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Travel | Fall Comes to the Lake Country of 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.

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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