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Embrace the past at historic New England resorts

Samoset Resort Photo courtesy Samoset Resort

Vacationers have found respite in New England’s scenic spots for more than 100 years. Traveling by train or stagecoach, visitors decamped for weeks—or even months—to walk in the woods, bathe in the ocean, and enjoy hospitality at resorts on a grand scale.

Testimony to the delights of these retreats is spelled out in cards and letters written by generations of guests, many dating back to the days before email and texts. “Dear Seders,” starts a postcard sent from Quisisana Resort in Center Lovell, Maine, on August 14, 1936. “Abe and I couldn’t have had a better time, for we consider this place paradise. Evie, tell your friends; no more conducive place to marital bliss could exist. Love and kindest regards, Natalie & Abe.”

These resorts were built for relaxation and escape, and they still provide ideal conditions for enjoying marital bliss, reconnecting with family and friends, and many other peaceful pursuits. Welcoming lobbies and public spaces invite lingering, with board games and books to borrow, while outside, lawn games like croquet and badminton await multigenerational families who gather around fire pits at night to toast s’mores.

Turn back the clock at one of these spots, where you can embrace the pleasures of past generations of travelers setting aside the daily grind to pick up a tennis racket, don a bathing costume, or play chess.

Samoset Resort, Maine

Samoset Breakwater

Rockland Breakwater. | Photo courtesy Samoset Resort

The “Ultimate Backyard,” as the AAA Four Diamond Samoset in Rockland, Maine, calls its outdoor space, boasts spectacular views of the Atlantic from on high, not to mention a hive of activities including tennis, basketball, an outdoor pool, shuffleboard, volleyball, croquet, and a 9-hole disc golf course.

Settle into a hammock with a book. Or lounge at the pool, where siblings play ladder toss or cornhole while Mom and Dad order cold drinks, the server summoned by a discreet flag flying on their lounge chairs. Just beyond, a golf course edges the ocean, as does a path down to the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse.

A fire destroyed the original 1889 resort built on this spot, but the current property was constructed in the 1970s almost entirely with reclaimed timber from a deserted granary, yielding a historic feel, especially in the lobby. Summer rates start at $499.

Quisisana Resort, Maine

Lake Kezar

Canoeing on Lake Kezar. | Photo courtesy Quisisana Resort

Music has resonated along the shores of Lake Kezar since 1907, when Quisisana opened as a retreat for musicians. Over the years, the property has grown to 7 lodge rooms and 40 white-and-green cottages dotting the woods, each with its own personality and accessed by paths carpeted with soft pine needles.

Guests can fill their days with swimming, boating, walking in the woods, and playing mini golf, and then indulge in an all-inclusive meal plan with dishes that range from Maine lobster and blueberry pie to smoked prime rib with morel mushroom jus.

And as the sun sinks behind the White Mountains, the resort staff who have cared for guests during the day switch roles. Professional musicians, singers, and actors as well, they put on nightly performances of everything from chamber music to Broadway shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, A Little Night Music, and Shrek the Musical, complete with sets and costumes. Summer rates (all-inclusive) start at $570. (207) 925-3500; quisisanaresort.com.

Wentworth by the Sea, New Hampshire

Wentworth by the Sea

Photo courtesy Wentworth by the Sea

Surrounded by plenty of lounge chairs and perfectly positioned to catch ocean breezes, the vast saltwater pool is a hub of summer activity at the AAA Four Diamond Wentworth on New Castle Island. Originally built in 1874, the grand hotel perches on a hill overlooking the sea. It’s still one of the largest wooden structures on the New Hampshire coast. Legendary sharpshooter Annie Oakley is said to have offered lessons at a nearby golf course.

No weapons are fired on the property these days, but you can work on your tennis game, wander acres of carefully tended historic gardens, or play cornhole or ring toss on the lawn. Order a picnic lunch and head down to Great Island Common, a public park with beach access, bird-watching, and lovely lighthouse views.

