Both of my children embarked on a cross-country plane ride before they were 5 months old. And both times that inaugural flight was to Boston for our annual summer trip to the New Hampshire lakes region, which is about a two-hour drive north and west of Boston.
I spent my entire childhood in the Granite State and feel fortunate that my mom currently makes her warm-weather home on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, the biggest body of water in New Hampshire. It’s a bucolic setting: The bright blue lake is dotted with hundreds of little islands and is encircled by pine forest, a few rolling hills, family-friendly beaches, and enough entertainment for a month’s worth of family vacation.
As toddlers, my kids would play with plastic shovels and pails in the golden sand. Now, they scare the you-know-what out of me as they fling themselves into the lake from Grammie’s high rope swing. Once a year for the past decade, we’ve visited the same favorite ice-cream stand, dined at the same casual lakefront restaurants, zoomed around the same go-kart course, and fought the crowds with the rest of the like-minded tourists on rainy days at the same giant indoor arcade. We do the same things year after year. And that’s just how we like it.
We’ve made indelible memories at these touristy spots, and summer simply isn’t the same without these excursions to “Grammie’s lake.” This year, however, our summer-long family trip to Europe is precluding a visit to our beloved Lake Winnipesaukee. If you’re lucky enough to have a trip planned to the New Hampshire Lakes Region, say hello to some of our favorite hangouts, will ya? Here’s a sampling of the kinds of stuff we like to do when we’re there.
What to do with kids on Lake Winnipesaukee
This giant lake totals 72 square miles in central New Hampshire. A few cities border it, including Laconia, Wolfborough, Meredith, and Afton. We hang our hat near Laconia and Meredith, so that’s the area I know best.
Weirs Beach: The lake’s biggest and most popular public beach is often packed in the summer time (arrive early to secure a patch of sand on holidays and weekends). But the sandy beach area is surrounded by a boardwalk lined with arcade games, salt-water-taffy shops, fried-dough stands, and bumper cars. Nearby you’ll find water slides, mini golf, and even an old-timey drive-in theatre.
Boating and tubing: We’ve been fortunate to own our own ski boat, innertube, knee board, and water skis. But if you don’t have free access to boating, don’t despair. Marinas on the lake offer boat and ski/tube rentals; just be sure to research whether or not you’ll need a boating license to operate the type of craft you’d like to rent. Though there’s nothing quite like feeling the spray of the water on a small ski boat, sailboat or pontoon, you can also book a cruise on the larger 230-foot M/S Mount Washington. Weirs Beach is the Mount Washington‘s home port; the ship offers cruises every day.
Go-kart tracks at the lake are a big hit with my kids
Go-karts and bumper boats: You likely will see a few go-kart tracks off the sides of the highways in the Lakes Region; if you’ve got kids who have the need for speed like mine do, it’ll be difficult not to stop to check them out. We typically make at least one visit to the Weirs Beach Daytona Fun Park to race around the track and cool off on the bumper boats. This particular park also has batting cages, a high ropes course, and other pay-as-you-go activities.
Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad: When my son was about 4 and in his Thomas the Tank Engine phase, we spent a couple hours riding the Winnipesaukee Scenic Railroad, based in Meredith, which skirts the lake. This is one attraction we haven’t visited since, but at the time, when choo-choos were central to my preschooler’s life, it was a big hit.
Funspot: This huge indoor arcade claims to be the largest in the world—and I can believe it. The space is cavernous, with not only games that spit out tickets that kids can use to “buy” cheap prizes and silly souvenirs, but also with retro video games and vintage pinball machines. Still more fun: a full-sized bowling alley and pint-sized rides and bumper cars for the preschool set. My children can spend hours in this Laconia arcade, and they have, especially now that they are old enough to play at the arcade by themselves while I hole up in the snack shop with my laptop and free Wi-Fi.
Viewfinder Tip: Sawyer’s Dairy Bar, in Gilford, has been serving tasty lobster rolls since 1945. There’s a reason the nondescript take-out window is often hopping at lunch and dinner time.
Hikes: It was a great day when I realized both of my children were able to hike to the top of the one-mile West Rattlesnake Trail on their own feet. This easy trek is near Squam Lake and a favorite among visitors for its spectacular water views below. A bit closer to Lake Winnipesaukee is the 3.4-mile loop up Mount Major, which is more rigorous for little legs. Hikers here are also rewarded with lake vistas at the top.
Where to eat with kids on Lake Winnipesaukee
Lobster rolls, ice cream, and fried dough are among our diet staples when we’re on vacation in the Lakes Region, but burgers and other seafood dishes also top the list.
Kellerhaus: New Hampshire’s oldest candy maker and ice cream parlor dates back to 1907. I’ve heard this restaurant/sweet-shop is known for its breakfast Belgian waffles, but we only go to quaint Kellerhaus—complete with white ice cream parlor chairs—for its make-your-own-ice-cream-sundae bar. It’s near Weirs Beach and absolutely worthy of a visit.
Town Docks: Another popular place for ice cream is Town Docks, which is, appropriately, right next to the town of Meredith’s public boat docks. Dozens of flavors make choosing just one difficult, but you do need to do so quickly, since there’s usually a long line of people waiting behind you. I also recommend Town Docks for lunch or dinner, with its casual picnic tables in the sand. The menu includes seafood favorites such as clam chowder, fried calamari, and the beloved New England lobster roll, as well as burgers and fries. I’m partial to the nutty veggie burger with chipotle aioli.
Camp: A sister restaurant to Town Dock, Camp resembles a summer camp’s dining hall, with carvings in the wooden tables, a big stone fireplace, and a screen door at the entrance. This Meredith eatery is a tiny spot that fills quickly, so I recommend eating dinner early here. My family always (always!) orders Camp Crackers to start: melted cheddar and gorgonzola on crisp flatbread. And we often finish our meal with chocolate: toasted-coconut snowballs in hot fudge sauce, brownie sundaes, or…wait for it…campfire s’mores.
What do you like to do at your family’s go-to summer vacation spot?