Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire
February 8, 2017
Let this idyllic New Hampshire lake transport you to a quieter age of boating.By Ray Carbone • Photography by Karen Bobotas
At approximately eight miles long and 2 1/2 miles wide, with a maximum depth of 140 feet, Sunapee is a big lake—the fifth largest in New Hampshire—that somehow manages to feel small and intimate. Spend some time drifting its protected coves, swimming in its super-clear water or fishing along its sylvan shores, and you’ll remember why you bought a boat.
Sunapee awakens basic boating instincts. Perhaps it’s the number of classic wooden vessels one sees or the replica steamboat Kearsarge that plies the lake. Then again, it could just be that Sunapee is simply quieter, more laidback, than other New England lakes.
Clean & Clear
It’s also extraordinarily clean, with underwater visibility extending 30 feet or more. The Lake Sunapee Protective Association has been vigilant about maintaining the lake’s purity for over 100 years, and has helped keep Sunapee virtually milfoil-free — a pretty astounding feat.
In other words, Sunapee is nearly as pristine as it was in the late 1800s, when the railroad first began bringing hot and tired city residents from Boston, New York and other urban centers. After arriving, these so-called “rusticators” boarded steamboats that ferried them to lakeside hotels and boarding establishments. Automobile travel doomed the steamboat era, but Sunapee’s reputation as a tourist destination endured. Hotels morphed into inns, bed-and-breakfasts and seasonal homes where extended families gathered in summer. By the 1950s, most of the area was developed, and recreational boating was firmly embedded in the lake’s culture.
There is a good mix of boats on the lake, but most are small, given the limited access. “The average size of a boat here is about 18 or 20 feet,” says Bo Muller, who has operated Muller Boatworks in Sunapee for the last 40 years. “There are no size restrictions, but there are launch limits. You can’t really get anything in that’s much over 30 feet.”
As for speed limits, there aren’t any outside of the posted no-wake zones, but not many folks care about going fast. “We occasionally get someone from Winnipesaukee who really wants to open it up,” says Muller. “But they soon realize that it only takes two or three passes to see the whole lake. It’s really not that big.”
Getting on the Water
A handful of public and privately maintained launch sites provide public access, although most are only suitable for small boats, canoes and kayaks. The largest and busiest launch facility is the Sunapee Harbor town landing, in the heart of the village. Boaters who use this ramp must deal with summer congestion in town, as well as limited trailer parking on weekends. Additionally, the parking lot is a good distance from the ramp. The Sunapee Harbor website contains a detailed map of the area and helpful launching tips.
Another public launch can be found at Mount Sunapee State Park Beach, in the southern part of the lake. This ramp can only be used by small craft, and launch times are limited. Contact the park headquarters for hours of operation and current fee structure.
If you don’t want to trailer your own boat to Sunapee, you can always rent one at Sargents Marina, which has two locations: one on Sunapee Harbor and another in Georges Mills, in the northwest corner of the lake. Sargents rents a variety of powerboats, including pontoons and bowriders, as well as kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. It also carries watersports gear, such as tubes, skis and wakeboards.
“There are big lake trout and salmon, and the smallmouth bass fishing is really good,” says local boater Rick Green. The first two species prefer the lake’s colder, deeper zones, and are usually taken on spoons trolled on downrigger gear or wire line. You’ll need to fish close to the bottom for trout, but the salmon typically hold 15 to 30 feet below the surface, right along the thermocline. Bass, on the other hand, can be found around shallow rocks, weed beds, docks, channel edges and ledges throughout the season. They’ll hit a variety of lures, including soft-plastics, poppers, spinnerbaits and jigs, as well as live baits such as shiners and helgramites. Before you wet a line for any of the above species, make sure you have a New Hampshire fishing license. The folks at the Tackle Shack in Newbury can get you outfitted and point the way to some good fishing spots.
As mentioned, Sunapee’s clear water lends itself to snorkeling and diving, and there are several wrecks to check out, including that of the steamboat Weetamoo. If you’re interested, LaPorte Skindiving on Route 103 in Newbury offers dive equipment sales and lessons.
Wooden Boat Central
You’ll see a lot of wooden boats on Lake Sunapee, a tradition that began in the 1920s. “I would say there are well over 100 wooden boats on the lake,” says Bo Muller, who specializes in repairing and restoring classic boats. “There are even times when you’ll see more wooden boats than fiberglass. On Sunday evenings, there’ll be a good dozen or so putt-putting around.”
Muller points out that the number of existing boathouses, many dating back to the early days of boating, makes this possible. “It’s really the only good way to protect a wooden boat,” he says. The boathouses themselves are a major part of the Sunapee shorescape, and range from the simple to ornate.
Sail, Ski & Paddle
Sunapee’s sailing tradition also remains strong. The Lake Sunapee Yacht Club hosts 23 Starboats, making it one of the largest inland fleets of these Olympic-class vessels in the country. Meanwhile, the Lake Sunapee Cruising Fleet races every Wednesday evening and alternate Sunday afternoons during summer.
If watersports are your thing, Sunapee is a great place for tubing, skiing and wakeboarding, as the open stretches are virtually hazard-free. The broad north-central part of the lake is a popular area for the above activities.
