Thanks to spas, you don't need snow to glow in N.H.

No snow? Go into spa mode

Email|Print| Text size + By Christina Tree
Globe correspondent / December 26, 2004


known for its reliable snow cover and cross-county skiing, Jackson is now a spa center, too. Romantic weekends are the newest specialty of this village studded with inns, circled by mountains, and reached through a red covered bridge.

Boston's first snow had come and gone and even the streets in nearby North Conway were bare on the early December day when we drove through the bridge into a snow-whitened village. The sense of unreality was heightened as The Inn at Thorn Hill came into view, a far more expansive version of what we remembered.

Two years ago, this historic inn burned to the ground in the middle of the night on Columbus Day weekend (there were 40 guests, but no one was hurt). Starting again from scratch, innkeepers Jim and Ibby Cooper rebuilt, and then some.

Stanford White's Colonial Revival design survives in the new Inn at Thorn Hill & Spa, which isn't substantially larger, just 16 rooms instead of 10 (now all with gas fireplaces and two-person spa tubs), but with a new turret, gables, and wraparound porch. The effect is more imposing, especially as it crowns the first rise of Thorn Hill. The decor is still 1890s and a spacious living room-lounge, the dining room, and a number of guest rooms now share long views of Mount Washington, across the valley.

Dusk comes quickly in December, not a bad thing if you consider the after-dark possibilities Jackson offers. To maximize our evening, my husband and I had booked spa treatments. Bill was scheduled for a facial at the new spa at the Christmas Farm Inn & Spa, less than a mile down the road. My ''expanded facial" was in Thorn Hill's spa, two floors below our room. (For what happened next, read our accompanying ''his" and ''hers" accounts.)

Needless to say, we both emerged glowing and relaxed, ready for a glass of wine (the inn's cellar holds 4,500 bottles) by the wood fire in the lounge, followed by a memorable dinner of Peking duck at Thorn Hill. Executive chef Richard Schmitt's menu is accented with Pacific Rim ingredients and flavors. (Kajiki and other Hawaiian fish are fresh from the islands.)

''It's not enough anymore to get away and just go out for dinner and read a book," Leslie Fletcher of Jackson's Thompson House Eatery observed the next day. ''Now, a romantic weekend has to include a seaweed wrap and massage."

Romantic getaways have become so popular in Jackson, Fletcher said, that her restaurant now caters to couples rather than families, no longer offering booster seats and high chairs. Thompson House Eatery, however, is one of the most popular dining spots in the Mount Washington Valley, and well-behaved children are still welcome.

Jackson is up the road from Story Land amusement park and not far from Santa's Village (both now closed for the season) and there are still some great places here for families to eat and stay. The Red Fox Bar & Grille, a moderately priced restaurant formerly in the village, moved recently to Route 16 just south of the covered bridge (the site formerly occupied by Iron Mountain House) and now offers six themed dining rooms, more than half geared to families. Eagle Mountain House, the last of the town's big 19th-century hotels that retains its full size (though now that baths are all private, it has just 93 rooms), is family-friendly.

Undeniably, times are changing, and Jackson, despite its conservative Yankee looks, has a history of pioneering travel trends. As a fashionable White Mountains summer haven in the 19th century, its half dozen large hotels and many smaller inns could accommodate at least double the number of guests who can bed down there today. In the 1930s, it became one of the first places in the United States to offer lift-assisted downhill skiing and ski lessons, and in 1972, with establishment of the nonprofit Jackson Ski Touring Foundation, it became the country's first ski touring village.

With 155 miles of trails maintained by an impressive array of equipment and a staff of 33, Jackson remains the largest cross-country operation in the East, drawing as many as 2,000 skiers on a good weekend. A significant number of alpine skiers at nearby Wildcat, Attitash, and Black Mountain also stay here.

Spas, however, are a more reliable draw than snow and they appeal to yet another segment of the winter-escape market. This is the thinking at Christmas Farm Inn, which has catered to families for decades. Last year, the inn added a ''carriage house" featuring what it calls ''romantic suites" with gas fireplaces, double Jacuzzi tubs, balconies with mountain views, and, at ground level, the town's most extensive spa facilities. An indoor swimming pool is in a neighboring building.

''We're not just a pretty place," advertises the Snowflake Inn, opened little more than a year ago in the middle of the village. ''Jackson has it all: fun, romance, and adventure." The yellow clapboard inn has a small, indoor, jet-fed pool heated to 90 degrees and 20 ''suites for two" with gas fireplaces and two-person Jacuzzis. Packages include ''Candles and Petals" (call for details) and in-room massage.

Finding a local massage therapist is not a problem. According to Shana Myers, there are 35 in the Mount Washington Valley. Myers was the first about a dozen years ago. Her Balance Works Wellness Center on Route 16, across from Jackson's covered bridge, also includes a yoga studio with a view of the Wildcat River. I joined a Saturday morning class and it's a great way to begin a day in Jackson.

Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge.

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