If you’ve been to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, you probably remember the Omni Mount Washington. This sprawling hotel, with its distinctive red roof, is a local landmark that can be spotted from miles above on one of the many hiking trails in the area. The Omni Mount Washington was built in 1902, at the end of the grand hotel era in New Hampshire. During those summers, up to 50 trains a day shuttled wealthy passengers seeking relief from the stifling heat in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston to the White Mountains. Most of those behemoth hotels have since gone out of business, but the Omni Mount Washington remains, and is thriving. Ironically, Joseph Stickney, the owner, had famously told the press on the opening day: “Look at me, for I am the poor fool who built all this,” as the economy was starting to turn right as the hotel opened.
Visiting in the winter, as I did, was something that wouldn’t have been possible until 1999, as the Omni Mount Washington wasn’t winterized and there weren’t crowds clamoring to come up in the cold weather. Now, the hotel is fully booked most weekends, full of eager skiers and snowboarders coming to hit the slopes of Bretton Woods, a 460-acre ski area purchased by the hotel in 1997.
Snow began falling the night I arrived, and kept coming all weekend, which made for some amazing conditions to explore the mountain—and some picture-perfect views of the snowcapped mountains from the Omni Mount Washington.
There’s nothing worse than that “last chair” sign appearing when the powder is fresh, which is why I loved that Bretton Woods offers night skiing, keeping a few trails open until 8:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The lift lines were non-existent and the slopes were empty at this time, so I was happy to bang out runs for as long as my legs could keep going. Bretton Woods offered a fun first for me, as it’s the first ski resort where I experienced a T-bar. Sure, the mountain has the standard high-speed quads, but it also has a neat T-bar—you hold on to the bar and are pulled gently up the mountain on your skis while standing up. Before hopping on the T-bar, make sure you stop in to the log cabin, where you can warm up with a hot cider, coffee, or beer and wine. Rather get your energy from something a little sweeter? At the top of the mountain is another feature unique to Bretton Woods: a candy shop!
When you’re finally done skiing for the day, the Omni Mount Washington is a cozy spot to return to, and don’t worry, it’s been fully modernized for the winter. You’ll find the outdoor pool steaming away, waiting for frozen skiers to submerge themselves in for a good thaw. Or warm up in front of one of the giant fireplaces found in the grand lobby, which is a gathering place for hotel guests who can order food and drink. If you’re looking for some solid people-watching, this is the place.
It’s impossible to miss the feeling of history that imbues the Omni Mount Washington. It’s literally everywhere from underneath your feet (the carpet throughout the hotel was handmade and features embroidered paw prints from animals that are local to the area, as well as native plants) to the ceiling, where you’ll spot intricate plasterwork handmade by Italian craftsman.
Even the lighting isn’t to be overlooked—the resort’s electrical wiring was installed by Thomas Edison himself. Keep looking up and you’ll uncover whimsical touches, like a painting of Carolyn Stickney. Carolyn was the wife of the hotel’s first owner, and the story goes that she used to throw elegant parties at the hotel, but that she would spy on the guests from her private balcony to ensure she was the best-dressed. A painting of Carolyn looking down from above is easy to miss if you’re not looking up, so keep your eyes open. Legend has it that the spirit of Carolyn still hangs around the hotel, although I didn’t see her on my visit (maybe she didn’t approve of my outfit?).
More tangible history can be seen in a small room off of the lobby, which marks the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference that was held here in 1944 and established the gold standard, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank.
Downstairs in the Cave, late-night revelers sip whiskey (the Omni Mount Washington has its own barrels made special by Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve) in defiance in front of materials from the Prohibition area—the hotels’ close proximity to Canada made it a prime spot for alcohol smugglers.
The hotel offers free tours twice a day, so you can learn all of the fun historical details you might otherwise miss (like the fact that there are a different number of stairs on each staircase to the second floor, because the Italian laborers who built them believed that it would confuse any ghosts lingering in the hotel).
The Omni Mount Washington is deeply steeped in a sense of place. The spa has its own in-house line of toiletries made using plants from the White Mountain areas, as is the hotel’s own brand of tea. In the rooms, the photos of plants and flowers that hang above the bed aren’t just decorations—each one has a marker on it to indicate exactly where and when you can find those plants if you’re hiking nearby.
Many times I’ve spotted the Omni Mount Washington from afar, whether from the top of its namesake mountain or from a chairlift, but getting to explore this iconic hotel up close and personal made me appreciate its well-preserved history so much more.
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