Photo: Courtesy of Story Land
“LOOK AT HOW BEAUTIFUL IT IS!” is what I yelled every few minutes while driving through the White Mountains in New Hampshire, much to my iPad-addicted kindergartener's annoyance. But with its lush forests and babbling creeks, I couldn't stop myself. It was just too pretty.
I'd long heard of (and in some cases, been to) Martha’s Vineyard, Burlington, Providence; yup, New England is full of picturesque cities perfect for family getaways. But I recently discovered that the region’s smallest and sometimes overlooked state, New Hampshire, is also big on fun for little ones. The granite state's size means there's plenty to explore in this charming (and tax-free, might I add) region without subjecting your kids to hours and hours of driving time—you can motor from the very bottom of New Hampshire up to the Canadian border in less than five hours. And it doesn't hurt that it's one of the safest states in the U.S.
Over four days, my five-year-old and I saw many a quaint Main Street, shops with seasonal gear for winter skiing and summer kayaking, cute family-owned restaurants and stunning national parks. We hit up the world's largest arcade, visited multiple amusement parks and learned about regional wildlife and conservation. We got to sample local maple syrup (though, let's be honest, Canadian syrup is still our number one!) and ride every kind of bumper vehicle in existence. In short, we had a blast.
So if you're looking for a new road trip destination this summer (it's nine hours from Toronto and four hours from Montreal), we've rounded up some of the best things to do with kids in New Hampshire.
If you're in North Conway, everyone is talking about Story Land. Whenever I chatted with locals and fellow hotel guests about the almost-70-year-old theme park, the nostalgia was thick. Some are more recent regulars and others remembered going as kids. And it makes sense—Story Land and its many rides, play areas and experiences are themed around timeless fairy tales and nursery rhymes, so it never goes out of style.
Just like New England itself, Story Land is quaint and approachable, which means it won’t overwhelm little kids (unless, like us, you're there during an unfortunate infestation of spongy moth caterpillars, but we worked around them). There's definitely a day's worth of rides, games, water fun, farm animals and princess stuff. We loved riding on the Buccaneer pirate ship, swirling in the tea cups, and my son went on his first roller coaster (with minimal tears, big win!). His favourite part was getting his own Story Land-themed “driver’s license,” which gave him some major big-boy energy. He's worn it around his neck every day since.
Like I said: maple syrup. There's lots of it, so breakfast was always a happy time with stacks of pancakes at Peach's in North Conway, Sunshine and Pa's in Meredith and Flapjacks in Lincoln (where a toy train continuously circled the restaurant on a track high up by the ceiling, to my kid's delight). We also played hangman on the paper tablecloth while nibbling Mac ’n’ cheese bites and award-winning hot wings at Delaney’s Hole In the Wall, a beloved sports bar in North Conway that has such a varied menu they even have a sushi chef on hand. We nabbed a seat on the patio at the cabin-themed Muddy Moose (at 5 p.m.—the restaurant was lined up out the door by 6:15!) and had homey plates of nachos and burgers with yummy flat fries.
After a few hours on the beach in Center Harbour, we had a taste of Italy (and a hella good coffee) at Gusto, a cute cafe with live music, lake views and a heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs that my son, who normally demands plain sauceless pasta, happily devoured. On our last night in Meredith, we got dressed up and headed to Canoe, an upscale tavern with beautiful views and a famed sweet and sour calamari appetizer (we both approved). We capped our trip with a visit to one of many locations of The Common Man, first loading up on souvenirs across the street at their company store. My adult grilled cheese with tomato soup for dipping was so good I still think about it, and the creative children's menu gives kids a list of categories with checkboxes (proteins, veggies, drinks, etc.) so they can craft their perfect meal. Admittedly, we didn't sample much New England seafood (I know, I know) but there were tons of chowders, clams, lobster and fish dishes to be had.
