THERE are several good reasons why New Hampshire might appeal to Irish visitors.
It was the first state to break away from British rule in 1776 and was one of the original 13 states of the USA. The famous New Hampshire primary signals the start of the American Presidential election process and, most impressively of all, the state motto is “Live Free Or Die”. It’s difficult to figure out whether this is a declaration or a simple choice, but it looks great on license plates.
Our reason for being there was very simple — New Hampshire boasts some of the most picturesque skiing on the east coast. Getting there is as easy, or in some cases easier, than heading for the Alps. A five-hour flight to Boston followed by a two-hour road trip will see you to your destination.
Typical of the state, the ski experience also differs from Europe in that you will not be based in a large, integrated area with direct access to a variety of terrain. Instead, New Hampshire is dotted with small towns and villages, from where you can travel to the various smaller resorts contained within the White Mountain range.
To do this properly, as with most trips to America, you will need to hire a vehicle. The States simply does not do public transport outside of the cities. A four-wheel drive (6-litre petrol V8 ideally) is the weapon of choice for the locals, who believe that small cars are best suited for getting from the couch to the fridge.
We stayed in the Woodstock Inn, a lovely ‘Olde World’ building in a picture-perfect town with trademark New England architecture and atmosphere. From there, we could access three mountain resorts within 15 minutes’ drive.
Loon Mountain was the first port of call, and with 49 runs over 336 acres, it is the biggest of the resorts and often the busiest. It is also home to the Loon Mountain Club, which boasts the only doorstep skiing in the area. The snow condition and feel of the place is different from Europe and the big western resorts. They call it ‘New England powder’ and it’s quite unique.
We made our way the next day to Cannon Mountain, known as the most challenging. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and it was now windy, foggy and freezing. It was a real challenge getting down the ungroomed slopes in the conditions and you can appreciate how ski superstar Bode Miller honed his skills on this mountain, something the Cannon people are particularly proud of.
That night brought rain and the Waterville Valley area was out of action the following day. However, you’re never short of something to do in New Hampshire and we opted for ziplining. Yes, it might sound suspicious but it involves putting on a harness and zipping along on a steel cable running down the mountain — easy and great fun. They even had twin cables so that passengers could race against each other.
The whole affair was overseen expertly by a guy who introduced himself as Danger Dan. I’d come across people who claimed that ‘Danger’ was their middle name but this was the first man who had it as his first. We were suitably impressed. Danger took care of us with a mixture of expert knowledge and a worrying sense of humour (“Another day fatality-free!”)
We moved for the end of the trip to the North Conway Grand. Shoppers, please note, that it’s a short trip from there to Settlers’ Green, New England’s largest outlet centre where you can pick up brand-name items at prices well below their Irish equivalents.
Personally, I’d rather eat my own arm than spend a day shopping when there are so many more attractive alternatives, but there’s no denying the value to be had. North Conway Grand was a much larger hotel, catering more for families and specialising in school trips. More and more Irish schools are opting for the New Hampshire experience ahead of Europe due to the friendly and efficient service and the strict licensing laws, which ensure that underage drinking is never an issue.
Despite that lingering Pilgrim conservatism, there is no shortage of premises where a beer or two can be enjoyed. One of the pleasures of the area is that it is littered with micro breweries, which provide a much more satisfying experience than the tasteless mass-produced brands. A favourite of our group was a local brew called White Mountain Weasel Ale (as in “Weasel me up again, barkeep”), and there were some really good, if very potent stouts widely available.
Inevitably, given our location, we ate throughout the trip like bears recently emerged from hibernation and determined to make up for lost time. Portions are enormous and, as a guide, one starter will do for two to four people. Chowder is, of course, a New England speciality and you really have to try it at least several times. (Note: At the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, if chowder is served in a large, hollowed out roll, do not under any circumstances eat through the roll before consuming the contents. I mention this merely in passing.)
As for the main courses, if you order a rack of ribs prepare to have half a cow placed in front of you. A very well cooked and succulent half a cow, dripping in barbecue sauce and begging to be torn apart and eaten with your bare hands. America tends to have that effect on people, but the bottom line is that you can eat a lot more than you need for a lot less than you’ll pay in Ireland.
The remaining two mountains on the New Hampshire trail are Cranmore and Wildcat. We were lucky enough to get a bright sunny day for our final skiing of the trip at Wildcat. This was when we realised exactly why people make this trip to New England — superb views, perfect snow and long, winding runs down through the trees. It was the ideal way to finish and we all left on a high.
So why do it? Yes, it costs a bit more than a ski trip to an EU country but around the same as one to Norway. And for that, you get the ‘Big American Experience’ thrown in, along with some of the best skiing you’ll ever find. Add a night in Boston on the way home and you couldn’t beat it with a shillelagh.