Take Off Cross-Country : SKIING: New Hampshire's Cross-Country Hub

Drake is a free-lance writer living in Trevett, Me

Cross-country skiing on the East's most spectacularly scenic trails, then relaxing in a Jackson bed-and-breakfast inn. How can you beat that?

Nestled in the White Mountains, Jackson has 12 inns, each of which specializes in its own style of comfort--from casual homey to luxurious.

My husband and I had planned to take advantage of Jackson's inn-sampler program and stay at a different inn on each of our four vacation nights, shuttling our car and luggage ahead of us (which innkeepers will do on weekdays with advance notice).

Once we settled in at Nestlenook Inn, met our fellow guests and enjoyed Tom and Patti Burns' hearty breakfast of eggs and homemade breads, we opted to stay there the whole time.

Superb Trails

Each morning we stepped out the front door, clipped on our skis and headed out, first along Nestlenook's own groomed trails, then, after paying a modest fee, onto the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation's superb network of 142 kilometers (88 miles) of groomed trails.

A cross-country skier's Mecca for 50 years, Jackson is now the hub of the largest cross-country complex in the East.

Fifty-seven trails lace the village inns together and loop out across rolling meadows, through cathedral-quiet balsam forests, along winding ice-covered streams and up into the surrounding mountains.

There is terrain suitable for skiers of all abilities. Some trails are gentle grades and easy slopes. Others, like the 18-kilometer Wildcat Valley Trail, which swoops down 3,400 feet from the summit of Wildcat Mountain, can be a day-long adventure. Courtesy ski patrols tour continually to answer questions and assist skiers.

Challenges for Experts

Seventy-five kilometers are groomed and double-tracked daily, providing excellent conditions. The balance, ungroomed but marked and mapped, are a backcountry challenge for the hardy. The network connects with 12 Appalachian Mountain Club trails (61 kilometers) threading up Mt. Washington Valley and on Mt. Washington itself.

On our first day we skied up the Ellis River Trail (and it is up all the way) 7.7 kilometers to Dana Place Inn, where we planned to treat ourselves to a hot lunch. Just our luck--after four hours of skiing we found the kitchen closed. We settled reluctantly for a tasty but expensive box lunch. Our reward: skiing down all the way back.

After that we planned to end our mornings in Jackson, where we luxuriated over hearty soups at Yesterdays, our skis propped up in the snow bank outside the door.

Though novice skiers, we were always lured onward--striding to the top of the ridge overlooking Eagle Mountain for a spectacular vista, gliding down through evergreens dusted with new-fallen snow, of careening down a winding trail riding our edges, working to keep both balance and composure.

Others were more disciplined, tempering their skiing with ice skating (on Jackson's central rink), sledding, shopping, sleigh riding, snowshoeing or even spending a day at one of the nearby downhill ski areas (Attitash, Black Mountain, Mt. Cranmore or Wildcat Mountain).

Shuttle to the Rescue

For those who overestimate their limits, a shuttle bus (Saturday and Sunday all season, daily Christmas vacation and February) will return you to town for a modest charge.

Cross-country skiers are becoming as conscious of fashion and the latest techniques as downhill skiers.

Some skiers, wearing skin-tight, aerodynamic suits, pass you going uphill in the new "skating" style.

But most of them, especially in mid-week, are in jeans and parkas or knickers and heavy sweaters.

Whenever you meet another skier, except on rapid downhill runs, you can expect a cheery greeting and a word about trail conditions. And mid-trail conversations about which inn is best can get intense, for skiers develop strong loyalties to their lodgings.

Varied Ambiance

Each inn has its own ambiance, a reflection of its owners' personality. We were delighted by Nestlenook's calico homeyness, but others might prefer the charming Christmas Farm Inn, the elegant turn-of-the-century Wentworth Resort Hotel, the centrally located Wildcat Inn and Tavern or other equally appealing inns.

Midweek packages may include welcoming parties, cross-country ski passes, meals other than breakfast and lift tickets for alpine areas.

On weekends, the village vibrates with visiting skiers (2,000 may pass through the Jackson Ski Touring Center on a good Saturday), but on weekdays the pace is slower. You have the trails almost to yourself and your companions--a boon to novices who don't want an audience or to experts who want a clear run.

Midweek or weekend, social life in Jackson is subdued, revolving around the dining rooms, game rooms or pubs of the inns.

Evening sleigh rides are popular, but board games, videocassette movies and conversations around the fireplace occupy most guests.

Meal Plans Differ

Not all inns serve dinner, but those that do open their dining rooms to the public. In nearby Bartlett, Glen, Intervale or North Conway, you can find meals from elegant French cuisine to takeout pizza.

For those who crave after-ski action, North Conway, nine miles south, is the place to go. The dozens of factory outlets, boutiques, antique stores, art galleries and trendy snack shops are closed evenings, but the restaurants and lounges are in full swing by dark.

Music (country and Western at Upcountry Saloon, jazz and golden oldies at Bogie's Place, disco at Barnaby's, among others) begins later and continues into the wee hours.

Jackson is located on Route 16A, just off Route 16 in the center of Mt. Washington Valley. It is about 2 1/2 hours from Boston via I-95 and Route 16. Fly-drive vacationers can rent cars at Boston's Logan Airport.

Lodgings range from simple inns and motels to elegant resorts. Most include breakfast, some also lunch and/or dinner. Most offer midweek packages at considerable savings. Midweek walk-ins are possible, but advance reservations are essential for weekends, vacation weeks and packages. Single-night rates per room in season range from $42 (with breakfast) to $120 (with breakfast and dinner).

Inn-Sampler Programs

Twelve--the Bernerhof, Blake House, Christmas Farm Inn, Covered Bridge Motel, Dana Place Inn, Nestlenook Inn, Storybook Motor Inn, Village House, Wentworth Resort Hotel, Whitney's Village Inn, Wildcat Inn and Tavern, and Wildcat Townhouse Resort--participate in the inn-sampler program. Inn-sampler shuttle service is only available weekdays (excluding holiday weeks). A few have limited shuttle service, so check when making reservations. If your sampler includes a weekend, plan to stay two nights at the same place.

Jackson restaurants include those at Christmas Farm Inn, Dana Place Inn, Eagle Mountain House, Inn at Thorn Hill, Nestlenook Inn (lunches on weekends only), Wentworth Resort Hotel, Whitney's Village Inn, and Wildcat Inn and Tavern. Yesterdays serves breakfast and lunch only.

Trail fees can be paid at the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation Center or can be included in your lodging bill ($6 adult, $2 per child; multi-day tickets and season passes available). Trails will be open through March, weather permitting.

Group cross-country ski lessons are offered daily by PSIA-certified instructors at Jackson's Jack Frost Shop ($10 per person) and at Nestlenook Inn by appointment (group lessons are $8 per person, private lessons $15 per person).

The shuttle bus, which carries 14 passengers with skis, operates weekends Dec. 19-March 20, daily during Christmas vacation and all of February. It loops between the AMC's Pinkham Notch Camp at the base of Mt. Washington, several inns and Jackson village from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tickets up to $3 one-way. Schedules are available at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation and local inns.

Sleigh Rides Available

Sleigh rides begin at Wentworth Resort Ski Area daily except Tuesday, evenings by appointment, and at Nestlenook Inn by appointment (both $6 per person).

For information on lodgings and package plans in Jackson, contact the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, Jackson, N.H. 03846, phone (603) 383-9355.

For information on alpine skiing, shopping, restaurants, entertainment, attractions and lodgings in the area, contact the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, Box 385, North Conway, N.H. 03860, phone (603) 356-3171.

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