Destinations make the most of ‘mud season’

For Tim Ostendorf, there’s nothing like a good hot bowl of steaming Swamp Soup to nourish an appetite for the great outdoors.

“It’s kind of like a cream of spinach,” he explained after downing a bowl of it. “It was delicious — though it did look kind of swampy.”

“Cream of spinach” wouldn’t convey the idea that Ostendorf, co-owner of the Inn at Crystal Lake in Eaton, and a number of other tourist destinations in New Hampshire are working to promote. It’s a great place to visit, they insist, even when it’s knee-deep in “mud season.”

“We’re trying to help people realize mud is not so bad,” said Janice Crawford, executive director of the Mt. Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce. The chamber’s own promotional theme for the season is “From Bud to Blossom.” But everyone knows there’s a lot of mud in-between.

“Little ones love to play in the mud,” said Crawford. “There are all sorts of culinary delights, from mud pies to mudslides, that get their name from mud.” And many of the inns and resorts are using the mud theme to promote activities from bird watching to bargain hunting. It’s “a nice way to build a slower season,” says Crawford.

It’s not all mud from early April to mid-June in the White Mountains. For adventurous souls, it’s a great time for whitewater rafting or spring skiing, which in some years lasts until July on the challenging terrain of Tuckerman’s Ravine. But mud season also lends its peculiar charms to quieter, gentler pursuits, like bird watching.

“On Crystal Lake, we have a pair of loons that comes back every year,” noted Ostendorf. Those and a variety of other returning birds have inspired the “Wildlife and Birdwatching Mud Season Special” the inn is offering for the second consecutive year. It combines a two-night stay with information and trail maps for four different sanctuaries, all within a few minutes drive of the inn and all run by the Audubon Society of New Hampshire.

“The songbirds that nest in that area spend the winter in Central and South America,” said Becky Suomala, a biologist with the Audubon Society. “They’re very colorful and beautiful birds, and a lot of people like to like to look for them returning. And it’s easier to see them when the leaves aren’t on the trees.”

Love is in the air

Other, more practical reasons for visiting the area in the off-season are lower rates for rooms and smaller crowds at the various attractions.

“You don’t have the traffic to deal with and you don’t have to make advance reservations at restaurants,” said Craig Cox, co-owner of Riverbend Inn in Chocorua.

And a slower season in the mountain region can be the ideal time and place for a romantic getaway, said Cox. Riverbend is offering couples “Mud, Massage and Romance,” with a two-night stay. The promotion offers a choice of two 30-minute (or one 60-minute) massages or “mud-covered” (chocolate dipped) strawberries with champagne and flowers delivered to the room.

Guests also receive a facial mud mask for the occasion, created by Jen Kovach of Garden Dreams in Madison.

The theme also is reflected in the menu, where the fruit parfait, for example, has been renamed the “mud parfait,” with granola and maple syrup added to blueberries and yogurt.

“We’re trying to capitalize on the muddy features in the area,” said Cox, without ignoring the more attractive outdoor amenities, like the area’s impressive waterfalls. “We want to let people know it’s a less busy time and it’s still beautiful up here.”

In the Lakes Region, Rusty McLear is another innkeeper who believes love is in the air when mud is on the ground.

McLear’s Inns & Spa at Mill Fall in Meredith has adopted a “Get Married in the Mud” theme for a “Muddy Meredith Marriage Proposal.”

“We have a fair amount of weddings here, and this is a way for folks who are coming up here to get away,” said McLear, adding that the promotion isn’t just for mud-season weddings. “It could mean the wedding is two months away, but they want to bring their friends up for an additional, less stressful getaway. It’s certainly our slowest season,” said McLear, adding that a quieter, less crowded time can make the resort’s seven restaurants and 40,000 square feet of retail stores even more appealing.

The mud facials, body wraps, mudslide cappuccinos and other mud-related amenities the inns are offering are in keeping with the “I’m in the Mood for Mud” theme of the New England Inns and Resorts Association, said Beth Steucek, executive vice president.

“What we‘re trying to do is get people within driving distance to be willing to try and do something different,” said Steucek at the NEIA office in New Hampton. The promotion last year was reported by the Associated Press and drew interest from media far removed from New England, she recalled.

“A reporter from Arizona called and asked what we meant by mud season. I said, ‘Well, the snow melts and the dirt gets really wet.’”

For inns and resorts in New England, mud season also presents an opportunity to extend the Valentine’s Day preoccupation with romance and chocolate a little further into the year.

“We try to put heads in beds and put traffic into our properties,” says Steucek. “In a season when they need more traffic, we try to build it from a theme, and this is one of the neat ways of doing that.”

Year-round views

At the far end of the Great North Woods, The Balsams faces the first mud season since the management of the grand hotel decided last year to stay open year-around. The decision reflects the changing habits and expectations of today’s vacationers, said David Lindelow, general manager of Dixville Notch resort.

“People are taking more vacations,” said Lindelow. “They’re getting away more often for shorter periods of time, and they want to expand their lives, so The Balsams fits into that.” Open after the foliage season for the first time last fall, the resort continued to attract visitors to the region with the help of special events, including a Halloween weekend that featured a murder mystery play, performed by professional actors, and a fireside reading of ghost stories. The hotel will be promoting spring skiing in April and will have a culinary symposium, featuring chefs from around the country.

There also will be a weekend commemorating the Titanic, when The Balsams will replicate the décor and the menu for those final hours aboard the ill-fated White Star liner, without carrying the realism too far.

“In our version, everybody lives,” said Lindelow.

And they get to experience something more than luxurious living in beautiful surroundings. “Today people are looking for a little extra when they’re on vacation. They want an adventure, a new experience, an opportunity to grow and learn,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to provide.”

Three “Chocolate Cooking Weekends” have been added to the spring schedule of the White Mountain Cooking School at Snowvillage Inn in Eaton, said co-owner Karen Galat. Guests learn to create delicacies like chocolate mousse, chocolate pate and beef in chocolate sauce.

And when mud is underfoot, snow still covers the peaks, for viewing as well as skiing. Views of Mount Washington can be breathtaking any time of year, Galat noted. “That view just doesn’t quit.”

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