First thing in the morning, I heard the loons.
It wasn’t the maniacal laugh, that “crazy as a loon” sound, but the birds’ other voice, that calm staccato ululation that tells you that you could be nowhere else in the world but on a northern lake. And on this northern lake, on this tart autumn morning, the mist rose to reveal the incandescence of birches and maples brightening the shore and reflected in the water. Could any soundtrack better fit the scene?
I was in Holderness, New Hampshire, listening to the loons from my deck at the The Manor on Golden Pond, a sumptuous hostelry located on … well, not on Golden Pond, because there is no Golden Pond, but on Squam Lake, which sprawls just off the northwestern corner of Lake Winnipesaukee and is far too big ever to be mistaken for a pond. The Manor got its name because Squam Lake starred in On Golden Pond, the much-loved 1981 Katharine Hepburn/Henry Fonda vehicle that was surely Hollywood’s first recognition of loons. Well, real ones, anyway.
Squam can be tantalizingly elusive, as I learned when I left my lake-view quarters at the Manor and set off to enjoy its foliage-dappled shores from the roadside. Sure, there are dusty little lanes that trickle off from the blacktop, heading down toward the water, but I shied away from those, as I figured they’d all lead to genteel summer homes where crabby old guys like Fonda’s Norman Thayer character would shoo me away. Instead, I stayed on Route 113, heading northeast out of Holderness, looking for the pulloff for the trail up Mount Percival. I found it, and followed the two-mile trail–a pine-needle carpet at first, then a steeper challenge–to a vista that took in far more of Squam than I could have ever beheld by braving old Norman.
New Hampshire’s Lakes Region is as much about woods as water. Continuing on 113, I tunneled through deep forest, a hardwood kaleidoscope in autumn. The white clapboards of Center Sandwich, the next town I reached, were more starkly chaste for the contrast: Did early New Englanders paint their villages white as a foil for October foliage? I entertained this unlikely possibility as I stood before the 1793 Old Baptist Meeting House (today part of the Federated Church of Sandwich), one of the most photographed churches in New England. By itself, it would be a pretty white church; framed in fall colors, it was like the serene little jewel inside a Fabergé egg.
The Granite State’s own Faberges have a home in Center Sandwich: Since 1926, when it began as Sandwich Home Industries, the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen has maintained its flagship showrooms here. As I browsed textiles, jewelry, woodenware, glass, prints, and ceramics, I noticed just how much the colors of autumn had influenced the work of the state’s artisans, especially the potters.
I walked across the street from the League shop, to get a coffee at a place called Mocha Rizing, and encountered another local phenomenon. Here was a shop selling exotic blends of java, along with free-trade organic chocolate bars and fresh-baked scones–all hallmarks of small-town New England’s brave new world–and in the back room, hunkered into easy chairs, were the same quartet of decidedly unhip townsmen you’d have seen at any general store a generation ago. (Ed. note – Mocha Rizing has since closed, but we hear there’s another fine coffee shop in the same location.)
At North Sandwich, I faced a choice: Should I stay on 113, connecting with Route 25 to cut down faster toward Winnipesaukee, or loop farther north, toward the foothills below Mount Chocorua? I chose the emptier road, Route 113A (a.k.a. the Chinook Trail), and was rewarded with bright woodlands alternating with the more muted, almost melancholy, hues of marshlands and stubbled fields. And if I hadn’t swung north, I wouldn’t have come upon the loneliest little church in New Hampshire: the white, side-steepled Wonalancet Union Chapel at a bend in the road near nothing whatsoever. If I’d blinked and found it had vanished, I would have been no more surprised than I was at seeing it at all.
Now heading southeast into Tamworth center, I stopped for a bite at what must be one of the last general stores with a lunch counter. The folks at The Other Store will mix you a gallon of paint, make you a spare set of keys, or scoop you a bowl of corn chowder, which you can enjoy while perched on a red Naugahyde stool. I had mine on the deck out back, where a brook burbled past and leaves fluttered down onto my table.
Swinging southwest on Route 25 back toward the lakes, I found that loons have not only a presence on Squam and Winnipesaukee; they have a center. The Loon Preservation Committee’s Loon Center, on the shore of a narrow northern arm of Winnipesaukee in Moultonborough, is the place to learn all about the birds–and where I found out that the loons I’d heard at the Manor on Squam would soon be heading to points south along the Atlantic seaboard as the fall colors faded.
“The adults migrate at the end of October,” a young docent named Anna told me, “and the chicks leave a month later.” Anna also had the inside story on the loons of On Golden Pond. “When they did the filming, there were no loons on Squam,” she said, “so they brought some in from another New Hampshire lake.” Not that those were enough: At the Center, there’s a dummy loon, with a movable head, that appeared in the movie. But since five chicks hatched on Squam in 2011, Hollywood might not need this “loonbot” if there’s ever a remake.
The loon’s-eye view of Winnipesaukee is water-level–but the most spectacular vistas belong to the eagle’s realm, and one man made them his own. He was Thomas Plant, a Boston footwear manufacturer and shoe-machinery tycoon. He first visited the Lakes Region sometime around 1907 and eventually built a stone mansion on a baronial swath of 6,300 acres, from the mountaintop right down to Winnipesaukee’s shores. He named it Lucknow. It cost a million dollars, a tremendous sum at the time.
