Grand theater, terrain in N.H.

Plenty to see, do during summer in White Mountains

Destination: New England

May 09, 2004|By Gerri Kobren | Gerri Kobren,Special to the Sun

When my husband and I said we were going to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for a summer vacation, our friends were thrilled.

We'd love the natural beauty, one said enthusiastically. We've never seen such waterfalls, gushed another. There are wonderful walking trails, advised a third. And watch out for moose: We were told the half-ton critters tend to meander onto the highways.

It all sounded exciting, and different from our typical sit-in-the-sand summer vacation. But all those attractions would just be icing on the cake: Larry and I were driving the 500-plus miles from Baltimore to the edge of the Great North Woods primarily to see our oldest grandchild, Shira, a theater student who was one of 12 interns working for the summer at the Weathervane Theatre, near the small town of Whitefield.

We'd take Shira to dinner, we'd see her perform, and we'd do plenty of sightseeing.

We've been seeing Shira in shows closer to home for a decade, in school, theater group, and college and community productions. This is different. The interns, invited to the Weathervane after auditions, have come for an 11-week schedule of six-day-a-week practice, performance and work in theater crafts, plus accrual of college credits or points toward membership in Actors' Equity Association.

Ten professional Equity actors are also onboard, along with directors, costumers, musicians and technicians.

In its 38th season last year, the 250-seat Weathervane, operating in "alternating / rotating repertory," opened its first major production the first Monday in July, its second two nights later and its third two nights after that, all with the same players in different parts. As the season wore on, production expanded to five shows a week, running Monday through Saturday.

The Weathervane is part of a long theater tradition in New Hampshire. Citing its own 74-year-history, the Barnstormers, in Tamworth south of White Mountain National Forest, claims to be the oldest professional summer theater in the country. The Peppermill Theatre, in Lincoln, N.H., near the tourist attractions of Franconia Notch, is part of the nonprofit North Country Center for the Arts. A variety of other summer theaters are scattered throughout the state.

Planning a week's stay, we reserved a room in the Spalding Inn, less than a mile from the Weathervane and just across the road from the theater interns' cottage.

The inn was a turn-of-the-last century summer estate that opened to paying guests in 1926. Its 210 acres include an outdoor pool and tennis courts and an indoor exercise room in addition to the rambling main building, a rentable carriage house and six cottages suitable for families.

Walt and Dona Loope, originally from the Washington area, have owned and operated the inn since last year.

The Spalding was farther north than they wanted to go with five children still at home -- and home-schooled. But they came to visit anyway, fell in love and moved in about 14 months ago.

"We weren't here but two weeks before Dona said she was born to live in New Hampshire," Walt says.

Open only during the temperate months, the inn is a work in progress; improvements and updates are on the Loopes' agenda. It is a family project as well. While we were there, the oldest of the five children, a 19-year-old daughter, was running the housekeeping service. Her next younger brother, 16, took care of the grounds. The three youngest, ages 12, 10 and 8, were "cruise directors" for the children of guests, according to their dad.

Dinner is available in the air-conditioned dining room, from a menu comparable to that of a regular restaurant. Breakfast is included, from a menu that features light fare like fruit and yogurt and heartier stuff like pancakes, ham and sausage.

On our last morning there, when we were leaving too early to sit down for breakfast, Walt and Dona brought us food for the drive.

Our room was charming, with gingham sheets and flowered comforter and white-painted desk and dresser. We were at first dismayed to find the room had no air conditioning or TV. No clock radio or clock. We wore our watches to bed, slept with our windows open and got into the car to hear what was going on in the world. After a couple of days, we stopped caring what was going on in the world.

Mountain breezes cooled us at night, time didn't much matter, and it was so much nicer to sit in a rocking chair on the porch than to worry about world events. Besides, Dona set out cold lemonade and cookies hot from the oven every afternoon.

Evenings we went to the Weathervane. Daytimes we toured. One of the major attractions had actually disappeared by then. The rock-ledge profile known as the Old Man of the Mountain -- the Great Stone Face -- had fallen off the side of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park the previous spring.

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