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Fine food and sleigh rides, too

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / February 6, 2005

ALBANY, N.H. -- ''Girls! Run!" the sleigh driver commanded, and the two big Welsh Cobs broke into a trot, the steady jingle of their bells punctuated by the screech of metal runners while the falling snow made silver threads in the glow of the mounted side lamps. We sank deeper into the upholstered seat and pulled the fleece blanket to our chins.

You don't have to take a sleigh ride if you stay at the Darby Field Inn, but in winter most guests do. In spring, summer, and fall the same horses -- Oonaugh and Aelwen and Spike, a massive 2,000-pound Belgian -- take visitors on carriage rides over some 200 acres of trails and woods, stopping for a panoramic view of Mount Washington and the Presidential Range. Kim and Beth Thomas run the sleigh and carriage rides, which are available to the public but can be booked only through the inn.

The rambling, slate blue inn, 6 miles south of the shopping and skiing mecca of North Conway, dates from 1826. Nearly all the common rooms and guest rooms offer a view of Mounts Washington, Adams, and Madison, as well as Wildcat, Doublehead, and Baldface, among others. There is a full-service restaurant, a tavern, and a heated outdoor pool in season; on-site spa services can be arranged. Marc and Maria Donaldson have owned and managed the inn since 1979.

Darby Field, by the way, was the intrepid Irishman credited with being the first man known to have ascended Mount Washington, in June 1642, a feat recorded in Governor John Winthrop's journal.

There is a wide range of rooms, from ''basic" with a shower only to the Mount Washington Suite, which features a two-sided gas fireplace with one side facing a sitting room and the other facing a two-person Jacuzzi. This spacious suite in cream and burgundy has mountain views on two sides, king-size bed, small refrigerator, and TV/VCR.

We stayed in a ''traditional" room, which was small (about 10-by-12 feet) but afforded a scenic mountain view. We had a queen-size bed, dresser, nightstands, and two comfortable chairs (but, alas, no lamp anywhere near the chairs, so the only place to read was on the bed). The room was telephone and television free. The bathroom had a full tub with shower and adequate storage and lighting. There was no hair dryer, but guests can borrow one at the desk. We were surprised to find a ''grab bag" of coupons and products, such as toothpaste, Band-Aids, Dramamine, and a trail mix bar. The goodies are courtesy of the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, Marc Donaldson said.

The Darby Field tacks a 12 percent service charge onto all packages ''in lieu of individual tipping." Donaldson said the surcharge provides tips for waitstaff, cooks, housekeepers, and front office staff, as well as a pool for bonuses for deserving employees. The intent is commendable, but it's worth keeping in mind when considering or comparing room rates.

The inn's common rooms are inviting. The massive fieldstone fireplace dominating the living room reminded us that while gas fireplaces have their charms, you can't beat the slightly smoky smell and comforting crackle of a wood fire. Another wood fire burns in the tavern, where guests can help themselves to coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and muffins. There's a television in the den.

The restaurant was full on a snowy Saturday night. Customers come from throughout the North Conway area, Donaldson said, drawn by the view and the food. We enjoyed shrimp wrapped in bacon with a molasses bourbon sauce, artichoke hearts stuffed with homemade chicken sausage, marinated pork loin, and crisp roast duckling served with a raspberry-Chambord sauce. Desserts included French apple pie and crème Celeste, an unusual, tart, sour-cream custard made without eggs. Portions were generous, and the wine list is extensive. The inn offers a four-course dinner for two for $70 plus tax and gratuity, and the menu changes frequently.

At Sunday breakfast, we looked out over new fallen snow and watched the clouds lift from Mount Washington and the sky turn a bright blue. The morning's specialties were eggs Benedict and pancakes, but guests also can choose eggs cooked to order, bacon, sausage, home fries, hot and cold cereal, fruit and juice, and a variety of breads, including Maria Donaldson's homemade whole wheat toast.

As it happened, it was the morning of the blizzard of 2005, and we were beginning to worry about our return home. That's when Marc came through the dining room offering everyone in the path of the storm a late checkout or an additional night at half price. That was all the prompting we needed to settle back and watch our fellow guests climb into one of the Thomases' old-fashioned sleighs and glide away.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at ealbanese@globe.com.

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