The Historic Balsams

his charming New England destination resort sits in a Swiss setting amid hundreds of miles of grand snowmobiling
Warren Pearson has been at The Balsams for more than a quarter of a century. As General Manager he knows the northern New Hampshire resort like no guest ever could. And he knows his guests in the way that innkeepers of yore knew their clientele.

The Balsams is a treasure hidden amongst the granite peaks and narrow notches of the White Mountains. It is a refuge of traditional eastern elegance that gave us the civility of gentlemen giving up their pre-assigned seats in the Titanic's lifeboats so that women and children would have a chance for survival. It is a place where dressing for dinner still means a coat and tie and not a "Shaq Attack" T-shirt and Mighty Ducks cap. It is a place where interactive games are those played against one another and not one-on-one bouts with a Warlords of the Universe or a Super Mario incarnation. The Balsams is where people go to vacation the old fashioned way. Where families, heaven forbid, spend time with each other. Where there are no telephones with fax machine outlets nor television remote controls littering the bedstand. The Balsams is for relaxing, enjoying the scenic heights of fresh New Hampshire landscapes, and slowing your pulse rate.

You don't get to The Balsams by mistake. It is a destination resort where you go to rest, eat elegantly and enjoy sporting activities from a simple game of checkers to heading down a snowmobile trail on your way to explore the Connecticut Lakes.

Tucked away in Dixville Notch, The Balsams lies on a path between Montreal, Quebec, and Portland, Maine. This overland route fed many inns with tired and hungry travelers. The original Dix House was no exception. Originally a summer stop, rest area and hotel, this mountain stopover sat on land granted by an early governor of New York to a New Hampshire man who had served with distinction in the Revolutionary War.

Dixville Notch and the resort that was spawned from the Dix House back in 1866 still serves the country with distinction every election year. Tucked away in the multi-layered complex that is The Balsams, is the "Ballot" room where Dixville Notch residents cast their votes just after midnight on the day of presidential primaries and elections. Warren Pearson helps count the votes and make the announcement that has become a tradition of presidential elections for decades. Dixville Notch is "First in the Nation."

Like many of the traditional resorts that once dotted the mountain landscape of New Hampshire, The Balsams catered to summer business only. Then in the mid-1960s, Warren Pearson ran the ski school the first winter the resort stayed open. Wilderness Ski Area operates directly across a picturesque lake from The Balsams. The lakeside setting of the resort with its castle-like turrets give The Balsams the aura of a Swiss mountain getaway.

The Balsams, which survived a number of different owners up to the mid-1950s, now enjoys the benefits of managers and staff who live either on the resort grounds or in nearby villages.
"The Balsams has worked best when the owners were in the store," Pearson offers.

That working arrangement includes a very strong convention business that takes up the resort in May and June and again in September and October. The "social season" remains July and August. There are 232 private guest rooms, many of which can be interconnected to create private suites. The Tower Suite is available for those celebrating special occasions. With 19 meeting rooms and a dining room that can handle a banquet for 600, The Balsams requires a large and dedicated staff.

"It takes an army to run this place," the managing partner informs us. "You can't run these type of places with a spreadsheet. We're here seven days a week paying attention to the needs of our guests."

An impressive 83 percent of guests visiting The Balsams return.

Part of the reason for the loyalty is the old world service. Another is the world class restaurant.

According to Pearson, The Balsams is the only four-star, four-diamond dining room in New England. He points out, "In 1970 we had no stars, no diamonds."

It has taken Pearson and his fellow partners, president Stephen Barba, director of food service Phil Learned and maintenance supervisor Raoul Jolin, years of 25-hour days and eight-day weeks to make the resort a recognized "name" resort throughout the East. He likes to say that the real reason for their success was that "we came to work, and we stayed sober."

But those who represent The Balsams have a strong ethic that strives to make it difficult for you to not return. Service is stressed. Courtesy is stressed.

"We don't have customers here, we have guests," Pearson intones.

While The Balsams is full with 400 guests, only about one to two percent of those guests are apt to be on site for snowmobiling. Skiing is still king.

"The majority of our snowmobilers are families," he notes. He points out that The Balsams made an attempt to have snowmobiles at the facility during the first big snowmobile craze in the late 1960s. But bad experiences with the machines and drivers led to closing down the rental operation. If you want to snowmobile, but don't want to bring a sled along, inquire in advance about rentals. The staff may be able to arrange rental machines from nearby operators.

The 15,000 acres on which The Balsams sits is more wilderness and snowed- over golf courses than snowmobiling heaven. There is a groomed and marked trail that runs up to the resort, takes you around the grounds and back onto 110 miles of local club and state maintained trails. Trail maps and information are available at the front desk.

While jackets are required in the dining room, snowmobilers can enjoy a casual drink and hors d'oeuvres in one of the lower lounges.

We visited Warren Pearson and The Balsams around Christmas time last year. We enjoyed a marvelous formal dinner, casual lounge time and interesting snowmobiling in the area during our brief sojourn into the White Mountains.

We had a chance to see and sample how the "other half" lives at The Balsams. Because the resort was booked for the holidays, we stayed where most snowmobilers would stay … nearby Colebrook. Snowmobile trails are readily accessible from most of the local area motels. A combination of wooded trails winds through the area taking you in and out of the hilly landscape toward some unbelievable wilderness lakes.

We found the riding in northern New Hampshire to be a combination of many types of riding. There was the trail that brought you alongside the roadway, mindful of northwestern Minnesota riding. Some of the narrow, densely wooded areas reminded us of Wisconsin's older northwoods trails. Wide open lake riding made us think of Minnesota's 10,000 frozen lakes. And wide trails with sweeping turns had us thinking of Quebec, New Hampshire's northern neighbor.

We got in a lot of riding in not a lot of miles. Especially when we hit the R. Keith Haynes Memorial Trail. The sign on the Haynes trail marker simply stated, "North Country's First Groomed Trail." The joke of the day was "…and it hasn't been groomed since." It was a narrow trail. Ice formed from a previous rain and melt had frozen hard and bumpy in the -30 degree temperatures we faced during our travels. No amount of grooming would make a difference until much more snow would come. In the meantime, the grooming club would suffer abuse for this next to impossible to groom section of trail.

We got to sample the best of New Hampshire riding once we neared the Connecticut Lakes region. We understood right away why this area is so popular with snowmobilers from southern New England. There are miles of trails and excellent riding in the vicinity.

Along the way, we happened upon a club groomer. The job they did on their assigned trails was as good as any we've experienced anywhere. This particular trail took us to The Balsams, where we stopped for a casual cocktail and joined in conversation with local snowmobilers.

Snowmobile trails surround The Balsams, but if you are not the jacket type, staying in town would be our recommendation. We would recommend a side trip to The Balsams area. It is something to see. A little trailside warm-up might be in order, too. If you want an outstanding and unique menu, pop for a reservation. Warren Pearson tells us that Wednesdays and Saturday nights are buffet nights. It's a great place to eat. We have it on the best authority.

For more information, contact: The Balsams, Dixville Notch, NH 03576 (Telephone toll free in NH: 800-255-0800/Toll free in the continental US and Canada: 800-255-0600).
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