Though falling shy of the majestic White Mountains to the north, southern New Hampshire's peaks (monadnocks, mostly, from the Algonquin word for "stands alone") can still pack a wallop. Families, in particular, will find all the skiing they could possibly require at the local day areas, which have shown a remarkable resurgence in recent years following a decade of decline.
With eight lifts and 1,510 feet of vertical, Mount Sunapee reigns supreme in the region. The owners of Vermont's Okemo (and now Colorado's Crested Butte) have sunk more than $14 million into this formerly state-run complex since leasing it in 1998, and the TLC shows. Skiers can enjoy gorgeous lake-view lunches at Sunapee's Summit Lodge.
Next up, height-wise, comes Tenney Mountain, a midstate sleeper with a troubled past but promising future under energetic new owners, who see it as a showcase for their warm-temperature snowmaking system. Gunstock, at the south edge of enormous Lake Winnipesaukee, has been around since 1938. Like Tenney, it offers 1,400 vertical feet of terrain, and like Sunapee, it has marvelous lake views. Ragged Mountain boasts a handsome base area built to resemble a New England farmstead and the state's only high-speed six-pack, accessing 1,250 vertical feet. Small but feisty Crotched Mountain (875 vertical feet) is best known for its nightskiing. The Swiss owners, who last year resuscitated it after 14 years of dormancy, borrowed a page from the Midwestern resorts they own and started running the lifts till 3 a.m. on selected weekends.
For those of us who occasionally need to sleep (and eat), New Hampshire's southern half isn't as rich as the White Mountains in dining and lodging options. If you know where to look, however, it's possible to find charming rooms and extraordinary cuisine.
Home Hill Inn in Plainfield (603-675-6165; homehillinn.com) is an 1818 Federal farmstead turned Provence-inspired Relais & Chateaux oasis where Ritz-Escoffier-trained chef-owner (and competitive triathlete) Victoria du Roure translates both locally sourced and jetted-in delicacies into exquisite nouvelle fare. (Examples: roasted pumpkin risotto with black truffle butter or line-caught wild Brittany sea bass.) A hearty bistro menu-coq au vin and similar classics-is offered for a very reasonable $39 prix fixe, but the only sensible strategy is to indulge in the six-course gourmet tasting menu ($89, $154 with wine pairings) in order to fully experience du Roure's genius.
Though the setting is less sophisticated (owners Cyndi and Mason Cobb have spent the past four years de-quainting their 1820 tavern), the fare at the Colby Hill Inn in Henniker (800-531-0330; colbyhillinn.com) represents New England regionalism at its finest. Entrees ($23-$32) range from roasted vegetable cassoulet to maple sugar-rubbed venison with rhubarb chutney. Chef/owner Brian MacKenzie, a Beard House honoree and Culinary Institute of America grad, is pursuing a similar path with his five-course, single-seating candlelit dinners ($52) at the Inn at Pleasant Lake in New London (800-626-4907; innatpleasantlake.com), and fellow CIA alum Jeff Woolley puts out an impressive spread (entrees $22-$38) with a splash of fusion at the Manor on Golden Pond in Holderness (800-545-3141; manorongoldenpond.com). The Hancock Inn in the colonial town of that name (800-525-3318; hancockinn.com) has been welcoming wayfarers since 1789, though travelers of yore probably didn't get pumpkin ravioli finished with cider cream. Among the entrees ($21-$32) is a particularly delicious house specialty, Shaker cranberry pot roast.
All of the inns mentioned above double as legitimate sleepover possibilities. Most luxurious among them is the Manor on Golden Pond. Owner Mary Ellen Shields, who started overhauling this grand 1903 country house in 1999, has a gift for creature comforts as well as aesthetic juxttapositions, so each of the 27 rooms ($180-$375) is uniquely poised to surprise and please. The fireplace suites with double jacuzzis are particularly nice.
The Colby Hill Inn ($115-$265) is nearly as luxe, with two similarly accoutered carriage-house suites. Fifteen other rooms, tastefully decorated in a traditional mode, are variously configured, some so as to suit families. Built in 1850 and at one point a hit with the Hollywood in-crowd (Pickford, Gish, et al.), the Rosewood Country Inn in Bradford ($119-$269; 800-938-5273; rosewoodcountryinn.com) is the kind of B&B that's decorated from floor to ceiling. Some rooms are frilly enough to set your teeth on edge (or, conversely, seduce couples who are big on Victoriana). Others are merely formal and lovely. Everyone gets to enjoy a hot tub set under the stars, as well as a truly stellar breakfast. For a classic ski inn of the type you might remember from childhood (a jumble of comfy furnishings, with jigsaw puzzles always at the ready), consider the Inn at Crotched Mountain in Francestown (603-588-6840; innbook.com/crotched), an 1822 farmstead on 65 hilltop acres crisscrossed with five miles of cross-country trails. Not only are your offspring welcome, pets are, too. And the room rate is a retro, family-friendly $80-$140 a night.
Nightlife? Ask a local, and you're likely to get a laugh. However, culture-seekers have a world-class resource in Dartmouth College's Hopkins Center for the Arts (603-646-2422; hop.dartmouth.edu), which imports big-name acts. Hanover also has the Canoe Club (603-643-9660; canoeclub.us) a music venue done up like an Adirondack camp. The Rynborn Restaurant and Blues Club in Keene (603-357-1313; rynborn.com) is another college-town option. For a lazy night out, claim a couch at the nostalgia-laden Common Man Inn's Boiler Room in Plymouth (866-843-2626; thecmaninn.com), where ski movies are projected on an expanse of industrial brick. Or hey, you could always ski the night away at Crotched.