Well-loved and still in mint condition, Lake Winnipesaukee occupies at least the physical heart of New Hampshire’s boating scene—and is bent on capturing the figurative heart and soul of New England mariners, too. So if you prefer to avoid the tides and salt of the coast, or simply want a change of pace, Winnie’s the right place: come 72 square miles of sweet-water nirvana set between the White Mountains to the north and picture-postcard New Hampshire to the south.
The first thing many boaters notice when setting out on the lake is the remarkable clarity of the water. “I think our short season contributes a lot to the water quality,” offers Jeff Fay, who represents the third generation of Fay’s that have run the eponymous boatyardon the lake’s southwest shore since 1944. Even in midsummer, water clarity can be 15 feet after a few calm days. With hundreds of powerboats zipping all over, and quite a few sailboats working out of Smith Cove, where Fay’s is located, the water is decidedly unspoiled—and usually warm enough to swim in, at least after June.
Indeed, it is Winnie’s consistency that has brought vacationers back to the lakeside town of Gilford and Fay’s for generations. “They like that we still treat customers the way we always have,” says Fay, who notes that his facility is one of the few left in New England where customers can still work on their own boats. Most choose to use the yard’s multitude of services, but a few die-hard, do-it-yourself sailboat owners still insist on wielding their own paintbrushes, sanders and powerwashers.
Smith Cove boasts the largest concentration of sailboats on the lake, which on the whole tends to be a powerboater’s paradise. Still, leaving Varney Point to port in a spanking northwesterly and coming out from under the lee of Lockes Island can be a memorable event for any mariner new to the lake. Farther on, after leaving Welch Island to port and reaching across a wide-open portion of the lake known locally as The Broads, the only logical destination is Wolfeboro to the northeast. And few will argue that this lively port is anything less than attractive.
Just exactly what allows Wolfeboro to lay claim to the title “Jewel of Lake Winnipesaukee” may be evident long before you actually tie up along the bustling waterfront. At first, it may be a shiny Lyman runabout from the 1950s skimming out to the open lake. Next you may encounter a stately Chris-Craft cruiser from the ‘60s, just clearing the shallows. With luck, a Gar Wood speedster from the 1920s or ‘30s may be spotted in the channel leading to the waterfront. And…well, you get the picture: Wolfeboro is classic-powerboat country.
At its heart is the New Hampshire Boat Museum, around which a powerboat-revival industry has arisen in the last 20 years or so. You can hardly move among the throngs ashore without overhearing conversations about boat restoration, vintage motors for sale and regattas to be held. In fact, the museum sponsors a vintage powerboat regatta each September that attracts thousands.
If your crew is more attracted to a carnival-like atmosphere, the better port is Weirs Beach, on the lake’s northwest shore. At what locals call “The Weirs” you’ll find waterslides, train rides, go-carts, a boardwalk and a swimming beach, among many other things. For the adults, there’s nightlife ashore, plenty of dockside dining choices and several marinas where you can tie up for the day, a week or longer. Just be sure you reserve a slip well in advance, as The Weirs—having served as a fun spot for boaters for more than half a century—is well loved.
Not interested in lakeside attractions and just want some peace and quiet? Winnie can provide that too, particularly when you consider it has some than 250 islands in whose lee you can anchor. On 112-acre Stonedam Island in Meredith, boaters are welcome to go ashore and explore the interior or hang out on shore. Amid the rest of the lake’s 180 miles of shoreline are coves in which you could be one of only two or three boats on a hot summer weekday. The north side of the southeast corner of the lake is particularly laid back during much of the summer.
Fishermen find Winnie a worthy destination as well, particularly those who pursue lake trout (togue) and landlocked salmon. The best fishing tends to occur in the cooler months, but there are plenty of guides who say they can hook you up almost anytime, as long as you play the dynamics of the hot and cold waters churning up and down and around the lake’s considerable depths.
In short, you can always find something attractive amid Lake Winnipesaukee’s crystalline waters. Rent a boat when you get there or trailer your own baby behind you. But by all means, put it on your “must visit” list of New England boating destinations.
Reminder: A boating-safety certificate is needed to operate a powerboat with an engine of 25 horsepower or more in New Hampshire waters. The certificate requires passing a boating-safety exam, or proof of equivalent certification in another state. For information call (888) 254-2125.