Old-fashioned Fun at Lake Sunapee

From a cruise on a Victorian-era steamboat to a quaint general store, Sunapee Harbor offers old-fashioned NH fun.

Lake Sunapee seems caught in a refreshing time warp, where the pleasures of a mid-summer day revolve around water sports, lakeside picnics and congenial conversation at a comfortable inn.

Friday Evening

We drove directly to Sunapee Harbor to board MV Kearsarge, a replica Victorian-era steamboat, where we sipped wine on the upper deck before descending to the dining room. Two full walls of windows assured everyone full views of the lake and its shingled bungalows, half hidden in trees that come right to the shore. As we dined on a buffet of roast beef, pulled pork, grilled chicken and a large salad bar, the captain pointed out a few landmarks, including New England’s only lake lighthouses. As the sun sank lower, the orange sky reflected on the water around us.

Saturday Morning

Our room at Dexter’s Inn was large and cheerful, with pastel flowered wallpaper, off-white trim and a cushioned window seat hinting of old-fashioned summer cottage. The scalloped edge on the white lace curtains was as close as it got to frilly, but the prim pink-and-white chintz stripes on the armchair set that straight.

After a breakfast of fresh-cut fruit, poppy seed muffins and crispy waffles, we set out to explore. The former farmhouse stands at the crest of a hill, its green lawns bordered in forest through which a network of cross-country ski trails invites summer walks. From the trail map we chose a meandering loop down to a pond, where we found two beaver dams, and along the side of a hill where glacial boulders form caves. After our climb back up the hill, we were ready for a swim in the pool on the back lawn.


We were lucky to get a table on the deck at The Anchorage in Sunapee Harbor, where we could watch boats as we tucked into fresh haddock fish & chips (seafood is delivered from the coast daily) and a Mediterranean flatbread with grilled chicken, basil, tomato and fresh mozzarella. We didn’t see Steven Tyler, a regular here — The Anchorage is where he met Joe Perry, resulting in America’s all-time best-selling hard rock band, Aerosmith.

Saturday Afternoon

Although there are no longer grand hotels on Lake Sunapee, there are enough large cottages from that era to arouse our curiosity about the lake’s past, and the Sunapee Historical Society Museum was only a few steps away. Along with the pilothouse of original steamship Kearsarge and the complete machine shop from the steamship company, we saw photos and memorabilia from the resort’s heyday, when visitors arrived by train and transferred to Woodsum steamboats to reach cottages and hotels.

The famed lighthouse on Lake Sunapee
Photo by Stillman Rogers

Shops around the tiny harbor, especially Wild Goose Country Store, whose old wooden-and-glass display cases are from the same era, seem in perfect tune with the vintage summer resort atmosphere. Along with penny candy, maple syrup and specialty local foods, the store sells games and non-electronic toys like marbles, puzzles, whirligigs and wooden cars and trucks — many locally made.

Because we had opted for the dinner cruise instead of the afternoon cruise on the MV Mt. Sunapee II we’d missed what John, our innkeeper at Dexter’s, had told us was one of the lake’s highlights — Captain Al Peterson’s lively stories. So we followed John’s advice and signed on for a sailboat cruise with Al, and got the bonus of a little instruction on boat handling thrown in with the stories. Sunapee is ideal for sailing, not crowded with speedboats.

Saturday Evening

After the sail, we stretched our legs on the short Sunapee Harbor Riverwalk, a half-mile trail alongside Sugar River and across the dam that controls the height of Lake Sunapee. We passed several old mill sites where local industry was powered by the surprisingly fast little river.

Scandinavian stuffed cabbage with a mixed berry sauce at Dexter's Inn.
Photo by Stillman Rogers

Dinner at Dexter’s

We were not prepared for a chef whose professional history spans half a dozen countries and who is equally at home with Scandinavian, Thai, Singaporean, Brazilian and German cuisines. Along with a regular menu of New England and German favorites, Rolf Schmidt adds nightly specials from his international repertoire. We began with a fresh tomato salad and delectable gravlax of fresh salmon cured in aquavit and dill. For entrées we chose Finnish cabbage rolls stuffed with delicately seasoned ground beef and pork in a blackberry reduction, and Sjömansbiff, a dark and savory Swedish casserole of beef and potatoes braised in beer. My dessert was custard with fresh pears baked inside.

We retired to a wicker sofa on the porch, where we compared notes with fellow guests who had taken their children to Mt. Sunapee’s new Adventure Park to try the just-opened Treetop Obstacle Course. I think I’ll take my Sunapee challenges on the snow-covered ground, thanks.

Sunday Morning

We’ve always been fascinated by New Hampshire’s summer chapels and although we’d photographed some, we’d never been to a service in one. So after breakfast we drove through Sunapee Harbor and past shore cottages to St. James Church at Burkehaven. Lake Sunapee was clearly Episcopalian territory in its heyday, as we found another — the stone St. Andrews — in Newbury. We picked up custom-built sandwiches from Marzelli’s Sunapee Harbor Sweet Shop before beginning our drive around the lake. The route was easy — we just kept the lake on our right and made right turns. We hit a few dead-ends, of course, but discovered roads that kept the water in sight for much of the way.

Sunday Afternoon

We ended up on Sunapee’s southern end, at The Fells, the 1890s estate of the Hay family. After touring the house, we admired the tall flowers of the perennial border and wandered through the rock garden and three formal walled gardens before following a trail through the woods to the lake. Here we found a picnic spot and savored the view along with sandwiches bursting with ham, provolone, roasted peppers and caramelized onions.


Categories: Summer Roadtrips, Weekend Trips