MOULTONBOROUGH, N.H. - It's rare that an attraction's restaurant is a highlight. In far too many tourist traps, food service consists of overpriced, mediocre sustenance dependent on a captive, hungry audience.
The outdoor patio at Castle in the Clouds is an exception. With its nearly 360-degree view of mountains and lakes and a menu of sandwiches, salads, soups, and entrees such as steak tips and fish (most under $10), this eatery captures the spirit of the attraction itself. At an elevation of 1,300 feet, diners feel they're on top of the world, exactly the feeling Thomas Plant wanted to capture when he built this 16-room, Craftsman-style house in 1914 as a wedding present for his second wife, Olive.
The enterprising Plant (1859-1941) began his career with no formal education working in shoe factories in Lynn. At 27 he owned his own factory, and at 51, he had amassed a fortune of $21 million. He bought 6,300 acres that stretched from the Ossipee Mountains to the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee. He hired 1,000 workers, mostly Italian stone masons, to build his grand home. All the granite was quarried from the property, and whenever possible stones were cut five-sided; it was said a good stonemason could cut and lay only three of those stones a day. The wood in the home is oak, also harvested from the property.
The house was a modern marvel in the early 1900s. It was heated with forced hot air and air conditioned with spring water, which still bubbles up at a constant 41 degrees. It had an intercom system, central vacuum, and electric lights. The two-level basement included a brine-cooled wine cellar and laundry room with heated drying racks. And all the baths had "needle showers," a forerunner of spa Vichy showers, in which the shower is fed by spiral pipes with hundreds of tiny holes that create a surround spray of needle-like jets.
A visit begins with an introduction to the Plants and the castle in the solarium. Visitors are then free to wander; docents in each room answer questions.
Plant's stature - he was 5-foot-1 - influenced the design of the library, where he created a secret room cut into the wall. With its low-ceilinged entry, it would be hard for anyone taller to enter. It is said that he hid there to escape the burdens of his business dealings. Plant was an admirer of Napoleon, and the library contains his bust, portrait, and copies of his battle plans. Pictures in this room are hung in the Victorian manner, on fabric cords attached to medallions at the ceiling.
Views from nearly every room are stunning. A cream-colored, octagonal dining room, its ceiling painted with grapevines and soft purple bunches of grapes, overlooks a vista of lakes and mountains. Octagonal guest rooms on the corners of the house jut out to take advantage of the scenery. Even an "attendant's room," which might have been a workroom for a maid or a dressmaker, has an incredible view.
The grounds are also worth some time. The secluded, narrow access road follows a stream past "the pebble," a boulder the size of a small house, to a waterfall accessible by a boardwalk. Another stop on the road, the "overlook," affords a breathtaking view of Lake Winnipesaukee and all its inlets.
Plant lost his fortune in the stock market crash and by 1940 creditors had taken the house and property. It was a private home for some years until the Robey family opened it as a tourist attraction in 1956. Today it is owned and operated by the Lakes Region Conservation Trust, whose goal is to complete restoration by 2014, the 100th anniversary of Thomas Plant's dream house.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.