The Balsams: A New Hampshire grande dame gets a facelift

An overnight at The Balsams, one of New Hampshire’s original grand resort hotels, was too little time to absorb this sprawling, historic hotel snugged in craggy Dixville Notch, N.H. You know the name and the place: It’s the site of first-in-the-nation voting during every national election; the tiny town where everyone shows up in the Ballot Room and votes at midnight. Don’t miss a peek into the room, lined with photos of many of the candidates who show up to schmooze local residents.

About three years ago, The Balsams came under new management. I last visited shortly after the new team took over, and frankly wasn’t impressed. Well, things have changed, and the old gal is looking mighty fine indeed. Many of the improvements have been for safety issues, such as most woodburning fireplaces converted to gas, but the public rooms have been given a face lift. They’ve been lightened and brightened, without losing the weight of history, grandeur or elegance.

Rooms, too, are getting new bedding and updated bathrooms–an ongoing process, with the 1917 “New” wing next in line. Management plans to convert the former Tillotson residence, on the lakefront, to a full-service spa–but that’s perhaps a year or two down the road.

What hasn’t changed is the old fashioned family emphasis. Only a handful of rooms have TVs, and there’s only one public room with TV. Instead of being plugged in, kids play games with adults–cards or board games in the public rooms; pool, Ping-Pong and video games in the game room. There also are organized activities, movies, kids programs, and, of course, the alpine ski area, cross-country and snowshoe trails, ice skating rink and, well, truly it’s hard to get bored here. In summer, add a pool, lake, golf, hiking and more. For parents looking to reconnect with their kids, it’s a Godsend.

I wish I could report that the dining room continued the excellence established under Chef Learned, but while the service is still top notch, we found the food had slipped. Not that it’s bad, not by a long shot. It’s reliable and good, just not fabulous–some dishes were over-salted, others bland. I had the sense that the kitchen wasn’t as picky about ingredients as it previously had been. Still, if you didn’t have the fortune to experience The Balsams dining room under Chef Phil Learned, than you likely won’t be disappointed. Just don’t forget that the dining room is somewhat formal–men must wear a jacket, women tend to dress up.

If you’re fortunate enough to have Sherm as captain of your dining room team, ask him if he can give you a tour of the kitchen and public areas. His passion for the place comes through as he relates its history along with a few tales and some trivia. He’s just one of the wonderful people that make this place special.

Bottom line: Go.

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