I can’t think of a better way to connect with nature than without the distraction of modern technology—and that's exactly what happened to me when I lost my phone in the Lost River Gorge. Yes, I made a rookie hiker's mistake while crawling through a particularly tight cave by leaving my phone in a loose jacket pocket, where it promptly fell into a waterfall. But honestly, the hike through a mile of boarded trails with 11 caves peppered throughout was so much fun that I was only mildly freaking out. And apparently, I wasn't the first—the staff quickly retrieved the goods (bless them). The gorge, with its human-sized bird's nest, suspended bridges and awesome gift shop, was definitely still a highlight of our trip.
Another was the Squam Lake Science Center in Holderness, a self-guided trail that teaches kids about local wildlife and conservation with lots of hands-on activities and real animals (like otters, bears and eagles). Halfway through the trail is a fun playground with a creative indoor play area (kids get to crawl through dark tunnels and climb a tree). Just call before you go to see if there are lots of class trips that day, as it can get pretty busy with school kids. There's a designated picnic spot if you need to refuel, but it's a ways in, so have a snack before setting off into the woods. For little ones with a soft spot for Old MacDonald, stop by Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm to explore a working family farm that dates back to the 18th century and join in a fun activity like a goat hike, where furry friends join in on an hour-long tour.
We skipped the popular bear show at Clark’s Bears and opted instead to get soaked on the bumper boats, play excavator in the sand, explore the old-timey cars and memorabilia and take a train ride into the woods, where the “Wolfman” was out to get us for trespassing. Take a pass on the train ride if your kids are very young or scare easily—it’s a bit creepy, especially when the Wolfman fires a fake gun, and my five-year-old cried at one point. But we got past it. (Ice cream heals all wounds, right?) People were also doing repeat runs on a massive snake-themed water slide that you ride down on a raft, which looked like tons of fun.
We swam at least once a day if not more, and I made sure we hit up the hotel pools after dinner each night for an extra breezy bedtime (IYKYK). The Hampton Inn in North Conway has an epic indoor water park with water slides for all ages and a wading pool with splash pad—my kid was obsessed, and though it was a bit chaotic, there was staff on hand to make sure all the kiddies followed safety guidelines. The pet-friendly spot in the Mount Washington Valley is super close to ski hills, hiking trails, mini-golf, restaurants and some retail therapy at the Settlers Green Outlet Village.
If you head to Meredith, stay at Mill Falls at the Lake, a beautiful all-season resort that includes four hotels and inns in and around Lake Winnipesaukee. Church Landing is particularly nice and right on the lake, where you can grab a few Muskoka chairs and make s'mores around the firepit, hit the beach or take a dip in one of the pools, and rent paddle boards, kayaks or even a pontoon boat (lawn games are free!). If you're looking for saltier swimming, you'll find an 18-mile sliver of the Atlantic ocean with pretty beaches down at the bottom of the state—towns like Porstmouth and Hampton Beach (a classic boardwalk with a bandshell, food and games) are tons of fun for the whole fam.
No family trip to Meredith is complete without a visit to nearby Laconia to check out Funspot, the world's biggest arcade that happens to be open every single day of the year. While there's bowling, mini-golf and bingo too, we spent our time playing some of the 600 arcade games (125 tokens were just $20 and lasted a good few hours) and collecting tickets to trade in at the huge prize booth.
A lot of the games are oriented to big-ticket wins (kids were literally toting around piles of them) and my son loved feeding the giant strips of tickets into the tallying machines (and then walking away with a sheriff's badge, a ring pop, a parachute monkey and a golden retriever keychain. Classic). There are tons of driving games for older kids and cute themed options for smaller kids (and, as always, some shooting games to avoid if that's not your thing). The bumper cars were also a huge hit. My only regret is not stopping at the Tamarack food stand on the way back to Meredith for some fried clams and a lobster roll. Sigh, the deep-fried snacks that got away...
Pro tip: We flew from Toronto to Boston (there are no direct flights to New Hampshire) and then drove the three hours to North Conway, but it was a long travel day—one that would have been a hard no if I’d had my toddler in tow. I think I clocked a hundred "Are We There Yet"s. If you fly, consider spending a night in Boston and heading to NH the following morning, or arrive early to explore the city and let your kids get their beans out before piling back into the car later in the day.