New England's finest golf resorts offer something for everybody

By James Y. Bartlett, Contributor

In an era of cookie-cutter hotels and resorts, the New England region harbors a wonderfully eclectic collection of golf resorts that range from historic old chestnuts (some began accepting guests as far back as the 1700s) to the traditional country inn -- gabled, whitewashed, rocking-chair-porch places that reek of character, warmth and generations of hospitality -- to the more modern variety, featuring villas and condos.

No matter what one is looking for in a golf resort, New England has it.

Oldies but goodies

In the historic category, one must visit The Balsams in Dixville Notch, N.H.; or the sprawling Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, N.H.

In a presidential election year, Dixville Notch always makes the front pages as the very first town in the nation to cast its ballots. The townsfolk-almost all of whom are employees of The Balsams resort-meet at midnight on election day in the Ballot Room of the hotel and cast the first 13 or 14 votes in the nation.

It's a quaint little tradition, and for the next four years, the town slips back into virtual obscurity -- except for the guests who, often in family groups, return to the Balsams year after year. It takes some getting to. Dixville Notch is tucked away in the far northwestern corner of New Hampshire, so that on a clear day one can easily see into Vermont to the west and Canada to the north.

While the first guests visited the Dix House as early as 1866, it was a Philadelphia industrialist who transformed the Balsams into a 400-room, multi-wing resort between 1885 and 1915. With its distinctive, rambling, red-roof architecture, the traditional American-plan (three meals a day) pricing, and a laundry list of things to do that will keep even the most nihilistic teenager busy for days, the Balsams remains one of the unique resorts in the country.

The wonderful Donald Ross golf course, the Panorama, is just one of the appeals of this place. A great mountain course, Ross' deceptively wide fairways funnel down to his typically small, crowned greens, which are among the most damnably difficult in all of golf. On the first tee, locate Mount Keyser, which looms just to the east of the course. Then know that every putt on the course, no matter what your eyes tell you, will break away from the summit. Finding the right speed on the ice-slick surfaces is up to you.

Uphill and down, with sod-faced bunkering, a Rossian cape hole, his typical long par-3 holes, and the protection of those tiny greens, what appears on the card as a pushover (6,804 yards from the tips) is a challenge. The magnificent mountain views, and the occasional sightings of moose and deer late in the afternoon, are welcome distractions.

For new golfers, or those who just want to warm up a bit, there's a nine-hole short course nearer the hotel.

Ross also was the architect at northern New Hampshire's other sprawling resort hotel, the Mount Washington Hotel and Resort. Set against the backdrop of the rugged Presidential range, topped by the highest peak in New England, Mount Washington, the main hotel first opened in the summer of 1902. Built by a railroad magnate (several trains a day pulled up almost in front of the hotel), the Mount Washington Hotel hosted society figures from Boston, New York and Philadelphia seeking the cool summer air of the mountains. It was in the hotel's Gold Room that international delegates to the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference established the World Bank, IMF and set the gold standard.

Ross built his course in 1915, in an open valley alongside the babbling Ammonoosuc River. Beginning with an unusual downhill par-3 hole whose tee box sits next to the hotel, course has hosted four New Hampshire Opens. Some famous names have served as golf professional here, too: Wild Bill Melhorn, Lawson Little and Dave Marr all greeted guests and gave lessons. And the old wooden lockers in the men's changing room contain the engraved brass nameplates of some famous guests: Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Thomas Edison and others.

Despite the backdrop of the mountains, Ross built his course here on the gentle meadow along the river. With spare bunkering and few trees to speak of, most of the trouble comes around the greens, which are typically small. Still, a round here is always enjoyable, with groups of horseback riders clopping past, and fly fishermen trying their luck in the fast-running river.

The resort also offers the nine-hole Mount Pleasant course, whose bones (1895) actually predate the Ross course. Several years ago, however, the course was renovated to modern specifications, and it's a fine and challenging track.

Staying in the Mount Washington is a throwback to the grand old days of American hospitality. The public areas are grand, and the rotunda dining room offers fine cuisine in a spectacularly elegant setting. The updated rooms are located down long, creaky wooden hallways, and many overlook the often snow-capped peak of Mount Washington, some 6,000 feet above.

Country Inns

On the far side of the village green in the picture-postcard-perfect little village of Bethel, Maine is the canary-yellow edifice of the Bethel Inn and Country Club. Rooms in the old part of the inn -- there are some modern wings - are smallish, but warmed by the patina of antiques. The main dining room offers sumptuous cuisine, while informal dinners in the tavern room are homestyle comforting.

The golf course that spreads out below the windows of the Inn had been around as a nine-hole course since 1913, but Geoffrey Cornish came in and expanded the routing to 18 holes in 1988. It's a pleasant course, darting across a brook, skirting past an old grist mill, wandering up and down some gentle terrain. While not a world-beater, the Bethel Inn course is a pleasant diversion from antique shopping or leaf viewing on a drive through the Maine backwoods.

