Like a lot of old New England mill towns, Laconia has had to forge a new identity for itself during the last few decades. But the “City on the Lakes” had one thing going for it that others didn’t.
“If it wasn’t for the big puddle we’d have nothing,” says one local businessman. The “big puddle” is, of course, Lake Winnipesaukee, one of the largest lakes in the Northeast and long a magnet for boaters, swimmers and vacationers.
In the last few years, Winnipesaukee has also attracted an increasing population of affluent second home owners, creative entrepreneurial business people and seasonal retirees. They’ve combined to change what has always been a blue-collar town into one that now welcomes artists, craftsmen, entertainers and some good restaurants.
One of the best things about Laconia is the architectural gems that are scattered all around. Start with the Gale Memorial Library on Main Street, circa 1913. The beautiful brick structure has been called “New Hampshire’s most important Romanesque Revival library building.” Its stained glass windows and gray slate roof give it a warm romantic charm. About 30 years ago the city built an addition on the library, but its flat modern style detracted from the original section. So, after the first major public fundraising effort in decades, the structure was taken down and replaced with one more in the style of the original. It’s just added to the sense that this is the city’s unofficial comfortable “living room.”
If you walk across Main Street, you’ll see another classic example of Romanesque Revival architecture. The 1892 Victorian train station is no longer used for passenger service — except when the summertime Winnipesaukee Railroad rolls through — but the grandeur of this edifice is timeless. While you’re here, you can dine at Las Pinatas, a lovely restaurant that’s been called “the most authentic Mexican restaurant in the state.” Or try The Black Cat Café, a casual coffee shop that serves good coffee but even better pasta salads; some nights “the Cat” even features live musical entertainment.
Farther down Main Street, you’ll see one of the city’s newest retail additions. Terra Perma is filled with naturally made products, including clothing made from cotton, hemp and bamboo, and locally made soaps and body lotions.
Walk across the street and less than a few hundred feet down on your left is Canal Street, so named because a canal connecting the Winnipesaukee River and Opechee Bay (a small section of Winnipesaukee) runs underneath. Canal Street is not Newbury Street but there are a number of small art galleries, photo shops and studios located here. At the end corner, the Awakenings Espresso Café is a pleasant place to stop for a “Laconia Latte.”
Now walk north on East Beacon Street and turn right onto Church Street, past the classic brick Post Office building and some small shops and offices. When you reach Jack’s Smoke Shop (a great tobacco shop, if you’re into that kind of thing), turn right and you’ll see a walkway running alongside the river. Civic boosters are still working on this “Riverwalk,” which they hope will highlight Laconia’s great connection to its waterways. Some sections are in better shape than others at this point but this is still the place to start a great walking adventure.
For instance, as you stroll behind the attractive modern City Hall you’ll walk into a small park at the rear of the Avery Dam. The dam’s sluiceway once turned the combines that powered the waterfront mills that dominated the local economy.
Now take the stairs up to the parking lot and on your left you’ll see the historic Belknap Mill. Built in 1823, it is the oldest unaltered brick textile mill in America. (The mill is a replica of a Massachusetts mill, no longer in existence, which is said to have started the Industrial Revolution in America.)
The mill was nearly destroyed during an urban renewal project years ago; in fact, the wrecking ball was already outside the structure when officials arrived with a court order halting the demolition.
On the first floor of the mill are a small museum and an art gallery. If you’ve come at the right time, you’ll get a tour of this fascinating four-story building that includes a description of its colorful and rugged history.
When you come back outside, turn right and walk across a footbridge that will give you a view of the Avery Dam from the “waterfall” side. Now turn around and continue down the Riverwalk through the meticulously kept, flowered Rotary Park; on some nights you can sometimes catch live free musical entertainment here.
Back on Main Street, stop into the Sundial Shop, which has an incredible array of gifts, goodies and cards and a bookstore out back. And if you exit through the store’s back entrance onto Pleasant Street you’ll discover a variety of small but unique antique and second-hand stores.
And if you’re downtown on a Sunday morning, take the big flight of stairs to the Christ Life Center, a local Christian church, on Main Street. It’s in a former theater and the central meeting room has a huge wooden floor that’s been lovingly restored by the congregation. You’ll be blessed.
While it’s sometimes considered “old-fashioned,” there are still few places in New England where you can have as much fun on a summer day as Weirs Beach. From the distinctive 1950s-style neon sign to the old arcades, Weirs Beach was created for family fun — and it still delivers.
