Natural High

New Hampshire's Highland Center is a comfortable haven for nature lovers who want to explore the surrounding sites or just enjoy the view from the lodge


CRAWFORD NOTCH, N.H. // You wake to the pure sound of wind hissing through the trees and air so fresh that you feel cleansed with every breath.

Open your eyes and there's the crisp outline of the White Mountains and the pale blue of Ammonoosuc Lake that seem just beyond the bottom of your quilted bed.

Rise and shine, stretch and shower and think about the hearty breakfast that awaits downstairs at the Highland Center, the Appalachian Mountain Club's three-year-old experiment in combining the awe of nature with the comforts of home.

The AMC, founded in 1876, has long been known for its expertise in providing trail information and lodging northern New England-style: straightforward and without frills. Its hut system for hikers in the White Mountains is a mixture of flinty and funky, an oasis amid the granite, if you don't mind that the guy in the next bunk snores like a 747 at takeoff.

An old wooden hotel the club operated just a stone's throw from the Highland Center was warm and dry and cheap, but came with a greeting committee of mice that overnight would cart off your boot linings for nesting material if you weren't careful.

With the Highland Center, the AMC hasn't abandoned its core services or commitment; it has just decided to expand to include seniors who no longer enjoy sleeping on the ground, families looking for affordable accommodations and activities, and novice adventurers seeking guidance and gear.

"There's something for everybody, whether you're brand new to the outdoors or you've spent years there," says Vinnie Spiotti, who acts sort of as head scoutmaster to the goings-on at the four-season lodge.

Spiotti is sipping coffee in the early-morning hours in the larger of two dining rooms, a soaring space of large timbers and huge panes of glass with views of the mountains and the newly restored Victorian train station at the edge of the center's rolling lawn.

As a light rain begins to mist the windows, Spiotti, a history buff and Revolutionary War re-enactor, talks about the underpinnings of the place.

The Highland Center sits on 26 acres in the mountain pass carved in the foothills of the Presidential Mountains, just four hours north of Boston. Before the turn of the 20th century, it was the site of the Crawford House, a grand old summer resort like the historic Mount Washington Hotel five miles down the road.

But the Crawford was a drafty, barely heated structure that opened in mid-May and closed in mid-October each season. It closed for good in 1975, and the owners auctioned off everything, including the doors, the next year. In November 1977, the old shell burned to the ground.

AMC bought the land in the late 1990s and began planning and fundraising for the $9.5 million Highland Center, which opened in September 2003 to rave reviews.

"It's been a good couple of years," Spiotti says. "People come here with a lot of practical, every-day knowledge, and our programs expand their life experiences."

As the 34-room lodge begins to stir, Spiotti excuses himself to meet with his staff to go over the day's plans.

There are two busloads of school children in the shared rooms taking part in a weeklong Mountain Classroom curriculum. Elderhostel, a group that caters to travelers 55 and older, is here for a few days to learn about geology and history and take in a little sales-tax-free shopping at North Conway's outlet stores about 30 minutes down the road.

Then there's a mother-and-daughter team: a soon-to-be empty-nester in her 50s and the 21-year-old who is posting the vacancy sign because she's taking a job on the other coast. They are here to reconnect with the mountains that Cheryl Lawson taught her daughter, Rachel, to love as a child.

"These mountains were my present to her when she was young, and this trip here is my send-off gift now that she's grown," says Cheryl Lawson, whose eyes grow misty as her daughter grabs her hand.

The Lawsons and the seniors watch in amusement as the students burst in and inhale breakfast on the way to another day of exploration.

Half the pupils head up 2,865-foot Mount Willard, a moderate hike on a former bridle path that begins at the center's front door. The other half race for the three classrooms, where AMC instructors teach team-building and problem-solving skills.

"I look at the center as a vehicle to introduce the outdoors and influence lives," says Eric Jackel, the operations manager. "The best way to get someone to be a proponent is to give them an experience that's meaningful. You take someone up Mount Willard and it's like you've taken off one face and put another on, and you know they've gotten the experience you want them to have."

The calendar of activities, posted near the lodge's front desk, changes with the seasons. There are nature walks, a daily naturalist program and evening movies and lectures.

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