Julie and I love to Discover Ontario and of course Montreal and Quebec City are great places to visit. But if you ask me “What is your favourite road trip” the evidence is clear: both Julie and I love the White Mountains region of New Hampshire. We’ve just returned from what tends to be an annual or even bi-annual pilgrimage.
So what’s so great about this place?
First (and this is important to me) it’s a manageable and mostly enjoyable one-day drive. It can be done in 6 hours, we like to extend it to about 8 with two pits stops and lunch. The quickest and simplest route is 417 to Montreal and then south to the 10 crossing into the US at Stanstead/Derby Line (famous for their shared border). If you need a break, stop in beautiful Magog, just a few minuts from the border. At Magog you will leave the 10 and go south on the 55, which becomes US 91.
This is not typically a busy border crossing and it doesn’t have the intimidating feel of some borders, like the Cornwall crossing (that’s an alternate route for this trip, it takes about an hour longer, but avoids Montreal if you’d prefer).
After about an hour of pleasant and scenic driving through Vermont, get off the 91 and take 2 into St. Johnsbury for your next break (or bypass the town and take the 91 directly to the 93 south into New Hampshire). In St. Johnsbury right across from the old railway station (museum and information centre on site) is Anthony’s Diner. Get a Woodsman Burger and a milkshake, and some homemade donuts to go!
You have just 60-90 minutes to your destination depending on where you decide to stay. Take the 93 and follow the signs to the 302 (watch for moose!). A gorgeous drive right through White Mountain National Forest. You’ll see many gorges and flumes right from your car. Come back and hike them if that’s your thing. The Arethusa Falls/Frankenstein Cliff trail is one of our favourites – we got engaged there! If skiing is your thing, there are terrific downhill skiing centres all along the 302.
Our favourite seasons here are spring and fall. The changing of the leaves offers some of the most spectacular viewing in the world, and in spring the various waterfalls are at their peak. The peak of Mount Washington is an amazing place. There is an observatory at the top and it’s like being on another planet. You can drive to top (fun and stimulating) or take a train (we have not done that but it’s supposed to be quite a ride!). Be prepared for cold and wind at the top no matter what time of year it is!
But we must be honest here, natural beauty is only part of the attraction of this area. When you tell the border guards you are going to North Conway, they will likely come back with “Happy shopping!” You see, North Conway has some of the greatest outlet shopping you’ll find within a day’s drive of Ottawa. We prefer it to Syracuse or Waterloo (in the Finger Lakes). The stores are as good or better, plus there are excellent restaurants; and, as discussed, the natural attractions can’t be beat!
The shopping here is attractive for several reasons. The first is probably the selection. You will find more styles and sizes here than most anywhere. For example, we both like the clothes at Banana Republic, but the stores in Ottawa have only a fraction of what is available in North Conway – and new items come in daily!
Next up is price. If you are patient and selective, you can find true outlet bargains – name brand shoes and clothing at discounts of 80% are not uncommon. On this latest trip I found $90 shirts at the Gap for $12. Granted you could probably get them for $45 at a seasonal sale in Ottawa (if they had the same shirts) but $12? Wow. I bought 5!
I almost forgot to mention: no sales tax (state motto is “live free or die”) they are very friendly (you may find drivers pulling over to the shoulder if they see you are gaining on them) but take their liberty seriously!
This place is probably most famous for the shoe outlets. The Famous Footwear is where we seem to do best. Without even planning on it I ended up with two pairs of Skechers, $29 and $39, that’s at least half price. Julie rang up great shopping deals at the Van Heusen outlet, with quality capris pants for $15 and a cool jacket at 70% off the sale price ($18).
Of course, you need accommodations and that has an expense. We used Hotwire and got a huge room at the North Conway Grand Hotel for just $50 a night. It’s located right next to the biggest outlets, a huge convenience! One thing about the Grand: not a place for sleeping in. But there are lots of nice places to stay including many B&Bs if that’s more your style. Most of the major hotels here have indoor swimming pools and other extras.
Great restaurants abound (there are also the traditional gut-busting American traditional if that’s more your style) our top choices would be White Mountain Cider Company, kind of an upscale pub motif with creative dishes using local ingredients. The 1785 Inn just keeps on making great meals, don’t let the old school atmosphere fool you, this is a great place to eat and the servers are experts in both food and wine. They also feature some showmanship, making your fresh caesar salad from scratch right next to your table, or creating a flambéed dessert. Als0 on our list is Black Cap Grille, a great place for a beer but the food is excellent, and it’s located just a few minutes from the main outlets. And the latest (thanks to a tip from Constable Dan Patton of the Ottawa Police) is May Kelly’s featuring a great family-owned pub atmosphere with great food at prices that will have you saying “all that is included?”
This is a great place for a couples getaway but also for families. In addition to the outlets, there’s also the “downtown” with smaller shops including a really fun five and dime across the street from the North Conway Railroad Station (free museum and scenic train rides). There are water parks, mini-golf, quaint cinemas, and more.
For something new we stayed in Franconia for two days at the tail end of the trip. This is also a gorgeous area with interesting small towns, natural beauty, and historical sites. It’s a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the outlets. Nearbly Littleton is a busy town that boasts a theatre district and also some fine dining. We had an excellent meal at Tim-Bir Alley, the owner was charming and the prices were more than reasonable for this fine dining experience.
The people of Littleton clearly take great pride in their history. There are interesting historical sites and plaques throughout the town, and after some breakfast for dinner at the famous Littleton Diner, walk it off by strolling down Main Street to the Ammonoosuc River and the Memorial Bridge. We were surprised to find a Private George Findlay of the WWI Canadian Infantry among those being remembered. If you know more about this veteran, please get in touch, we’d like to know the story.
Here are some photos of our experiences in the area! Please feel free to comment or ask questions! We’ve recommended this trip to many friends over the years and we always have some tips to share depending on when you travel and what you are looking for.