A crowd dressed to the nines swarms the platform, vying one by one for a position on the chairlift. I feel ridiculous in hiking boots, shorts and T-shirt. Three beauties in long gowns approach, and then I see the bride.
This unusual entourage, of which I am now a part, jockeys for safe seating on the lift leading to the 2,743-foot summit of New Hampshire's Mount Sunapee. The day is sunny and fine, sparkling with the last rays of summer.
The group is headed to the top to witness vows leading to marital bliss. I am seeking the path to solitude -- Lake Solitude, that is.
Mount Sunapee looms above the Sunapee region of the state, an area on the western border richly blessed by natural beauty. At its base lies a massive lake, also called Sunapee, an Indian name loosely translated as Goose Lake (the lake used to be seasonally filled with wild geese). Together, the mountain, lake and other regional attractions have drawn visitors for generations.
From the summit of Mount Sunapee, which is a part of the 2,893-acre Mount Sunapee State Park, I begin a mile trek, which will culminate with a bird's-eye view of Lake Solitude, a jewel secreted 400 feet below in the depths of the forest.
Armed with water and lunch, I follow the trail until I emerge at White Ledges. Enormous slabs of pastel granite carpet the precipice. I spread my meal and drink in the view.
The vista of Lake Solitude from the edge is dizzyingly spectacular. A sprinkling of crimson and gold foliage peeks out from the green forest below, heralding the leafy autumn extravaganza to come.
Retracing my steps to the lift (run by the Mount Sunapee Resort ski area inside the state park), I watch the newlyweds picturesquely framed by Mount Kearsarge and Mount Cardigan in the distance and Lake Sunapee below.
From the base of the mountain, I get into my car and drive to the shores of Lake Sunapee and the Fells Historic Site at the John Hay National Wildlife Refuge in Newbury.
The Fells is the former summer retreat of John Hay, private secretary to President Abraham Lincoln, assistant secretary of state to President Rutherford B. Hayes and secretary of state to Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
Built in 1891 on the shores of Lake Sunapee among 1,000 acres of wilderness, the Fells is a turn- of-the-last-century Colonial that has been home to three generations of the Hay family.
The rooms are unfurnished but well maintained and provide a glimpse into the opulence enjoyed by this historic family over the century. The home is surrounded with fabulous gardens, the enduring passions of John Hay's son, Clarence, and his wife, Alice Appleton Hay.
A 100-foot-long perennial border -- 1930s-style in pink, blue and white -- sets the scene for the rose terrace, originally planted by Alice in 1924. It was her pride and joy. A brook trickles from the rose terrace to a Japanese water lily pool in the Alpine garden, where Clarence planted more than 500 rare plants between 1929 and 1935. (Only the hardy remain today.) A series of three garden rooms surrounded by high stone walls are planted with shrubs, vines and flowers and are furnished with benches, fountains, pots and statuary.
The centerpiece of the wildlife refuge is the John Hay II Forest Ecology Trail. This mile-long walk, over easy, flat terrain, leads to the shores of Lake Sunapee.
Two virgin hemlocks, each 300 to 400 years old, dominate the shoreline. Ferns, mosses and wildflowers blanket the forest floor. The crystalline waters lap against the rock-lined banks, tempting me to abandon my shoes and clothes for a dip, but I resist, emerge from the forest and head west to Cornish (where the longest covered bridge in the United States connects with the town with its Vermont sister across the river, Windsor) to visit the homestead of another famous New Hampshirite.
Calling Cornish home for much of his lifetime, Augustus Saint-Gaudens lived and worked here from 1885 until his death at age 59 in 1907. Now preserved as the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, the home, gardens, studios, galleries and woodlands of the Irish-born sculptor illuminate his amazing talents.
Born to a French father and Irish mother in Dublin, Ireland, Saint-Gaudens emigrated to the United States at age 6 months. By age 13 he apprenticed as a cameo cutter, also taking art classes at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. At 19 he studied in Paris, then went to Rome as a student of classical art and architecture. Here he met and married American Augusta Homer in 1877.
Saint-Gaudens received his first major public commission in 1876, a monument to Civil War Admiral David Farragut, which was unveiled in New York's Madison Square Park in 1881. His talent and his fame grew. One of his most well-known works, the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Commons, depicts Shaw and the 54th regiment, the famed black Civil War unit immortalized in the movie "Glory."
