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Pancaking all-new and nostalgia

The author’s children at one of the 1950s vintage cottages at Woodward’s Inn of Lincoln. The author’s children at one of the 1950s vintage cottages at Woodward’s Inn of Lincoln. (christopher klein for the boston globe)
By Christopher Klein
Globe Correspondent / August 5, 2012
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LINCOLN — A weekend getaway to a quaint New England destination has its time and place. A family vacation with a toddler and preschooler is definitely not one of them.

Parents may hunger for the refined tastes of charming inns and historic houses, but with young children in tow, a trip marinated in kitschy nostalgia, travel’s ultimate comfort food, is the wiser choice.

A half-century ago, vacationing families discovered summertime fun at Lincoln’s roadside attractions, pancake houses, and cabin courts, and not much has changed since in this hamlet. Sure, condo complexes have mushroomed and minivans have supplanted wood-paneled station wagons, but time has a way of standing still in this pocket of the White Mountains.

So for our latest family vacation, we decided to go retro in Lincoln. Drew, 4, and Sydney, 2, were excited to head north to “New Hampster,” as they call it. An afternoon nap on the drive up Interstate 93 had them refreshed enough to scale Loon Mountain — albeit on the Summit Skyride, the state’s longest scenic gondola. We excitedly piled into the perfectly sized four-person car, although my wife was a little uneasy when the gondola came to a dead stop. “They must have fail-safes, right?” she said as we dangled.

Soon enough we resumed our steep ascent and quickly arrived at the 2,750-foot summit, where the temperature was notably cooler and the breezes more refreshing. Atop the mountain were nature trails, glacial caves, artisan crafters, and a cafe, but only one attraction mesmerized our tykes: a playground. Sure, slides and monkey bars aren’t hard to come by, but how many are a half-mile high with killer views of mountains?

After working up an appetite in the mountain air, we drove west on Route 112 to North Woodstock for dinner at Woodstock Station, housed in a 19th-century train depot. The casual brewpub inside the Woodstock Inn had just opened its new bar area as part of a $3 million expansion, and Drew and Sydney celebrated by putting its stage to the test with an impromptu jam session singing the alphabet song with some other kids. The children’s menu, with more than 20 choices ranging from hot dogs and Fluffernutters to steak and scallops, caters to both picky and posh palates. The regular menu is even more voluminous, and Woodstock Station’s craft-brewed porters, stouts, and ales are nectars for parents seeking to unwind.

After dinner, we pulled into the Irving gas station on US Route 3 and had a close encounter of the third kind. A gray-skinned alien with a bald, bulbous head stared us down with his slanted eyes. Luckily, our intergalactic interloper was just a life-size mural on the station’s exterior, but when Betty and Barney Hill drove their ’57 Chevy Bel Air by this spot on Sept. 19, 1961, they claim to have been abducted by a similar-looking spaceman. The incident inspired a best-selling book and a TV movie starring James Earl Jones, and 50 years later it continues to fascinate. Just last year a state historical marker was erected near Indian Head Resort. It reports the couple “experienced a close encounter with an unidentified flying object and two hours of ‘lost’ time while driving south on Route 3 near Lincoln.”

Well, I don’t know about the UFO, but our accommodations that night proved it’s quite easy to get lost in time in Lincoln. The cozy cabin court at Woodward’s Inn of Lincoln — with two rows of nearly identical cottages sporting flower boxes, small driveways, and lawn chairs squeezed onto small patches of grass — resembled a mini-suburbia that could have been ripped right out of the black-and-white world of the 1950s. We only lacked a hula-hoop for Sydney and a Davy Crockett raccoon hat for Drew. Our two-bedroom cabin was modest, but so was the rate: $99 for a summertime Saturday night.

Drive around Lincoln, and one thing is clear: This town of 1,600 people is not hurting for breakfast spots. Based on my quick calculations, the ratio of pancake houses to residents is roughly one to one. In any other town, a restaurant called Longhorn Palace with a plastic cow out front and a chuck wagon for an entrance would be a steakhouse. In Lincoln? Pancake house. (No wonder Barney Hill described the UFO he saw as pancake-shaped.) Inside, the Longhorn Palace is like a Wild West outpost — if a Wild West outpost had an arcade with Ms. Pac-Man games and a gift shop selling toy moose and throw rugs depicting da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” Hey, at least the Apostles weren’t feasting on pancakes.

Lincoln’s flapjack fetish might date to its old lumber days when a steady stream of pine logs flowed down the Pemigewasset River. These days, it’s not lumberjacks but canoeists and kayakers who ply the river, and the historic rail line built in 1846 for the paper mills now hosts scenic excursions by the Hobo Railroad. A choo-choo ride is always a crowd-pleaser for our kids, and the 80-minute round trip didn’t disappoint. A friendly conductor welcomed us aboard the Hobo’s vintage railcars, which chugged through the woods and along the crystal-clear, rippling Pemigewasset. We were still fortified by the pancakes, but other families dug into the railroad’s picnic lunches, which were appropriately delivered in a hobo sack tied to a stick. Drew waved constantly at passing motorists, cyclists, and even dogs, while Sydney snacked and colored away at our table. “It’s certainly relaxing,” my wife said as “The King of the Road” played softly on the sound system.

As part of the Hobo Railroad’s 25th anniversary celebration, Sundays bring popular children’s characters to the station for story times, and Clifford the Big Red Dog was the special guest the day we visited. After a big hug from Clifford, Drew’s radar quickly shifted from canine to ursine as we drove off to Clark’s Trading Post, the 84-year-old White Mountains institution famous for its trained bears.

From the parking lot, an old-fashioned calliope beckoned us like a pied piper, and the smell of wood smoke powering Clark’s steam train attraction wafted through the air. Having already ridden the rails and knowing our skittish Sydney would likely not appreciate the wild histrionics of the notorious “Wolfman” who ambushes the train, we wisely invoked our parental discretion and skipped this two-mile railroad ride. Instead, we browsed Clark’s quirky museum pieces, which range from a six-legged calf to vintage horse-drawn fire engines. When Drew pointed at a record collection and asked what they were, I was the one feeling like an antique.

While older kids enjoyed the water-blaster boats and the climbing tower featuring a quarter-scale replica of the dearly departed Old Man of the Mountain, our youngsters settled into their seats inside the two-story big top to first watch the limber stuntwork of the Yandong Chinese Acrobatic Troupe and then Echo and Tula, two of Clark’s trained North American black bears.

When Clark’s first opened in 1928, Eskimo sled dogs were the stars. The first bear arrived three years later, but it wasn’t until 1949 that the Clark family began training the bears for show work. Since then, although popular opinion about animal shows may have shifted, generations of Clarks and generations of bears have entertained visitors.

Bear handler Murray Clark tells the crowd that the bears are as much a part of his family as the 20 Clarks who work at the trading post, and indeed, outside the show ring are tombstones — with inscriptions such as “Here lies my friend, Jasper” — marking the bears’ final resting spots.

On this day, Echo and Tula rode scooters, balanced on barrels, and even played some “bearsketball,” dunking a ball through a hoop. And much like children, the bears got tastes of ice cream as rewards. Through it all, Drew and Sydney sat in rapt attention, their brown eyes wide with excitement. Watching them, I realized that no matter how much — or how little — things change over the years, the joy in seeing your kids’ faces light up with smiles is truly a timeless experience.

Christopher Klein can be reached at christopherklein.com.

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