EATON, N.H. -- I knew I was going to like this place as soon as we arrived late on a Friday night, ragged after a rainy two-hour drive from Boston, and found a plate of homemade oatmeal-raisin cookies in our room.
There wasn't a crumb left by morning.
The cookies were the handiwork of Bobby Barker, who's also behind the Inn at Crystal Lake's sensational sugar-dusted blueberry muffins, custardy cheddar quiche, and pancakes so naturally sweet they're delicious even without maple syrup. Barker, a Winthrop native, owns this White Mountains inn with his partner, Tim Ostendorf, who doubles as bartender and breakfast server, among myriad other roles.
The duo are savvy marketers, luring guests with cookie tours in December and opera dinners from September through May, where Ostendorf, a Boston University music school graduate, serenades visitors with music from ``Don Giovanni," ``Madama Butterfly," and ``La Boheme." They've also teamed up with the nearby Stone Mountain Arts Center, offering package deals that include tickets to shows.
One June weekend, we were enticed by the inn's ``wildlife and bird-watching mud season special," a two-night, $295 package. The price included the room, two breakfasts, one dinner, one lunch, and an adorable gift bag of Audubon Society trail maps, a guide to wildlife refuges, insect-repelling body lotion, lavender goat milk soap (to scrub away mud after frolicking up mountains) and, in a cute final touch, birdseed. If the goal was to charm us, mission accomplished.
The package's outdoorsy theme was the perfect opportunity for our first White Mountains hike of the year. The inn is a 45-minute drive from Pinkham Notch, a trailhead for several great climbs, and five miles from bustling North Conway, home to hordes of gift shops, restaurants, hotels, and outlet stores.
Barker and Ostendorf bought the inn -- a handsome, four-story, yellow-clapboard house built in 1884 -- five years ago, and opened an on-site restaurant in 2003. Townspeople often stop by to dine, making the inn a central part of the tiny town of Eaton, which consists of little more than a church, a cemetery, and a general store. It's an excellent restaurant with a real chef, lovely dining room, and snug bar, the Palmer House Pub, packed with eye-grabbing knickknacks.
In previous lives, the inn was variously a private home, a library, a post office, and a boarding school; our third-floor bedroom, in fact, was once part of a boys' dormitory. Comfortable and carpeted, it had a double bed, bureau, rocking chair, side table, TV, and VCR. We especially liked the modern window air conditioner that we could set to a precise temperature. On the down side, the room had just one window, making it a bit dark, and the cramped bathroom was so narrow that the toilet blocked the inward-swinging door from opening all the way.
But we didn't mind much, because the Inn at Crystal Lake isn't a destination for luxury pampering; it's a place of simple comforts, no-pressure hospitality, easy access to some of the state's most beautiful outdoor spots, and great cooking. It also offers plenty of thoughtful amenities, like beach towels and beach chairs for guests to use at Crystal Lake, right across the street. There's also a cozy den with comfy couches, low- light lamps, a TV, stereo, DVDs, videos, and a large CD collection.
When it came time to hike, we skipped the nature walks and headed straight for the granddaddy of the Whites -- Mount Washington -- and climbed to the summit. That meant we were wild with hunger when we returned to the inn for dinner, and our meal was fantastic. The Thai chicken soup, boneless jerk chicken skewers, salads with maple balsamic vinaigrette, and pesto salmon were excellent. Roasted chicken was bland, but came with fabulous cornbread stuffing and expertly steamed broccoli. Chocolate cake was so-so, but warm peach cobbler was scrumptious.
Lunch came in the form of a meal voucher good at the Eaton Store, an old-fashioned general store with an antique milkshake machine and pretty good chow. Seated at counter stools, we happily ate chef salads, corn muffins, and chocolate chip cookies while enjoying the nonstop banter of the old-timer manning the grill. He seemed to know nearly every customer by name and, like the inn itself, oozed winning charm.
Contact Sacha Pfeiffer at firstname.lastname@example.org.