New Hampshire was a winter-only destination for us, before our kids knew enough to state preferences. Driving through the snowy mountains, we would laugh as we imagined the dorks who’d arrive in summer to take children to the Storyland theme park, instead of bundling them into a pulk for some (nothing dorky about it) Nordic skiing. This year I learned to appreciate New Hampshire in the summer. Hiking, swimming holes, and moose-spotting: Rhode Islanders are fortunate to have this exotic, woodsy, affordable playground so close by.
Regarding Storyland: driving along Route 16 through Glen, the colorful exterior calls out to anyone between the ages of two and ten, or whatever age a child becomes too cynical to have fun with a theme. Storyland is small, but not suffocating. Wholesome, but not saccharine. It’s everything a kid wants, but not more than a parent can bear: shows, nauseating rides, clean bathrooms, affordable snacks, and live pigs. Buy a ticket (about $25 per person) after 3PM, and get a pass to be readmitted the next day–a great deal for those who can’t get enough Bamboo Chutes.
But this is New Hampshire, where everyone is outdoorsy or at least takes a stab at being so. For a backcountry experience without the weight of tent, stove, and dinner ingredients on your back, consider hiking to an Appalachian Mountain Club hut. Some of these are especially recommended for families with young children. A relatively short, easy hike to the hut won’t wear a family out too much to enjoy the woodland destination, and parents will be at ease knowing shelter and food await. We were able to reach the hut at Lonesome Lake in under ninety minutes of croc’d shuffling (hiking boots, or at the very least sneakers, are required for everyone but the very most idiotic hikers), examining crazy mushrooms and resting on perfectly-sized boulders for water breaks along the way. The chilly lake was inviting after the just-strenuous-enough hike.
Hut cuisine is wholesome and delicious, prepared by rosy-cheeked twentysomething super-beings, and served family style at long tables. With a sheet and pillowcase from home, the spartan bunks are comfy enough for tired people, and a mountaineer’s breakfast with generous doses of maple syrup sets hikers up for a new day of exploration. (About $90/adult and $50/child.)
If you prefer your rugged natural beauty with a side order of thick towels, a massage, and a staff to take your children hiking or mountain biking, head way, way up north. In Dixville Notch, a sneeze from the border with Canada, is The Balsams Grand Resort Hotel. Lodging comes with three lavish meals, boats, tennis, golf, entertainment and children’s activities. Included for families is Camp Wind Whistle: kids 5 and older can spend any hours (or all hours) between 9:00am-4:30pm, and some evening hours, with camp counselors in age-appropriate groups. Become a facebook friend of The Balsams for up-to-the-minute deals. (Barring a special, the cost is $200 and up/adult and $75 and up/child.)
For a last-minute trip and potential bargain, Nordic Village Resort in Jackson hits the spot. Condos of all sizes, many with hot tubs and gigantic plasma screen televisions, are managed by one central agency. Great deals can happen for seat-of-the-pants travelers. Thoughtful additions like communal-use rowboats, hidden swimming pools, evening magic acts and s’mores-making give what could be just a heartless condo conglomerate a vacation-y feeling. Conveniently located for hiking, swimming holes, and Storyland. (A fairly luxe condo can sometimes be found for under $150/night.)
Heading north on Route 93, the big-ish small town of Littleton makes an ideal stop. Littleton Food Coop might be the love child of Eastside Marketplace and the coop in Wakefield–a perfectly balanced grocery store for those in need of lovely prepared foods, chia seeds, local honey, and cold Diet Coke. For a slightly insane treat, visit Chutters, official Guinness World Record holder for Longest Candy Counter. Rows and rows of scoopable candies ($10/lb) compete for attention with giant samples of fudge and a Fill Your Own Pixie Stick station ($6/yard). If jaw-dropping exposure to sugar isn’t on the itinerary, the Village Bookstore has an extensive children’s section that includes stuffed animals, games, and marionettes. Next door, the Chang Thai Cafe has dreamy Massaman curry ($11).
If there’s more than one adult in a family and the children don’t like to look at sheets, Adult B might do well to take the children to any of fifty-two amazing swimming holes or to Echo Lake beach for a mellower swim. This will allow Adult A to see the Garnet Hill store in Franconia, where clothing and sheets can be found at prices 75%-90% lower than expected. This little shop is open only on weekends and Mondays, and is conveniently located next to Wendle’s Cafe (offering the perfect coffee, lunch, wifi combo.)
Just up the road from Franconia in Sugar Hill is my new favorite New Hampshire destination: Polly’s Pancake Parlor. It’s so much better than it needs to be. Open only May through October (woe to skiiers), P.P.P. showcases local ingredients (including organic grains, ground into flour on-site) prepared with such care and in such a variety of ways that we ate there five days in a row, stopping only when we ran out of vacation. The locally smoked bacon with Polly’s own maple syrup is the perfect gateway food for confused vegetarians. Other favorites: cornmeal pancakes with coconut. Artfully arranged blueberry-nectarine bowl. Habanero pepper maple sugar, sprinkled on eggs. ($4 short stack, $3 side of bacon, $2 scrambled eggs.) Any of these is perfect fuel for hiking, swimming, or sheet shopping.
What do you like best in New Hampshire? Share hits and misses with your comments.