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By Elizabeth Gehrman
In a region appreciated mostly for its abundance of year-round outdoor adventure—from skiing, snowboarding, and tubing in the winter to hiking, biking, and camping in the spring, summer, and fall—it’s easy to overlook one of the more surprising perks of exploring Mt Washington Valley: shopping.
In fact, it’s a shopper’s nirvana where you’ll find the best of both worlds, from original and inspired locally owned boutiques to bargains galore at one of New England’s most exciting outlet malls. And best of all, because it’s New Hampshire, everything’s tax-free.
For the best retail experience, the ideal strategy is to devote at least one day to each facet of the area’s dual shopping personality. With an inn for every budget and dozens of restaurants and attractions right in the valley, it’s easy and fun to make a weekend of it, whether you’re traveling solo or with a group, as Claire-Marie Ryan and her friends and family often do. “We plan the whole weekend around shopping,” says Ryan, who lives in Norwood and works at Roche Bros. “There could be anywhere from two to 20 of us. We always get such great deals at the outlets and then we go through all the stores in North Conway, poking in and out of all of them.”
A shopping strategy
Start your excursion at Settlers Green, a 78-store experience just two miles from the center of North Conway Village. “You will find bargains here,” says Laura Lemieux, assistant director of marketing. “We have a new section that just opened with big designer names like Ralph Lauren, Adidas, and Nike, and a Michael Kors opening in late June. But there’s more to shopping here than just finding bargains. The cool thing is you’ll find all of these great little surprises that really take shopping to the next level.”
The mall is at the forefront of a new concept in retail, “shoptainment”, which goes beyond the offerings in traditional malls by bringing new sights, sounds, and activities to patrons all in the same convenient location. For example, the grounds are dotted with works by New England artists like Hopkinton’s Michael Alfano, whose bronze sculpture of a red fox calls to mind the famous Make Way for Ducklings statues in Boston’s Public Garden. Conway’s Kristen Pobatschnig also takes on a regional theme with Waterfall in the Woods, an abstract mural in iridescent colors, while Haverhill’s Dale Rogers brings joy to life with Two Joyful Dancers. Boston visitors have probably seen Dale’s work before, too: He’s the mastermind behind the iconic American Dog sculpture that abuts Rt. 495.
In addition to shopping events like the super-popular Bring A Friend weekend in November—Claire-Marie Ryan’s favorite time to visit and a time Lemieux calls “better than Black Friday”—the Memorial Day Sidewalk Sale, and the Annual Mall-Wide Tent Sale from July 27 to August 5, Settlers Green features family-friendly Tuesday-night movies throughout the summer. Plus, there’s an Art Night on July 13, with live on-site painting demonstrations from local artists, and a Wednesday afternoon music series featuring a different local talent each week.
There’s also a wide variety of local pubs and restaurants at Settlers Green. For a quick snack, you can choose from several cafes; among the crowd-pleasers are The Met, for homemade soups, paninis, salads, and gelato, and Wicked Fresh Craft Burgers, with an extensive menu including veggie burgers and toppings like caramelized onions, truffle sauce, and fried eggs. For something more substantial, Barley & Salt, Black Cap Grille, and Brandli’s are all full-service restaurants with bars. And, new this year, the award-winning White Mountain Cupcakery is offering baking lessons along with its sweet creations. Afterward, relax with a cup of tea and a chocolate cardamom or lavender coconut foot bath at The SoakingPot Infusion Spa to prepare you for day two of your shopaganza, when you can take a leisurely stroll around town browsing the independents.
Distinctive gifts at every corner
“There’s a hometown feel in the village,” says Kim Brown, an East Providence accountant who spends several weekends a year in North Conway, with either her husband or her girlfriends. “The feel is very eclectic at the independently owned stores, a.k.a the White Mountain Independents. You can find antiques or hemp clothing or souvenirs and it’s all right there within walking distance.”
“We pride ourselves in carrying unique items,” says Lynda Schuepp, owner of the beloved Penguin Gallery on Route 16 in the center of North Conway Village. “It’s music to my ears when someone comes in and says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve never seen this any place!’” Schuepp says the local merchants work together to make sure each shop has its own unique vibe. “It just makes for a better shopping experience.”
In addition to The Penguin there are several other memorable shops to visit that will be impossible to leave without a souvenir of some sort. Zeb’s General Store may be the town’s most visible emporium, in an old yellow porch-front Colonial on Route 16. Though it was founded in the 1990s, it feels like it’s from 1890, with a soda fountain, a penny-candy counter, barrels full of goods on the wooden floors, and antiques hanging from the rafters. You’ll find New England specialties like Vermont Sweetwater Sparkling Sap Seltzer, 18 varieties of Mike’s Maine Pickles, including pickled fiddleheads and mustard pickles, and Zeb’s own hand-cut soaps and moose cookie mix.
For a place that’s a bit more fashionable, try The Rugged Mill. It’s got an assortment of original outdoor apparel and décor, plus a wonderful clearance room and Spruce Hurricane with beautiful fashions, footwear, and accessories for women. There’s an independent bookstore, White Birch Books, that hosts author events; Soyfire Candle Bath & Body, a soy-candle store; Fields of Ambrosia Bath-Body-Aroma, a fragrance shop where you can create your own scent or choose from the hundreds of hard-to-find items; a model-train shop; and a consignment store, as well as two locations selling a huge variety of exclusive, handmade items: The Handcrafters Barn and the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen.
“Each store has its own personality,” says Schuepp, “and we’ve got a historic presence of stores that have carried through all the years, good times and bad. There’s something to be said for that.” Another plus, she says, is that the owners are often on the premises and have a big influence over their staff. “They really do care about the customer,” she says, “and the experience is a little more personal because of that.”
And that means your home, or the home of a loved one you’re shopping for a gift, gets a little more personal, too. And speaking of home, don’t forget to visit this year’s Home, Garden, and Flower Show at the Fryeburg Fairgrounds on May 19 and 20 for really special gifts. Whether you leave here with something as small as a playful refrigerator magnet, or as tasty as freshly made fudge, or as lasting as a fall sweater that becomes a wardrobe staple, it’s impossible to drive away from Mt Washington Valley without that one thing that has no price tag at all: A cherished memory.
Sponsored by Mount Washington Valley
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