It had been many years since we’d visited Squam Lake, but we remembered it as a real throwback place, where vintage wooden boats purred through pristine waters, loons sang at night, and development had yet to mar the shoreline. A magical, old-fashioned, natural spot, more of movies than reality. We hated to be disappointed: Had it changed for the worst? Not one bit, we discovered on a recent visit. Unlike its rollicking, power-boat-clogged neighbor, Lake Winnipesaukee, this idyllic spot in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region is still peaceful and pristine. Strict zoning rules and conservation efforts have kept houses discreetly hidden from the shoreline and its surrounding acres of forests, meadows, vernal pools, and marshes beautifully preserved.
The crystal-clear, spring-fed lake, home to nesting loons, bald eagles, and tucked-away family camps, is dotted with islands and surrounded by woods and low mountain peaks. “It still looks just like it did in the movie ‘On Golden Pond’,” a woman sitting next to us on the dock gushed. Everyone who visits knows that the 1981 Academy award winning movie was filmed here. Locals are pretty much tired of hearing it. “We try to downplay the ‘On Golden Pond’ connection and concentrate on the natural history and beauty of the area,” says Iain MacLeod, executive director of the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center. “Of course, we still get busloads of Japanese visitors who watched the movie the night before and want to see where Jane Fonda jumped in.” Well, what the heck? We do, too.
Don’t miss a visit to the outstanding Squam Lakes Natural Science Center (603-968-7194, www.nhnature.org, $14-$19). Walk the three-quarter-mile trail to see native animals in natural settings and a variety of exhibit buildings and pavilions, artfully designed to fit into the natural environment and contours of the land. The newly opened Water Matters Pavilion features live turtles, fish, frogs, and more, along with 18 interactive exhibits, including a very cool one where you can hover your hand over kinetic sand to make it “rain,” and watch how the water swells rivers and ponds and flows around the contours of the land. The longstanding center, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, has more than 90 animals, including deer, mountain lions, otters, bobcats, black bears, and raptors, along with a slew of touch, see, hear, and smell displays.
There are also nature walks and hiking trails (hike to the top of Mount Fayal for great lake and mountain views), picnic areas, and a giant, interactive playground with chutes, ladders, cages, and more.
The best way to appreciate Squam Lake is to get on it. Squam Lakes Natural Science Center offers narrated, 90-minute cruises ($21-$25); you’re likely to see loons and bald eagles as you take in the scenery and learn about the natural history of the lake and surroundings. And, yes, if you like, they’ll show you where Fonda jumped in, and other “On Golden Pond” movie locations.
DIY-ers can rent kayaks or canoes from the Squam Lakes Association (603-968-7336, www.squamlakes.org, $15 an hour, $50 a day) and paddleboards ($20/$65). A number of local marinas also offer power boat rentals. Pack your bathing suits and a picnic basket and head to Moon Island, with several small beaches.
Landlubbers enjoy the hiking trails at Chamberlain-Reynolds Memorial Forest (www.squamlakes.org/natural-areas-trails-and-recreation/maps). The 157-acre preserve has more than four miles of trails, a boardwalk through marshlands and swamp, and more than a mile of lakefront property.
In Holderness, the jumping-off point for most lake activities, you can stroll the lovely Kirkwood Gardens (Route 3, 603-968-7194, www.nhnature.org/visit/kirkwood_gardens.php, free), on the grounds of the former historic Holderness Inn, and browse the Squam Lake Artisans Gallery (located at the inn, 603-968-9525, www.squamlakesartisans.com), selling the crafts and artwork of more than 30 local artists.
Since 1897, generations of families have returned each year to vacation at Rockywold Deephaven Camps (603-968-3313, www.rdcsquam.com, lodge rooms from $175 a night, cabins from $3,305 per week, meals and activities included). A variety of accommodations are available in vintage cottages and a timber-beamed lodge, most with lake views, docks, and fireplaces. Hearty, buffet-style meals are served in a rustic, post-and-beam dining hall, with in-your-face lake views, and boat rental and activities, like tennis, nature hikes, fishing and boat tours, are offered daily.
Guests rave about the “welcoming inn keepers and staff,” “lovely, comfortable rooms,” and “relaxing, quiet atmosphere at the Squam Lake Inn (800-839-6205, www.squamlakeinn.com, rooms from $179). Rooms at the inn, located in a renovated 1895 farmhouse within easy walking distance to Squam Lake, are bright and airy, and the front porch is a great place to relax. Breakfast is included, and the on-site restaurant is one of the top places to dine in the area (see below.)
Great lake views, friendly service, and consistently decent food make Walter’s Basin a favorite (603-968-4412, www.waltersbasin.com). The something-for-everyone menu features burgers (try the best-selling, heart-clogging Bowman Burger with pulled pork and bacon), seafood (we like the haddock sandwich and lobster sliders), ribs, chicken, and pasta dishes. It’s a popular place for lunch and dinner, and the pub is a local gathering spot.
The cozy, indoor-outdoor Inn Kitchen + Bar, located at the Squam Lake Inn (603-968-4417, innkitchen.com), showcases thoughtfully sourced, local ingredients in dishes like the lemon thyme brined buttermilk fried chicken, grilled salmon with zucchini noodles and artichoke hearts, and asparagus, peas and prosciutto served over fresh parsley fettucine.
If you’re looking to pick up a quick sandwich or picnic fixings, stop by the Squam Lake Marketplace (603-968-8588, www.squammarket.com) in the center of Holderness. The slightly upscale market has made to order hot and cold sandwiches and wraps, garnished with ultra-fresh greens and veggies from local farms, grilled paninis, and breakfast sandwiches. There’s also a nice selection of local cheeses, meats, jams, eggs, and more.