in 1992.

The main hub for both The Balsams and Paradise Point is Errol. Stop at LL Cote Sports Center, “Home of the White Moose,” for fishing, canoeing and camping supplies. Grab a kayak and put in north of town on Route 16 to find out why Umbagog became a National Wildlife Refuge. A short paddle on the Androscoggin River, which originates at Lake Umbagog, brings you to a deserted island where atop one dead pine tree is a large nest. Since 1989, a family of bald eagles has called this nest home, with new additions to the clan being born there almost every year. Paddle here in summer, and you’ll no doubt see the white heads of the parents and their young children learning to fly.

Just up the road, toward the Maine border, the Bull Moose Restaurant and Lounge is known for its salad bar and juicy slab of prime rib. With its rustic decor and friendly, laidback vibe, the lounge is a perfect spot to relax, have a hearty bite and share stories of bald eagle sightings, canoe rides and walks along winding trails.

You can work off lunch on the network of trails behind the Philbrook Farm Inn. Families, like the Kanes, who I met on my visit, have been returning to this homestead each summer for more than 60 years. The warm hospitality and home cooking of the Leger family are certainly part of the allure. I grabbed the inn dog, Valkyrie, for a hike on the yellow trail to the peak of Mount Crag. We spotted one fox, but no Homo sapiens. Less than an hour later, I was sitting on the rocky summit, sharing water and rice cakes with this German shorthaired pointer, looking at the wondrous views of the White Mountain’s Presidential Range. Mighty mounts Adams, Madison and Washington, a few of the tallest of New England’s peaks, were standing shoulder to shoulder in the cloudless sky.