Wentworth Suite

Marina Suite King Living Room. | Photo courtesy Wentworth by the Sea

The main hotel drips with historic charm, but families might prefer to book one of the modern bi-level Marina Suites, which come with a kitchen plus access to a second smaller pool, billiards, and table tennis. Summer rates start at $499. 

Read more: Legendary lighthouses in Northern New England

Mountain View Grand, New Hampshire

Ax throwing

Ax throwing. | Photo courtesy Mountain View Grand/Greg Premru Photography

The charming legacy of this resort in Whitefield, New Hampshire, surrounded by the Presidential Range, started with travel troubles. In 1865, a stagecoach overturned on the Boston-to-Montreal road (now known as US Route 3). William and Mary Dodge, who lived nearby, took in the passengers, who enjoyed the hospitality and spectacular White Mountain views of 57 mountaintops so much that they extended their stay beyond when the stagecoach was fixed.  They then suggested the couple open an inn, which is exactly what they did.

Guests at this AAA Four Diamond property can learn more about that history from a film screened in the resort’s 17-seat movie theater, or they might just think kindly of the founders while working a puzzle or playing chess in the Dodge Parlor.

The movie theater isn’t the only current offering that would likely surprise the Dodges. Mountain View Grand now hosts ax-throwing classes among a bevy of activities that includes everything from fiber arts to mountain biking on the property’s 10 miles of trails. The pandemic halted many of the classic communal games, but hope remains that the cardboard boat races in the pool, scavenger hunts, and the children’s program—Camp Yellow Llama—will return in the near future. Summer rates start at $350. 

Read more: 10 top pet-friendly resorts in Northern New England

Basin Harbor, Vermont

Basin Harbor

Photo courtesy Basin Harbor

The Beach family has been operating this 700-acre resort in Vergennes, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain since 1886, with the fourth and fifth generations now in charge of the 74 cottages. Soak up all that history at weekly talks with Bob Beach or during a property tour with Penny Beach and her dog Alva.

Most activities at Basin Harbor revolve around the lake, with narrated boat tours, waterskiing, paddleboats, and stand-up paddleboards available. The morning kids club keeps little ones busy while adults work on their tennis game or relax in one of the brightly colored Adirondack chairs that dot the property. In the afternoon, use the giant chess set on the Sunshine lawn, then grab a cold drink at the Burgee Bar.

Evening activities include an iconic weekly bingo night that has been going on for as long as anyone can remember, as well as more recent competitive games like Family Feud and trivia contests. Unique for a historic resort, culinary offerings include a sushi bar, as well as pizza, a weekly alfresco lobster dinner, and even a food truck. Summer rates start at $411. (802) 475-2311; basinharbor.com.

Read more: 10 stunning lakes in Northern New England

Woodstock Inn & Resort, Vermont

Woodstock Inn & Resort Lobby

Photo courtesy Woodstock Inn & Resort

Established by Laurance and Mary Rockefeller, the Woodstock Inn & Resort in Woodstock, Vermont, exudes elegant relaxation from the moment you walk through the doors—perhaps because it was built on a site that has been welcoming travelers since 1793.

Guests can often be found enjoying coffee or cocktails on overstuffed couches in the spacious lobby, while the library is always set up for chess and backgammon. The cozy downstairs game room offers a wall-size Scrabble board, foosball, and table shuffleboard—but really, you’ll want to get outside. To make that easy, the resort, set in the Green Mountains, lends bikes to its guests for free. Ride along the Ottauquechee River or over to nearby Billings Farm to visit the animals and watch milking time.

The nearby Kelly Way Gardens supplies much of the organic produce for the resort’s restaurants, and is open for tours and classes. Other activities at this AAA Four Diamond property include falconry or casting a line with the property’s Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing program. Need a break from your kids? Sign them up with the Kids Concierge, who will take them on river walks and bike rides while you relax at the spa or play golf. Summer rates start at $261. 

Frequent contributor and New England native Jeanne O’Brien Coffey delights in sharing stories about her corner of the world. Her work has also appeared in Boston and Naturally, Danny Seo magazines.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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