New Hampshire mountain town below Mount Washington is much more than a lunch stop en route to Maine

Anyone who has driven to the southern Maine coast knows the half-day drive there is no hardship, as it traverses the scenic White Mountains of New Hampshire. A highlight of this trip is North Conway, the funky mountain town at the south end of Crawford Notch, and the Mount Washington Valley.

Cranmore Inn, North Conway

Cranmore Inn is a cozy, bed-and-breakfast inn in a quiet location just off North Conway’s main street

Known for its tax-free outlet shopping and its iconic 19th-century railway station, Montreal vacationers tend to grab lunch and shop a bit before carrying on to the beaches of Kennebunkport, Wells, York and Old Orchard.

But North Conway and area is worthy of much more time. There’s a lot to do in town and in the spectacular mountains to the north and west. The highlights are a ride on the Conway Scenic Railroad and a drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road, but there are a number of hidden gems worth checking out.

Where to stay

There is a wealth of accommodation, including large properties ranging from resorts to smaller chain hotels. Two properties that stand out at opposite ends of the size spectrum are White Mountain Hotel & Resort and Cranmore Inn & Suites.

Cranmore Inn is a cozy, bed-and-breakfast inn in a quiet location just off North Conway’s main street. The 160-year-old inn has 20 rooms (including two apartments and three suites), two cozy living rooms and a large dining room where breakfast is served cooked to order (included in room rates). Innkeepers Christopher Bellis and Eddie Bennett go out of their way to ensure guests enjoy a comfortable stay. Rooms are furnished in antiques, some with four-post beds. Complementing the old-word charm are state-of-the-art tiled bathrooms, flat-screen televisions and free fast internet. Breakfast is a highlight of a stay here, a three-course affair cooked to your requests including a generous choice of eggs any style, pancakes, waffles or French toast, with gluten-free and vegetarian options.

Cranmore Inn, North Conway

Cranmore Inn living room

The inn was opened in 1863 as the Echo Inn by J. A. Whitaker when the railroad brought early visitors to the area, welcoming city dwellers from Boston and elsewhere seeking clear mountain air, spectacular scenery and a rejuvenating retreat. Renamed Robertson Inn by new owners in the late 1800s, it took its present name in the late 1930s when Mount Cranmore ski area opened. Bellis and Bennett became proprietors in 2012 and have emphasized the inn’s tradition of quiet comfort. “We pride ourselves on helping people to feel comfortable, like they’re visiting family in an environment where they can say this is their home away from home,” says Bennett.

Ten minutes from town is White Mountain Hotel, a modern 80-room resort with a nine-hole golf course, swimming pool, hot tub and gym, nestled at the foot of Whitehorse Ledge, one line of mountain precipices forming the western edge of the Conway Valley. Its beautifully renovated rooms are comfortable retreats after a day of hiking, shopping or touring around.

North Conway’s dining gem

White Mountain Hotel’s pièce de résistance, however, is to be found in its Ledges Restaurant. Executive Chef Ali Gonzalez arrived from California several years ago and has elevated the resort’s already renowned cuisine to a world-class level, offering creative and meticulously prepared dishes that take full advantage of the proximity to the seacoast as well as area farms.

Ledges dining room and tavern in the White Mountain Hotel

Ledges dining room and tavern in the White Mountain Hotel

On a recent dinner visit, this writer enjoyed Ledges Signature Crab Cake Dinner, consisting of two baked jumbo lump crab cakes, Dijon aioli, frisée vegetables and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Other menu highlights that evening included Asian barbecue braised pork belly with mango ginger compote; toasted coconut, jumbo deep-sea scallops with a creole mustard cream and a parmesan crisp; and baked cod verde with creamy pesto risotto, sautéed spinach, tomatillo sauce and crispy leaks. These mains can be preceded by a generous choice of soups and appetizers.

Ledges’ dining area was undergoing renovation at the time of the visit but was seamlessly relocated temporarily in the hotel’s Echo Ballroom. The restaurant and the adjoining Tullamore Tavern will reopen in mid-May, with additional tables positioned to enjoy its spectacular south-facing view.

Ride a historic train

The Conway Scenic Railroad operates tourist trains out of its 1874 railway station located on the town green, running several daily excursions during the summer and fall months. Most popular is the Conway Valley train that operates 1920s-era coaches south to Conway, a one-hour return trip. The Bartlett Train is a one hour, 40-minute run northwest to Attitash. There is also a slightly longer trip past Bartlett along the Sawyer River.

Conway Scenic Railroad

The Conway Scenic Railroad operates tourist trains out of its 1874 railway station located on the town green

The most spectacular journey if you have the time is the Mountaineer train, a 4- to-5-hour round trip up Crawford Notch to Fabyan’s Station and back. This train uses 1950- area stainless steel cars, including scenic domes, and recreates the journey through the mountains to the Mount Washington Hotel at Bretton Woods when the Boston & Maine Railroad was the only practical route there.