In another postcard-perfect town, Manchester, Vt., the Equinox Resort offers an outstanding menu of pleasurable activities that includes a crack at the Rees Jones-redesign of an Emmett Devereaux jewel in the shadow of the Taconic mountains. The Marsh Tavern, now one of the hotel's dining rooms, dates from 1769, and the Equinox Hotel welcomed Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady, for a visit in 1863.

The hotel's whitewashed façade fits perfectly in an entire neighborhood of old Colonial mansions, with gaslights outside and the warmth of activity shining out the large front windows. Guests can stay in the main inn, the lavish and intimate suites of the Charles Orvis Inn (the original Orvis flyfishing emporium is located in town) or even book a private townhouse that overlooks the first tee. The resort, now part of the upscale Rockresort chain, recently added the Avanyu Spa next to its indoor heated pool.

Horseback riding, flyfishing lessons, falconry and LandRover expeditions into the forests are all part of the fun here, but the golf course is the headliner. Devereaux's turn-of-the-century layout was transformed into a challenging modern course by Jones, who added new bunkering and adjusted some green sites to make the course stand up to modern-day equipment. It's a resort course, yes, but by no means a pushover.

A little further north is the quaint town of Woodstock, and once again, a traditional country inn occupies the prime space on the village green. The Woodstock Inn dates from its start as the town tavern in 1792, but became one of the region's finest resorts in the late 1960s when it was purchased and renovated by Laurence Rockefeller, who turned it into the 144-room beauty it is today. Rockefeller also bought a nearby ski area and the Woodstock Country Club, just a mile or so outside town.

Robert Trent Jones renovated what had been Vermont's first golf course, built in 1895. Again, the course occupies a gentle valley traversed by a narrow stream, and the holes cut back and forth across the water. Although not overly long (6,001 yards), the course demands precise play and a good short game to score.

After golf, there are hiking and biking trails, some excellent trout streams to fish, and the hotel's pool and spa for those who wish to relax and be pampered. Woodstock itself is an antiquing mecca. The main dining room and two informal tavern rooms serve up some of the finest cuisine in Vermont, with matchless service and romantic ambiance.

The Berkshire mountains of western Massachusetts were another favored gathering place of the rich and famous during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. A group of mansions located just outside Lenox, Mass., built by a disparate group that included a Union Army general and the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, has been turned into a lovely four-season resort, the Cranwell Resort, Spa and Golf Club.

The golf course, built in 1926 by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, is a gentle routing through the surrounding woods. The occasional brook and pond come into play, and the bordering trees are always a consideration, but a round here is always fun, and the chance to score is ever-present. For those who don't, a Golf Digest school is located on the premises.

Accommodations are varied, either in the main Mansion, a fabulous recreation of the elegance of the age, or in one of the surrounding "cottages," which would be termed mansions anywhere else. All are connected by covered walkways, and the resort added a 35,000-square-foot spa facility in 2002 that has quickly become one of the country's best.

Cranwell is famous for its culinary arts, both in substance and presentation. The wine list is huge, and diners come from as far away as New York City to sample the chef's offerings. Summertime is also concert season, when the Boston Symphony is in residence at nearby Tanglewood, an outdoor concert venue.

Modern resorts

The Samoset Resort occupies a gorgeous promontory overlooking Penobscot Bay near Camden, Maine. The resort's golf course offers the only oceanfront resort holes in New England, and recently added a strong new seawall to keep them from washing away during one of the famous nor'easters that attack the coast.

Maine's own Brad Booth has helped redesign several holes on the routing, including adding a new 18th, which has helped tweak what was a pretty good track into one of New England's best. The holes along the ocean are beautiful to look at, but some of the ones that cut through the woods are very strong. The back nine is especially watery and woodsy and one needs all the shots to bring it home without disaster.

There are 178 motel rooms, some timeshare units, and a romantic private cottage overlooking the water. Most of the rooms overlook either the ocean or the golf course. Pools, tennis courts and hiking trails are some of the recreational amenities, and Marcel's restaurant always features fresh Maine lobster.

Down on Massachusetts' Cape Cod, the Ocean Edge Resort is the Cape's only destination golf resort, centered around a fine design by Cornish & Silva. Fifty-six Scottish-style pot bunkers lurk around the course waiting to trap an errant shot, and causing the golfer to pause before making a club selection. Hint: one does not overpowering length as much as steady control and a sound strategy.

While the Gothic old Nickerson mansion contains the main dining room and meeting space, accommodations at Ocean Edge are in villas and townhomes spread throughout the grounds and alongside the fairways. The appointments are top-quality, and the rooms are spacious and bright.

The resort is located near Brewster, on the Cape's "quiet side" along Massachusetts Bay. Guests can walk to the resort's private beach or enjoy walks throughout the peaceful 400 acres. Dining in the chintz and nautical décor of the main dining room is a seafood lover's paradise, and there are several other information pubs as well.

Whether full-blown historic resort, quiet country inn or modern-day resort hotel, New England offers something for every taste and budget. And the golf is always fun.

James Y. Bartlett, Contributor

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