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Travel | Fall Comes to the Lake Country of New Hampshire

Travel | Fall Comes to the Lake Country of New Hampshire
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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 Faberg√© 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.

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.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Friday, September 7th, 2012

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