HART'S LOCATION, N.H. -- At 10 o'clock on a Friday night, a slow-motion snowfall whispered through the air outside The Notchland Inn. As I lugged my bags from the car up to the front door of this granite mansion nestled at the base of a mountain, I heard a whimper coming from a snowbank ahead, where a fluffy bear cub of a dog was sitting sentry.
This, I would learn later, was Crawford, no doubt named for the notch in the White Mountains that I had just driven down to get here, or perhaps for nearby Mount Crawford. I called out, ''Here, pooch!" and Crawford, a Bernese mountain dog, came bounding down, more than eager to sniff and jump and play.
There's nothing like a puppy, even a 50-pound one, to render human-scaled tension forgettable, and Crawford did his best to help me put the traffic-clogged drive through rain, sleet, and snow behind me. The Notchland Inn offers many of the world's other great tension relievers, too: wood-burning fireplaces, soaking tubs, mountain views, fantastic food, and gracious, welcoming service.
The best tension reliever of all is peace and quiet, and this 1860s building, which has been an inn in some form since the 1920s, has those in spades. The main inn has one phone, no TVs, and -- this is key -- no cellphone coverage.
''The first time I stayed here," assistant innkeeper Kath Harris said, ''everybody else was talking about what activity they were planning -- skiing, snowshoeing, shopping -- and I just thought, the only thing I'm going to do is sit in front of the fireplace all day and read and nap."
Harris was giving me permission to be lazy, but I didn't need it. Relaxing was the only thing on my agenda, at least for the rest of the night. After she showed me where to gather firewood and kindling, I retired to my room, named Zealand. Trimmed in green, Zealand has chunky Arts and Crafts-style furniture, a big platform fireplace, and a floral print bedspread and curtains that open to reveal a view of trees and snow, nothing more.
I resisted the urge to put a CD in the tableside CD player, the only nod to technology in sight, and instead indulged in the silence. Sure enough, nothing but my own thoughts competed with the heat of the bathwater, the sounds of the crackling logs, and the taste of the wine in my glass. I've never slept so soundly.
On Saturday, I decided to see how a little activity would feel -- after breakfast, of course. In the sunny dining room, the other guests, mostly couples, chatted while innkeepers Ed Butler, Les Schoof, and the staff took orders for omelettes, pancakes, French toast, and the like. As I dug into two perfectly cooked eggs sunny side up, and marveled at the revelation that is a grilled English muffin, Butler and Schoof table-hopped, making sure all those who were staying for dinner made their choices in advance, and asking if they needed activity advice. One couple quizzed Butler about sleigh-ride outfits nearby, while a foursome decided to split up, half shopping and half skiing.
For me, it would be snowshoeing. My one previous attempt had been with old-style tennis-racket type shoes, and I had the hardest time keeping them on. Notchland, thankfully, has modern equipment available for a mere $5 for four hours, so after one staff member gave me a brief lesson in putting them on and pointed me to the trail, I headed out.
The air was still, fluffy snow was falling, and the temperature was a mild mid-30s. Perfect. I stomped off along a trail that had just been blazed by a couple who were about 15 minutes ahead of me. They had packed the snow enough that I floated right on top, and within a few minutes I was surrounded by woods. I caught up to the trailblazers, and was congratulating myself on my athletic abilities, until one of them said, ''Want to try going in front? It's a little bit harder." Uh, no kidding. I started wading through knee-deep snow, packing the trail just enough to ease their way.
I huffed and puffed and didn't feel quite so self-congratulatory. We traded positions again after a while, and I followed as we struggled across a creek bed and up a couple of steep rises and then ambled along flatter terrain. At one point, we stopped and listened to the distinct sound of a woodpecker in a nearby tree, and gurgling water nearby.
After about an hour, I left my new friends (architects from Portland, Maine) and turned back to the inn, my mind on lunch. After changing out of my wet jeans, I ran into the architects, who had returned and were heading for a soak in the outdoor hot tub. When I commented on the unlikely combination of bathrobe and snowboots, the male half of the couple smiled and said, ''You should get out of Boston more often."
Who could argue with that?
Notchland doesn't serve lunch, but I had heard Butler steering folks to nearby Jackson, where the delightful As You Like It cafe sold me a delicious sandwich and lentil soup, along with a perfect latte. Back at the inn, I built another fire, drew another bath, read another chapter of Trollope, and took another nap. By about 6 p.m., the smell of garlic and wine and meat helped pull me out of slumber, into the shower, and downstairs for, yes, another meal.
Notchland's five-course dinner costs just $35, not including wine, and it's a delicious bargain, from the little herbed biscuits Butler and company handed out at the start to a spicy tomato soup, moist and crispy crab cake, rustic braised chicken thighs, mixed green salad, and a caramel-apple tart for dessert. It was all quite leisurely in pace, stretching out over about 2½ hours and punctuated not only by the tastes but by impromptu visits from Crawford and the adult Bernese on the property, the beautiful Abigail.
The only moment of tension came when the voice of one diner started to rise above the general level of conversation, and a few heads turned when we heard, ''You should never talk to me that way, Michael." It didn't last long. Either he decided to stop talking to her that way, or she decided to stop caring, at least for the moment. Thank goodness. If the magic of Notchland doesn't get you to stop fighting, nothing will.
Joe Yonan can be reached at email@example.com.