New Hampshire: Uncover a piste less travelled

History and geography combine when you ski in New Hampshire

The resorts are small, the hills are low, it can be chilly – and it's the other side of the Atlantic. Yet for all its perceived drawbacks, New Hampshire is an attractive ski proposition. Maybe not for those who dream of pounding the piste all day, never the same run twice, but if you regard skiing as a way of seeing places you might not otherwise visit, New Hampshire has a certain something.

Sit on the deck at the 1938 Meister Hut at Cranmore's 1,200ft "peak" and you get a feeling of how US skiing used to be: small, friendly and home-made. Stand in the ancient barn-like terminal building of the classic red cable car at Cannon Mountain and you're surrounded by history – there's even a quaint ski museum. At Loon Mountain, a narrow-gauge steam train connects two base areas. The scenery undulates eerily, like something in an HP Lovecraft horror novel from the 1920s and 1930s, the same era in which people began taking to the slopes here. Narrow roads snake through tiny passes, beside quaint, white buildings. Then you discover a historic inn, veranda adorned with twinkling lights, and you realise what "quaint" really is. Nightlife is in warm, woody bars – and you'll find lobster from the nearby coast in the historic restaurants.

That's not to suggest New Hampshire is living in the past. I skied here more than a decade ago, and when I returned this March I was impressed by the changes as Loon transforms itself into a major resort.

This is one of the easiest US ski regions to get to, but a car is really the only way to get around once you're there. Fly into Boston, grab a hire car and head north up I-93. The journey takes around two hours, depending on which of the state's 20 or so ski areas you are aiming for. Five of them offer a joint lift pass, and they're mostly within a half-hour scenic drive of each other.

Loon is the biggest area, with 45 tree-lined runs snaking down the mountain – the longest of which is 2.5 miles. Try Upper and Lower Rumrunner, nominally black at the top, but easier lower down. Steeper blacks can offer a genuine challenge, especially on a chilly midwinter day. Two seasons ago, Loon opened South Peak, which has some impressive terrain. Rounding a bend on the seemingly simple double black Rip Saw, we were left breathless by the sudden, smooth drop.

The Mountain Club on Loon makes it one of the few ski areas in the region with its own hotel. The resort is emulating US rivals and adding upmarket, on-mountain accommodation. The South Peak Resort is awash with log mansions every bit as fancy as Colorado's Beaver Creek, and over the next few years a new base village with luxury condominiums will change the resort's face.

Currently, there's the choice of the Mountain Club's convenience, or staying in either Lincoln or North Woodstock, picturesque little towns either side of I-93. The Woodstock Inn with its microbrewery is a good bet; the jolly, overgrown motel Indian Head Resort outside town is another; while Eagle Mountain House near Lincoln is a delightfully lively, warm and creaky place.

At the other end of the New Hampshire spectrum is Cranmore. It's tiny, yet you can't help but adore it. Just off the main street in pretty North Conway, the slopes somehow seem to be hidden from chill winds. The ski school dates from 1938 and the black(ish) runs are the sort of glades that leave you smiling. It's also fun for youngsters, with easy green runs and a tubing park.

The prime place to stay is the North Conway Grand: big, modern, and with a smart new outside pool. It's a drive to the slopes, but this is compensated for by its adjoining mall, complete with Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren.

The area's highest resort is Cannon Mountain, which reaches 4,080ft. The ice-swathed viewing tower at the top testifies to the cold, which can bite at the bones – the winds here can halt the cable car. The setting in White Mountain National Forest means development is minimal, although it's just north of Loon so access is easy. Even good skiers would have a great day here, not least on the bottom of steep, slick runs below the cable car.

Also near Loon is Waterville Valley, which is bigger but has less variety. The runs all begin at a single ridge line. And just north of Cranmore is Wildcat Mountain, another historic gem, the original runs cut in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a job creation scheme of the Great Depression. The original Wildcat trail was one of the first ski runs in the US, and is now served by a high-speed quad chair – history and hi-tech side by side.

The state's largest resort is Bretton Woods, a gladed area that is part of the enormous century-old Mount Washington Resort. It's not on the lift pass, but is still worth a visit.

If you want massive mountains, head for the Rockies but don't belittle New Hampshire. With a different resort each day, this is one big adventure.

Traveller's guide: New Hampshire

Staying there

Virgin Holidays (0844-557 3860; virginholidays.co.uk) offers a six-night package, with three nights each in the Mountain Club on Loon and North Conway Grand, including car hire and flights from Heathrow to Boston, starting at £689 per person, based on two sharing.

American Skiing Holidays (01933 622062; usaskiholiday.co.uk), an arm of the New Hampshire Ski Group, can arrange stays at individual hotels in the area.

Five Mountain Ski Passport, available through tour operators and direct hotel bookings, costs from £190.

Shuttle Connection (001 603 745 3140; www.theshuttleconnection.com) offers journeys in the Lincoln area from $8 (£5.30).

More information visitnh.gov

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