American Shangri-La

Resort: In Dixville Notch, where the first presidential votes are cast, the Balsams keeps up a grand tradition.

Destination: New Hampshire

March 11, 2001|By William A. Davis | William A. Davis,Boston Globe

Climbing into the circling hills, the narrow access road rounds a curve, and, like a mirage, the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel suddenly appears: a rambling, red-roofed complex silhouetted against a granite ridge in Dixville Notch, N.H.

The impression is of a Yankee version of Shangri-La -- which is not all that far-fetched.

The original Shangri-La in James Hilton's classic escapist novel "Lost Horizon" is a monastery in a remote Himalayan valley, a place where no creature comfort is lacking and all the civilized arts and virtues are culti- vated. Presiding over this haven from the real world is the High Lama, a man unbelievably old and extraordinarily accomplished.

By New England standards, Dixville Notch is, like Shangri-La, in the middle of nowhere. North of the White Mountains, in what's called the Great North Woods, it's almost 400 miles from New York.

The Balsams is one of the last and grandest of the great 19th-century New England resort hotels, and the only thing rustic about it is the location. (It is the only ski resort in the region -- and possibly the nation -- that requires men to wear jackets to dinner.) And, like Hilton's Tibetan monastery, the resort owes its existence to a very old and very gifted man. The Balsams is owned by Neil Tillotson, a 102-year-old entrepreneur and inventor credited with creating the novelty balloon and the bladder used in fountain pens, among other things. Known as "Mr. T.," he is a North Country legend.

Like its owner, the resort is also a link to another age and lifestyle. It has 204 rooms but employs a staff of 500 to cater to the guests staying in them. Besides all the comforts, these pampered people also have a range of recreational options that at this time of year include downhill skiing at Wilderness, the Balsams' own ski area, and cross-country skiing on the trail system that veins the 15,000-acre resort property. Guests can also ice-skate, snowboard and snowshoe.

Indoors, there's a small museum, the Ballot Room, where in every presidential election Dixville Notch voters gather at midnight to cast the nation's first ballots.

The formal, T-shaped, multi- pillared dining room is a beautiful space, softly lighted with Victorian glass fixtures that resemble clumps of lilies. At dinner, while a pianist plays classical music, a small army of wait staff glides through an archipelago of white-linen-covered tables with the grace of a ballet troupe.

The present resort evolved from a small hotel called the Dix House, established in 1866 to serve the trickle of travelers passing through the lonely notch in the mountains. It became known for its warm welcome and a flat room rate that included all meals, the system that became known as the American plan.

The Balsams' summer rates are still based on the American plan, but during winter months include only breakfast and dinner -- the modified American plan. The rate also covers most activities, including golf in summer and downhill and cross-country skiing in winter.

Through the years, various owners (there have been only six in 135 years) enlarged and expanded the hotel and created the resort. But, by the mid-20th century the grand old American-plan resort hotels (there were once 30 in the White Mountains alone) were out of fashion, and the Balsams went bankrupt.

In 1954, Tillotson, who grew up near Dixville Notch and knew losing the Balsams would be disastrous for the local economy, bought the hotel for less than $200,000 and began restoring its faded glory.

To ensure year-round work for his staff, he opened a small factory on the grounds to manufacture latex surgical gloves, one of his many enterprises. When the ski industry began booming in the 1960s, the Balsams developed Wilderness, which features a 1,000-foot vertical drop and 13 trails. The hotel also began staying open through the winter, heating the cavernous main building with an innovative power plant that burns sawdust and wood chips, readily and cheaply available from nearby sawmills.

Another shrewd move was Tillotson's 1971 decision to lease the resort to four young employees: ski school director Warren Pearson, beverage manager Stephen Barba, chef Phillip Learned and maintenance supervisor Raoul Jolin. Still on the job, the four managing partners run the resort like a combination community and extended family.

"The Balsams is Dixville Notch, and I'm a managing partner but also chief selectman," says Barba, who came to the resort as a golf caddie at the age of 13. "And 350 of our 500 employees are related to each other." Many other employees are foreign students, mostly from Eastern Europe or South America.

In most resort hotels, the executive offices are hidden, often behind a locked door labeled "Employees Only." But for 30 years Pearson and Barba have worked side by side, their desks about 18 inches apart, in a small office in the main lobby.

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