Nothing says “slow down and smell the lilacs” like a $100 speeding ticket. Of course, New Hampshire’s winding State Route 16 has more than enough visual distractions to sidetrack even the most hurried schedule-keeper among us, but a reminder from State Trooper Nathan Zipf was a weighted tonic few could have dismissed as anything less than an omen.
The journey still was in its infancy, fresh off a stay at the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel & Spa and the fog shrouded New Hampshire coast and bound for Mount Washington Resort, when Trooper Zipf clocked our rental zipping along at 75 mph in a 55-mph zone.
It was, whether the square-jawed state patrolman realized it or not, a not-so-gentle reminder that the ‘Live Free or Die’ State is to be savored at a supine pace.
From Portsmouth on the coast to Dixville Notch high in the White Mountains is roughly 160 miles, all of it along Route 16. It’s a byway that connects three of the state’s grandest hotels along with a trio of renowned architect Donald Ross’ most varied courses.
Day 1, Portsmouth
“The Golden Egg” is a simple, no-nonsense type of place a couple of doglegs down the road from the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. It’s the type of place a smiling politician will invade in an election year with an army of paparazzi in tow. He’ll press the flesh, kiss a baby and rush right past a mountain of pancakes or plate of eggs Benedict. His loss.
Route 16 is dotted with these type of homey eateries. And while each of the grand hotels on our itinerary offers unparalleled fare, the best place to fuel for a full day and discover the true flavor of New Hampshire is from a corner table at “The Golden Egg” or the like.
The second stop on our trek was Wentworth by the Sea Country Club – a private course that offers resort guests playing privileges. Wentworth is a small, quirky layout with a haphazard routing that requires an OnStar system to navigate, and there’s not a flat lie to be found.
The crisscross routing is the byproduct of the layout’s redesign in 1964. Of the nine original Ross holes, only seven still are played as they were originally designed. But what a stretch of holes it is. Hard on the shores of an estuary with the resort towering in the distance, Nos. 11-17 offer goose-bump views of the Atlantic Ocean.
The course is comfortable, if not curious, and the relaxed private club vibe keeps the occasional, “Nice shot, sir,” from a member of the maintenance staff from seeming gratuitous.
After 18 holes with a carry bag in tow – there are no caddies at Wentworth, but the course is best enjoyed on foot – the resort’s main dining room seems a tad stuffy. But after sampling the rich clam chowder and a lobster roll, the feeling fades.
Wentworth is the most modern of the three grand hotels – rooms come complete with wireless Internet and heated bathroom floors – but don’t let the comforts lull you into lethargy.
Portsmouth is a vibrant and eclectic coastal town that, happily enough, corporate America seems to have bypassed. Nowhere among the labyrinth of streets will you find a Starbucks or an Outback Steakhouse.
Instead, the town is crowded with rows of brightly colored establishments such as Moe’s, an Italian sandwich shop that’s been doling out meatball subs since 1959.
For dinner, the waterfront affords endless offerings, but for the perfect combination of ambience and culinary curiosity the Old Ferry Landing is exceptional. The Lobster Feast – served “In the rough,” a New England tradition prepared boiled with mussels and corn on the cob – with a Smuttynose Portsmouth Lager seemed apropos.
Day 2, Bretton Woods
While Route 16 connects our three grand hotels – none of the trio is more than 20 minutes removedfrom the highway – there are plenty of off-route diversions to be had.
For example, breakfast at the Ding-a-Ling, a smoky cafe located in a scruffy yellow building in Milton, proved to be a worthy aside. Finding the highway after our meal, however, was a test. As if we expected anything else, the directions back to Route 16 were quintessential New Hampshire.
“It’s a hop and a skip past the next exit,” said the aging toll booth attendant.
Seven hops and four skips later, we pulled into The Mount Washington Resort – three hours late, but ready to sample an utterly untouched Ross masterpiece.
The Mount Washington Course is almost as the Scot left it in 1915 – peculiar yet infinitely enjoyable. The layout’s curious nature begins at the first tee, a downhill par 3 to a relatively nondescript green.
“It’s a tough hole,” head professional Andrew Craig explains. “The owners wanted the first tee near the south veranda of the hotel so people could watch.”
Things become more traditional after that, with winding fairways meandering through
thick woods to diabolically small greens. It is all Ross and all under the gaze of nearby Mount Washington.
Tradition also rules within the confines of the resort, where four-course meals are the staple and gentlemen must wear jackets.
Day 3, Dixville Notch
It’s easy enough to find the Balsams Grand Resort: Just go to 1940 and take a right.
Rooms are comfortable and entirely without frills. There are no TVs in guests’ rooms and for warm summer nights, guests are provided an open window and fan.
But visitors haven’t been coming to the Balsams since before the turn of the 20th century for the rooms. Meals in the resort’s cavernous dining area are opulent and interrupted only temporarily by the occasional outside diversion – fly fishing, boating, hiking and stunningly scenic golf.
Ross’ Panorama Golf Course is a visual Van Gogh. Nearly every hole features a dramatic elevation change that requires a strategic adjustment
of some sort. The towering 18th hole climbs 145 feet to the stone clubhouse, while on a clear day players can see two states and Canada from the ninth green.
Like much of what we found along Route 16, Panorama’s vistas can lure the unsuspecting into a state of sluggish bliss. And in case the views don’t lead you astray, Trooper Zipf will be there to remind you: The best way to enjoy New Hampshire is from the slow lane.