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Omni Mount Washington Resort: The Past—Perfect

A grand retreat with classic golf in New Hampshire’s White Mountains

By: James A. Frank

Imagine it’s the year 1900, it’s summer, and you live in one of the big eastern metropolises such as New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. You and your family need to get out of the steaming city (air conditioning has yet to be invented), away from the “common people” and common germs, from the dirt and drama of urban life. Luckily, there are places to go, notably the mountains of New Hampshire, where there’s cool, crisp air, and a choice of full-function “grand hotels” that offer hundreds of rooms, outdoor activities, good food, and other services. So you and the family, and perhaps a few live-in help, hop on the train and by the next morning are ensconced for the season in the shadow of magnificent Mount Washington.

That was how the well-to-do spent their summers as far back as before the Civil War. By the late 1800s, more than 35 trains a day were depositing passengers at the private depots of more than two dozen sprawling hotels that looked up at the Presidential Mountain Range (“Mary Ann Jones Washes Mondays”—Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Washington, Monroe—from west to east). For a few weeks or months in the North Country, guests could hike and swim, take a cog railway up the slopes, play lawn games, and dine elegantly “at the top of New England.”

Today, only one of those great old hotels remains, the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, which is still very great. It still offers a full slate of indoor and outdoor activities—and now operates year-round, first opening in winter just a few years ago—including golf on a recently restored Donald Ross course. Plus, it is a living museum of simpler times, a not-so-little (200-room) piece of history that was also site of one of the most important conferences of World War Two.

For all its restored grandeur—a recent $80 million renovation enhanced the soaring ceilings, broad hallways, fine-detailed hand craftsmanship, and charming surprises at every turn—the hotel is remarkably casual. The clientele runs to all ages, plenty of children doing jigsaw puzzles, playing outdoor chess with giant pieces, swimming, biking, ever on the move, as well as adults in hikers’ shorts and sturdy shoes heading off on the miles of trails or trying the ziplines, fishing streams, equestrian programs, and other adventures that abound. As has been the rule for nearly 200 years, whatever a guest desires is available on property or close by.

That includes more relaxing offerings as well, including an all-new, luxurious spa, shopping, daily high tea, lots of places to lounge (a covered verandah with views of the mountains is a favorite), and nearly a dozen dining options in the big hotel as well as other inns and restaurants nearby. After driving at least a couple of hours from just about anywhere, it’s a treat to be able to park the car once and not need it again until reluctantly checking out.

Between the verandah and the mountains is the Mount Washington Golf Course, originally laid out by Donald Ross in 1915 and restored about five years ago by Ross acolyte Brian Silva. This is not one of those courses that Ross mailed in: The great man actually was on site quite a bit; he laid out a number of other courses in the North Country, as well, some of which remain.

The meadowlands layout is charming, stretching to 7,000 yards but best played at around 6,400 to allow the fairway bunkers, wetlands, and other wild areas to affect play. A few of the greens are slightly raised, almost all of them deceivingly contoured. As always with Ross, a good short game is vital, as is considering one’s options off the tee because driver is often not the smart choice. There’s a bit of elevation on the back nine, almost no water other than a stream that wanders near a few holes, and the likelihood of a brisk mountain wind. In short, there’s a little bit of everything—except pretense, as this is as laid-back a golf experience as you’ll find anywhere.

Even quainter is the nine-hole Mount Pleasant course, which first opened in 1895, was redone by Silva and the late Geoffrey Cornish in 1989, and in between has challenged the likes of Harry Vardon, J.H. Taylor, Willie Anderson, and other early-game greats. Today it’s perfect for family golf or a spirited warm-up (it’s no pushover), featuring vast tracts of wildflowers and wetlands.

A wonderful combination of new and old, cavernous and cozy, the resort also has an important place in American history. It was the site of the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, when more than 700 representatives from the U.S., United Kingdom, and more than 40 Allied nations met to plan the economic order of the post-war world. With attendees including John Maynard Keynes, the conference laid the groundwork for such measures as the establishment of the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It all sounds very ponderous and dull, but take one of the daily tours of the hotel and you'll hear about some spirited behind-closed-doors carrying-on. The “dismal science,” indeed.

That's right, even economists couldn’t help but have fun at the Omni Mount Washington Resort, a place that now, as throughout its storied history, can supply whatever the clientele demands.

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