The Saint-Gaudens estate encompasses 150 acres of gardens, meadows and woodlands. Guided tours of the grounds are offered at 2 p.m. daily. There is also a self-paced audio tour.
The circa 1800 house, named Aspet after the artist's father's birthplace in France, is a gracious federal-style brick mansion, originally built as an inn.
A 110-foot honey locust planted in 1886 dominates the front yard. The gardens and three exhibition galleries showcase original works and recasts of Saint-Gaudens' famous sculptures.
Saint-Gaudens designed his Little Studio Pergola after a trip to Italy in 1889. Adorned with Doric columns, red stucco walls and casts from the Parthenon frieze, the studio exudes a Mediterranean effect, incongruous in the bucolic New Hampshire setting.
In his studio, Saint-Gaudens developed the concepts and original models for his works, then directed students and apprentices, who finished the sculptures. Drawings, models and recasts are displayed.
A Roman-style atrium gallery with reflecting pool, called the New Gallery after the former building was destroyed by fire, features Saint Gaudens' designs of gold coinage and medals, carved cameos and bas relief portraits.
Terraced perennial gardens, a 6,000-square-foot cutting garden, a birch grove with Pan fountains and the 350-foot tree-lined walk are lovely. But the outdoor galleries framed by 100-year-old white pine and hemlock hedges are truly striking.
Here, framed by greenery, are recasts of the haunting Adams Memorial (a funerary sculpture of the wife of historian Henry Adams), the Shaw Memorial and the Farragut Monument.
WHEN YOU GO ...
Mount Sunapee State Park, Route 103, Newbury, N.H.
Getting there: Take I-95 north to I-91 north. Take Exit 8 (in Vermont), and go east on Route 131, which becomes Route 103, through Claremont and Newport. The Mount Sunapee Resort (where the aerial lift is) is on the right.
Phone: Call the Mount Sunapee Resort -- 603-763-2356--- for hiking and trail information. For the New Hampshire Division of Parks & Recreation, call 603-271-3556.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends until Oct. 9 (Columbus Day); daily during the spring and summer.
Aerial sky ride: $7
Fells Historic Site and John Hay National Wildlife Refuge, Route 103A, Newbury, N.H.
Hours: Gardens and grounds open dawn to dusk, year-round; house tours are available weekends through Columbus Day.
Admission: $3 for the grounds and gardens; $4 for house tours.
Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Route 3, Box 73 Cornish, N.H.
Hours: Open year-round until dusk. Buildings and exhibits open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. through Oct. 31.
Rosewood Country Inn, 67 Pleasant View Road, Bradford, N.H.
Online: www.bbonline.com / nh / rosewood
Rates: Range from $95 to $175 per night. With a candle in every window, the casual, cozy, charming, 12-room Rosewood Country Inn creates an aura of rural romance.
Candlelite Inn Bed and Breakfast, 5 Greenhouse Lane, Bradford, N.H.
Online: www.virtualcities.com / ons / nh / y / nhyb601.htm
Rates: Range from $80 to $110 per night. Six guest rooms are warm and welcoming. The inn exudes the homey hospitality of its owners, Marilyn and Les Gordon.
Goddard Mansion Bed and Breakfast, 25 Hillstead Road, Claremont, N.H.
Online: www. goddardmansion.com
Rates: Range from $75 to $125. All but three of the 10 guest rooms of this interesting 1905 Victorian mansion have private baths. The interior is chock-a-block with interesting antiques.
Daniel's Restaurant and Pub, 32 Main St., Henniker, N.H.
Highlights: The food is eclectic and tasty, and the view is sublime. Most tables look out over the rapids of the Contoocook River. Light entrees and sandwiches are less than $10; dinners and pastas average about $15.
Monsoon, An Asian Bistro and Satay Bar, 18 Centerra Parkway in the Centerra Marketplace, Lebanon, N.H.
Highlights: The Pan Asian cuisine and high-tech decor are more New York than New Hampshire, and local folks drive as long as an hour to dine here -- the food is that good. Appetizers and noodle dishes are less than $10. Seafood, poultry, and meat dishes are between $11 and $15.