Lucknow eventually became a tourist attraction called Castle in the Clouds, maintained along with some 5,380 acres and 28 miles of trails by the Castle Preservation Society and the Lakes Region Conservation Trust. The Tiffany glass, the well-stocked library, the big billiard table, the guest room Teddy Roosevelt slept in–it’s all still there, along with the finest views from any house in New Hampshire.
I took the shuttle up to the Castle one day before the morning haze had burned off. My small group was met by a doughty old docent, one of those adamantine New England women whose stock seems to have arrived not with the Pilgrims but with the glaciers. As she was about to go into her recital of the home’s history, she overheard a woman with a Southern accent complaining that the haze was dulling the autumn colors and the panorama of the lake.
“Well,” the docent replied, looking the dissatisfied visitor in the eye, “hazy or not, it’s better than the view from my house. And I’m sure it’s better than the view from yours.”
Hugging Winnipesaukee’s eastern shore along Route 109 southeast through Tuftonboro, I did a double-take as I passed a 1947 Chevy parked alongside a pair of antique gas pumps. Figuring I’d driven into a time warp where I could fill up on regular for 29.9 cents a gallon, I pulled over and knocked on the office door. Two older gentlemen were sitting next to one of the garage bays as they sipped their afternoon coffee. I asked what a place like this was doing here, and why there was another just like it next door. “We’re hobby shops,” one of the fellows told me. There are four of them there in Melvin Village; only one does commercial work. “It just happened that way,” he explained. “We all work on our own cars; at last count, there were 75 antique automobiles registered in town.”
Wolfeboro, a few minutes’ drive down 109 from Melvin Village (maybe a half hour, if you’re babying your ’47 Chevy), bills itself as “America’s Oldest Summer Resort,” a nod to provincial governor John Wentworth, who built a vacation retreat–and a road from Portsmouth to reach it–in what was then a wilderness township in 1769. The place burned in 1820, but its overgrown foundations, christened the Governor Wentworth Historic Site, are still visible near the shores of Lake Wentworth. (The enormous key to the mansion is in the collection of Wolfeboro’s Libby Museum, which also houses curiosities ranging from a moose skeleton to a mummy’s hands.)
Given today’s amenities, Governor Wentworth might have favored the town as a fall resort as well. With its shops and eateries, it’s plenty lively in autumn, when calm days on Winnipesaukee still bring out sailboats and antique mahogany runabouts. The vintage-runabout motif (remember the Chris-Craft Norman Thayer owned in On Golden Pond?) is carried out nicely at Garwoods, a restaurant named for another of the companies that made those handsome boats; the bar is a ringer for one of its polished, pinstriped decks.
Lunching on the piazza, I watched the docking of a vessel older than any racy runabout. The M/S Mount Washington is a 230-foot excursion boat that has cruised Winnipesaukee since 1940. She was launched as the Chateaguay on Lake Champlain in 1888, and was cut into pieces and lugged by rail to New Hampshire some 50 years later, replacing the original Mount Washington, which had burned. From her home port of Weirs Beach, the big white boat stops at Alton Bay, Center Harbor, Meredith, and Wolfeboro, on a varying schedule. She was a bit late pulling in as I watched from my outdoor table, but I recalled something a crew member had once told me: “We’re not a train. We don’t run on time.”
Alton Bay, at Winnipesaukee’s southern tail, has the tranquil, lived-in feel of an old Michigan cottage community in one of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, with fried-clam joints–still serving in October– thrown in for New England effect. The town is, of course, connected by road to everywhere, but when the Mount Washington heaves into view at the head of the bay, it seems as though she’s coming to deliver a week’s worth of supplies. From the looks of things, that would be bait, flour, a few cases of Moxie, and the latest Saturday Evening Post.
I’d nearly finished circling the lakes. Tomorrow I’d continue northwest on Route 11, stopping at Gilford’s Ellacoya State Park to see the broad mirroring of color on Winnipesaukee, then ducking via 11B into incongruous Weirs Beach (a village in Laconia), its big neon sign urging travelers to hang a right toward an ocean resort that seems to be looking for an ocean, and for the 1950s. I’d swing up Route 3 through Meredith, its old linen mill polished and packed with cheerful shops and restaurants, now known as Mill Falls Marketplace. And I might head west from there on Route 104 over to Bristol and then swing up a counterclockwise route around pristine, spring-fed Newfound Lake, stopping to walk the wooded trails of Audubon’s Paradise Point Nature Center, Hebron Marsh Sanctuary, and Bear Mountain Sanctuary.
For now, though, I was tucked in at Gilford’s Inn at Smith Cove, a place that felt like the big summer camp of a well-to-do family, a camp on a lake that had been enjoyed for generations–a place where wealth had been displayed not in lace and china, but in an abundance of fir wainscoting, floor to ceiling, each room a snug redoubt of warm brown wood.
Dawn broke gray and cool the next morning. A small white boat glided past the dock outside my window. I was snug in the heart of New Hampshire, at the loveliest and most bittersweet of all the turnings of the seasons.