Of course, kayakers, canoeists and paddleboarders also have a ball on Sunapee. Many gravitate to Burkehaven Harbor, where the rocks discourage larger vessels and the small islands offer protection from the wind. Visiting boaters should note that most of the shoreline and all of the islands on Sunapee are privately owned. However, you can go ashore in a few spots, such as the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge, where you’ll find hiking trails and beautiful gardens, as well as the Lincoln and Allison Gordon Wildlife Management Area, in the northwestern part of the lake.
Lake Sunapee has only one major town: Sunapee Harbor, on the lake’s midwestern shore. It’s a small and charming village with several shops, restaurants and waterfront activities. Free concerts are held in the local park during summer, and boaters can tie up at the town docks, adjacent to the Anchorage Restaurant, for up to three hours while they explore the village or grab a bite to eat.
But Sunapee Harbor isn’t the only game in town. In Newbury, at the very southern end of the lake, you can dock for up to two hours at the public landing and walk across the street for food and drinks at Bubba’s Bar and Grill, a casual family eatery. Nearby is the Newbury Harbor Gazebo, which hosts the occasional concert.
It’s not Weirs Beach, but for Sunapee fans it’ll do just fine. After all, the lake’s main attractions aren’t on shore. Take it from Bo Muller: “If somebody comes to Sunapee, they should plan to be on the water.” That’s about as simple as it gets.
Lake Sunapee at a Glance
License: New Hampshire requires a boating-safety certificate to operate a powerboat with an engine of 25 horsepower or more. The certificate requires passing a boating-safety exam, or proof of equivalent certification in another state. For information,
call (888) 254-2125.
Age Limit: Unless accompanied by an adult, no one under 16 may operate a boat or outboard motor in excess of 25 horsepower. Persons under 16 may not operate a personal watercraft under any conditions.
To protect loons, state law prohibits the use of lead sinkers and jigs in all fresh waters. The ban prohibits the use of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less and lead jigs less than one inch long along their longest axis.
Marinas & Service
- Burkehaven BoatWorks (603) 763-8717
The only full-service marina on Lake Sunapee. Offers service and repair. Slips are rented on a seasonal basis.
- Sargents Marina
(603) 762-0111 (Sunapee Harbor)
(603) 763-5036 (Georges Mills)
Maintains two boat and watersports rental facilities on the lake. Rentals include runabouts, pontoons, kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Also rents skis, kneeboards, wakeboards, tubes and fishing equipment.
- Osborne Marine (603) 763-0152
Boat sales, service and dockage. Slips are rented on a seasonal basis.
- Bob’s Beacon Marina (603) 763-4484
Boat sales and service.
- Brown’s Auto & Marine (603) 863-3322
Boat sales and service.
Boat, Kayak & Paddleboard Rental
Kayak Country (603) 381-8685: Mobile outfitter offering rentals of kayaks and stand-up paddleboards.
- Sunapee Harbor Town Launch
Free, town-operated launch site with courtesy float. Expect long lines in summer. Off-site trailer parking.
- Mount Sunapee State Park Beach
Small-boat access only. Limited operating hours. $10 fee for motorized vessels; no charge for non-motorized.
- Burkehaven Marina (see above)
Shallow, private ramp for small boats only. Boulder hazard 10 feet from shore.
- Newbury Station Boat Club
Privately owned ramp off Route 103 in Newbury.
- Car-top launching is available at Herrick Cove, New London; Soo-Nipi Park, New London, and Newbury Harbor Beach, Newbury.
Where to Eat
- Appleseed Restaurant (603) 938-2100
Long-established restaurant offering “country dining at country prices.” Named “Best Sunday Brunch” by New Hampshire magazine. Located in Bradford, near the southern part of the lake.
- The Anchorage (603) 763-3334
The only waterfront dining spot on Sunapee Harbor, this family eatery has a varied menu and a fun, casual atmosphere. Open seasonally.
- Bubba’s Bar & Grille (603) 763-3290
Popular “family-style” restaurant in Newbury Harbor serving lunch and dinner. Dockage available across the street at the Newbury town docks.
- Marzelli’s Deli (603) 763-2222
Delicious baked goods, homemade gelato, sweets and prepared meals, in Sunapee Harbor.
- Quack Shack (603) 763-3084
Ice cream and other treats in Sunapee Harbor.
- Wild Goose Country Store (603) 763-5516
Souvenirs, toys, collectibles, gifts, hand-crafted pottery, frames, jewelry, maple candy and penny candy. Also sells coffee and fresh-baked bread.
Things to See & Do
- Mount Sunapee State Park (603) 763-5561
Family campground, picnic area, hiking trails, beach and boat rentals, on the western shore of Sunapee.
- MV Mount Sunapee II & MV Kearsarge (603) 938-6465
Scenic cruises, narrated tours and dinner cruises. Both vessels depart from Sunapee Harbor.
- John Hay National Wildlife Refuge & The Fells Historic Estate and Gardens
Hiking trails and nature preserve on the eastern side of the lake. The Fells Estate comprises a classic early-1900s Colonial Revival home and gardens available for tours.
- Mount Sunapee Ski Resort (603) 763-3500
Summer activities include zip-line tours, aerial challenge courts, Segway tours, a gravity jump, a climbing wall and an 18-hole disc golf course. Also hosts the Annual League of NH Craftsmen’s Fair, a nine-day event held each August that showcases the work of local artisans.