Luxury Schmucks

The forest in NEw Hampshire

The spiciest trees you ever did sees

The White Mountains; the shire-iest part of New Hampshire. As you begin to head north into the forest, the trees begin to glow brighter and brighter, improbable shades of lava orange and lemon yellow and neon pink. The road curves through the woods gracefully, like the stroke of a pen. Every so often you near a sign proclaiming “SCENIC VIEW” and you are forced to stop and marvel at yet another majestic natural diorama of exhaustingly intense colour. And after a while of rolling past the soft carpeted mounds of the presidential mountains, you turn a corner, and a vast white mass hefts itself into view. You blink, and your eyes focus onto a comically enormous chalk-white building festooned with turrets and towers and balustrades. Its enormous red roofs somehow manage simultaneously to blend into and clash with the blazing foliage behind them. The flagpoles on the top of the building are huge and fat and tapered like space rockets. This is the Mount Washington Hotel.

The architect of this fatass structure intended for it to be like ‘a cruise ship on land’, a fact I know because a tour guide bellowed it into my ear as he was leading a troupe of barely-conscious hotel guests around the terrace. And in some ways, the architect has succeeded; the building certainly has all the bulk and elegance of a cruise ship, sitting smugly on the mountainside as if it is docked for a shoreside visit. Unfortunately, however, the hotel does not have any of the other benefits of a cruise ship, e.g. a bingo hall, a sunny deck festooned with loungers or an all-day buffet. Also, once a cruise ship has finished its shoreside visit it kindly goes away.

No, this hotel is a fancy-pants place for fancy-pants people. The porters navigate luggage trolleys around stacks of pumpkins, arranged tastefully in an autumnal display. Through the door is a truly huge atrium roughly as big as three sports halls glued together. This great hall is filled with little ‘sitting area’ ensembles of tasteful colonial-style furniture with darkwood coffee tables, decorative lamps and the odd charming antique. A couple of gaping black fireplaces are scattered down the length of the hall, the grandest of which squats beneath a stuffed moose head, looking ruefully down his soft wide nose at the visitors. This place is humming with activity: people drifting contentedly along the hall, enjoying refreshments in the terrace bistro, taking photos of the view. It is all so genial and civilised – even the lamp cables have been discreetly covered with sleeves of dark velvet. This, truly, is a fancy place. The kind of place where the information pack does not just state ‘Breakfast 7-10am’, but rather ‘Our Chief Concierge would be honored to welcome you in our Main Dining Hall from 7 to 10am to enjoy our superb breakfast specialities.’

And as you check in, and begin to relax and soak up the surroundings, a nagging feeling in you begins to crystallise into a realisation: the average age of the guests in this place is roughly 85. The groups of guests moving along the hall are not drifting but shuffling. The tour guides are bellowing because their audience is hard of hearing. Complimentary tea and coffee are served in the Rose Lounge from 3:00-4:00pm, not because no one drinks tea after 4:00pm but because that is when the residents start to head down for dinner.

The Mount Washington Hotel complex is so vast that there are multiple restaurants on its grounds, and they are able to be so far apart that there is a free shuttle bus service to transport guests to and fro. Nonetheless, most of these restaurants are fully booked every single night, and the poor sadsacks who miss the window are encouraged to try the more ‘casual, homey and down-to-earth’ atmosphere at the smokehouse eatery down the road. Where the other restaurants serve roasted baby carrots stacked on top of a pan-roasted duck filet on demi glace, this place serves lumps of animal on top of a sheet of paper on a metal tray. And no matter how much fun you are having, how much you are enjoying the food or how deeply invested you are in the basketball game playing on the TV behind the bar, at 8:45 suddenly the establishment goes deathly quiet and your mood turns to uneasy suspicion. Everyone is gone except the waitresses, who politely start swabbing the tables around you and hoovering the back corners first so as not to disturb you. The shuttle bus eventually arrives and it is conspicuously decked out with all kinds of railings and scaffolds clearly intended to accommodate different types of zimmer frame and mobility scooter.

Back at the hotel, the groups of sociably conversing people have disappeared. The whole establishment feels like it has been evacuated in a hurry. It is half past nine. The ‘great hall’ is an echoey, empty aircraft hanger; the fireplaces are blazing, yet the room is shiveringly cold and drafty because all the doors and windows are flung open to let in the frigid mountain winds. Everything seems dusty and abandoned. If you explore the side rooms, you discover that they are filled solely with columns of stacked tables and chairs in various formal styles. All the bars, restaurants and information desks are closed; there is nowhere to get a drink or a cup of tea. In one of them a couple of tired-looking waiters put chairs upside-down on tabletops and will begrudgingly give you a hot drink if you wave desperately through the glass doors. When you ask them about putting it on the tab they wave you away as if your getting the hell out was more valuable to them than any amount of cash.

The way to the bedrooms is along a series of very long, straight corridors with a dark green and elaborately patterned carpet which seems to contribute to your sense of disorientation as you try to locate your room. Ah – now it all makes sense: this is a Shining hotel. Perhaps all these shuffling old figures were ghosts all along, perhaps you have been alone all this time, surrounded by hallucinations of the hotel’s grander days. But no, there they are again in the morning, stuffing their faces with waffles and omlettes from the order chef. The sun is gloriously bright and golden, casting thick light over the tops of the fiery trees. Several of the more thickly-dewlapped guests complain and all the curtains are swiftly drawn. This hotel, we realise, is a colossal mausoleum.

In the evening we decide to forego Crazy Jack’s Awkward Smokehouse and drive out to Bethlehem, an adorable little town with an old-timey movie theater and a tiny bistro which has fifteen times more personality, flavour and atmosphere than one square centimetre of the Hotel Washington. I am still the youngest person in the establishment by a very generous margin, but this time the mood feels fresh, exciting and celebratory. No one is shuffling around and everyone seems absorbed in lively discussion. The menus at the Mount Washington are all staid variations on meat and potatoes; at the Cold Mountain, all the choices sound weird, creative and interesting, including a “famous bean cake” among other tempting recipes. It is joyful and we feel revived, fortified, nourished.

The next day we leave the Mount Washington, regretful not to be going but for our bank accounts. Presumably the other guests never leave, just like all ghosts.



Rose T