Conway Scenic Railroad owns or leases all of its tracks and maintains the rails as well as all of its locomotives and rolling stock. As such it is a true railway, with a large maintenance shop in a partial roundhouse. Most trains are pulled by vintage diesel locomotives, but sometimes steam engines are used on the Conway route, one of which was built in 1921 at Canadian National Railways’ Point-St-Charles Shops in Montreal.

Scenic drives

A drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road, open from late May to mid-autumn, is one of the area’s most popular activities. Open since 1861 as a carriage road, it begins at the top of Pinkham Notch, a 20-minute drive north of North Conway, and winds its way nearly eight miles to the 6,288-foot summit, New England’s highest peak. (Please see the accompanying article, ‘Drive to the top of New England’.)

Cranmore Inn

Cranmore Inn Deluxe King room

South of town is another scenic drive, the Kancamagus Highway. As Route 112, it provides a pleasant wilderness connection to Lincoln and Interstate 93, at the southern end of Franconia Notch. The 35-mile highway was built in sections, the first completed in 1837 and the final link opening in 1959. It traverses the White Mountain National Forest, with access to many hiking trails. The Kancamagus/I-93 combination offers an interesting alternate route to or from Montreal.

Tax-free shopping

There are no sales taxes in New Hampshire, which makes North Conway an particularly attractive shopping destination for Montreal vacationers. The prime retail attraction is Settler’s Green, a sprawling outdoor mall that includes such popular outlets as designer labels Ann Taylor, Coach, Kate Spade, Michael Kors and Ralph Lauren, Carter’s (children’s clothing); footwear outlets Clark’s and Merrell; and casual wear outlets Columbia and Eddie Bauer. A number of restaurants are scattered about the complex, the most interesting of which is Barley & Salt Taphouse, which, in addition to a tempting menu of soups, salads, wings and specialties crab BLT and truffle mac & cheese, has 30 craft beers on tap.

White Mountain Hotel

The full service White Mountain Hotel and Resort is especially lovely in the fall

Just down the road is the LL Bean Factory Outlet, offering a sampling of what you can find at the renowned outdoor-wear retailer’s main store in Freeport, Maine. Nearby you’ll find a number of big-box chain stores.

In town, be sure to check out some North Conway classics, notably Zebb’s General Store, a food and souvenir emporium that is guaranteed to have you purchase unique foodstuffs from bottles of exotic hearty sauces to stupendously good chocolates. A popular purchase there is Zebb’s range of bottled sodas, including vintage lime rickey, cream soda and birch beer. Other classic retailers in the area are marketed through the White Mountain Independents group, including The Christmas Loft, The Penguin Gallery, several clothing shops, and, of course, For Your Dogs Only.

How to Get There

Eastern Townships Autoroute (A-10) east to Magog, exit 121 to A-55 south toward Stanstead, Enter USA at Derby Line VT, then Interstate 91 south past St. Johnsbury to exit 19, then I-93 south past Littleton, NH to exit 40, then follow US-302 east past Bretton Woods and through Crawford Notch to North Conway. (Total driving time: 3 hours, 40 minutes, excluding border wait; distance 345 km.)

Cathedral Ledge Distillery

Cathedral Ledge Distillery, a maker of craft spirits is a new business in North Conway

A distillery with a difference

A newcomer to North Conway’s retail and manufacturing scene is Cathedral Ledge Distillery, a maker of craft spirits. Launched in 2020, proprietor Christopher Burk had sought a large barn in the area to set up shop, before opting to build a new post-and-beam structure on the White Mountain Highway a mile north of town.

The site wasn’t necessarily chosen for its visible location, rather because it was close to a source of pristine Mount Washington water, pure top-quality water being essential to the making of fine spirits. “We do not need to filter our water, which most distilleries have to do, allowing us to leave the local minerals in,” Burk says.

Cathedral Ledge, named for the mountain ridge west of town, produces only organic, gluten-free products, including two gins, seven vodkas (one pure and six infused – not flavored – varieties), three bourbons, and several other whiskeys and a maple liqueur. Since production only began a few years ago, none of the whiskeys are long-aged – but sampling of several bourbons revealed a smooth beverage that belied their youth.

Cathedral Ledge products are sold in many New Hampshire state liquor stores, and at the distillery itself, which operates a tasting room serving one-ounce tastes or five-shot flights, as well as classic and signature cocktails.

Burk works directly with area farmers to acquire grains and botanicals. The distillery’s grain-handling system eliminates the vast majority of supply single-use packaging, and production waste is recycled.

The distilling operation, in full view from the retail shop and tasting room, uses only the highest  quality organic ingredients for its traditional craft-distilling techniques. “Our whiskeys are twice distilled in a pot still – no columns, thumpers, or cold-filtering – and aged in 53-gallon White American Oak barrels in our barn,” Burke says. “Our vodka (which also serves as the base of our gins and liqueur) is finished on New Hampshire’s tallest vodka column. We never add artificial flavours, colors, preservatives or sweeteners to our products.”

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