To begin with, there’s the beach. It’s a great place for swimming or lounging in its clean white sand. (Be sure to check for beach postings; the shallow water and the number of kids in the water sometimes cause high bacteria counts.) In addition, it sits next to the Weirs Channel. That means boats — from cabin cruisers to “cigarette boats” — slow down to make it through the shallow channel, making it perfect for people watching.
For more active fun, follow the neon “Weirs Beach” sign onto Lakeside Avenue. You can either take a two- or a three-hour leisurely ride on the classic Mount Washington cruise ship, seeing Lake Winnipesaukee from the inside out with its grand vistas and huge waterfront mansions. Or you can stroll into one of the open-air Half-Moon Arcades and enjoy the games — everything from the most modern “simulators” to pinball baseball games that date back to the early 1900s.
Of course, if you’re really into the games you’ll have to take a short drive up Route 3 to Funspot. It has more than 500 games, including the largest collection of classic ’70s and ’80s video games in the world. There’s also bowling, skeeball, indoor golf, a kids’ arcade area and a miniature golf course where each hole is dedicated to a New Hampshire landmark.
If you want to grab a bite, go back down to the beach area and have lunch at the Beach Bar & Grill at the Naswa Resort, where you can practically dip your feet in Paugus Bay while you eat. At the Tamarack Drive-in, you’ll undoubtedly eat the greatest lobster roll of your life (they’ve won Best of NH awards given by this magazine for several years running). And for dessert, go to the Kellerhaus, where you can make your own ice cream sundae and buy some homemade candy.
At night, almost everything in The Weirs stays open but you also have the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, an award-winning professional community theater that presents mostly-family entertainment in a cozy, cabaret-style environment.
If you stay for more than a day, you’ll want to end in Lakeport.
The story goes that, years ago, native Ray Boissoneau was riding his Harley by a big, old mostly-abandoned manufacturing plant one day during Motorcycle Week when he noticed a “For Sale” sign out front.
It was a perfect location. By the side of Lake Opechee, it had great water views. Ray had always wanted to put together a museum for all the peculiar — and mundane — items he’d collected over the years, everything from Formula One racecars to washing machines. Since Ray is the founder of Electropac, the Manchester circuit board manufacturing firm, he had the means to make it happen.
The museum is still a work in progress, but Boissoneau is now the owner of the Lake Opechee Inn and Spa. The facility, located in the heart of the village, is perhaps the most visible sign of Laconia’s recent revival.
The inn itself is spectacular — and the place to stay. It has 33 distinctive rooms, each with its own design and style; most have fireplaces, hot tubs and a great view of the water. The O Steaks and Seafood restaurant in the inn (another Best of NH winner) is easily the fanciest restaurant in the city, serving amazing appetizers like fried Oysters Rockefeller and Ahi tuna, surprising entrées like Lobster “mac and cheese” and flavorful Kansas City sirloin strips, and delightful desserts like deep-fried Oreos with fresh, locally produced ice cream from the Sandwich Creamery.
For some more casual dining, try CJ Avery’s across the street, a local favorite, or Fratello’s Ristorante Italiano (also a Best of NH winner).
“OFF THE TRACK”
For many years, the city’s best view of Lake Winnipesaukee was in the parking lot of the Burger King restaurant on Union Avenue; but this summer T-Bones, the New Hampshire restaurant chain, built an outdoor deck that’s even better — and provides offerings that are a little tastier than a Whopper. T-Bones’ burgers were picked as Best in NH this year and were served to great acclaim at this year’s Best of NH Party in Manchester.
Most people who come to town visit the Tanger factory store outlets on Rte. 3 in Tilton. There are also a couple of stops in Gilford, just outside of town on Route 11, you may want to make. Both are popular with locals and tourists alike.
Sawyer’s Dairy Bar serves homemade ice cream as well as good old-fashioned fried seafood and chicken, and Patrick’s Pub is the closest thing to a neighborhood bar serving good food in the area.
Finally, the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion has emerged as one of the best places to see a live concert in New England. It was recently nominated by the Academy of Country Music as 2007 Music Venue of the Year, but August’s program features the Boston Pops, The Beach Boys and ZZ Top, as well as Trace Adkins and Sugarland.
The Lakes Region can be a whirlpool of scenery, shopping, food and fun. But if you know your way around Laconia to start with, you’ll always have a place to drop an anchor and stay awhile. NH
This article appears in the August 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine