foliage at the Strawbery Banke Museum
N.H. — It was love at first sight. As one all too
accustomed to America’s obsession with a standardized
urban design — every other block decorated with a Rite
Aid, Panera, Starbucks and McDonald’s — Portsmouth
came as a breath … no, make that a gust of fresh air.
city on the Piscataqua River and just a few miles from New
Hampshire’s only stretch of coastline, seems tailor-made
for a dripping-with-New England-atmosphere TV series:
“Murder, She Wrote’s” Cabot Cove without the
murders, “Gilmore Girls’ ” Stars Hollow without the
melodrama, or “Dawson’s Creek’s” Capeside without
the teen angst.
in Portsmouth just in time to catch the compact, eminently
walkable downtown decked out in Spooktacular Halloween
fashion. Black-clad sprites with pumpkin heads hung from
lampposts in Market Square; 18th century Federal-style
houses boasted evilly leering Jack ‘O Lanterns, and
costumed shopkeepers dispensed everything from spiced
lattes to fresh-from-the-oven cookies.
wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Ichabod Crane
hotfooting it down the cobbled streets — the headless
horseman in pursuit.
On my first
morning, I stopped in at the Goods Market and Cafe for a
jolt of java to get the day started. It would be tempting
to dismiss this place as a typical hipster hangout with
lots of fair-trade goods and food products from local
farmers. It does have that, but it also has a wonderful
vibe that is more homey than hipster, thanks to the
welcoming personality of Jackie, the owner, who likes to
describe herself as a “New England cowgirl.”
became obvious that Goods Market and Cafe is a daily
gathering spot for much of the town, due in large part to
Jackie’s winsome ways and her oh-so-buttery croissants.
fueled, I was off for my tour of Strawbery Banke Museum.
Portsmouth’s most popular attraction, it is a 10-acre
outdoor history museum showcasing 400 years of Americana.
Most of the 37 buildings are on their original sites
alongside the riverbank, and are interspersed with 10
historical gardens from a Colonial kitchen garden to a
World War II Victory Garden.
to Stephanie Seacord, director of marketing
communications, the gardens are just one of four sites in
the world teaching about change in the landscape over
justice to the museum would take most of the day, but
visitors can get a sense of Strawbery Banke’s historical
value by taking in buildings from different eras.
role players welcomed me to such diverse dwellings as the
18th century Wheelwright House offering an authentic
open-hearth cooking demonstration; the Pitt Tavern, a
Revolutionary War-era tavern frequented by George
Washington, John Hancock and the Marquis de Lafayette, and
Goodwin Mansion, home to Civil War Gov. Ichabod Goodwin.
Even if you
think you’ve seen enough living history museums, this
one you won’t want to miss, because as Seacord reminds,
“Strawbery Banke is where the stories of America
my history lesson with a Discover Portsmouth Walking Tour,
a jaunt through several hundred years of Colonial America.
My favorite site was the lemon-yellow three-story dwelling
that was once home to John Paul Jones, speaker of that
early American sound bite, “I have not yet begun to
referred to as “the Father of the American Navy,”
Jones lived here briefly following the Revolutionary War
while he supervised the building of the ship America on
the city’s docks.
my double dose of early American history, I spent the next
day taking in the glorious scenery of New Hampshire’s
coast. It may be the shortest coastline of any U.S. state
— only 18 miles — but as far as scenery goes, it can
compete with the best of them.
One of the
loveliest spots is Odiorne Point State Park, which has the
requisite vistas of rocky cliffs punctuated by a distant
lighthouse, and an extensive network of trails winding
through dense seaside vegetation. But it also has Seacoast
Science Center, a spot definitely worthy of a couple of
hours of your time.
primarily designed as a discovery zone for children
interested in learning more about the denizens of the
deep, I found it both educational and entertaining.
There’s the skeleton of Tofu, a 32-foot humpback whale
who migrated to the coastal waters here, but there’s
also a Tide Pool Touch Tank, filled with sea stars, sea
urchins and hermit crabs, and an aquarium that is home to
a rare electric blue lobster.
I had to eat, and when it came to restaurants, they were
as unique as everything else in Portsmouth. With 80
(mostly independently owned) restaurants in the downtown
area for a population of just over 20,000, there are more
bar and restaurant seats than there are residents.
in for lunch at the oddly named Ri Ra in Market Square.
While it may sound vaguely Egyptian, it is straight from
the Old Sod — Ri Ra being Gaelic for King of Good Times.
Formed from what were two 18th century banks, it has an
atmosphere that would warm the cockles of Leopold
elaborate bar was shipped over from County Cork; my
red-headed server Joe had an expressive face on which
could be read a road map of Ireland, and the cottage pie
and soda bread represented the best of Irish pub grub.
Ri Ra also
has traditional Irish music during Sunday brunch and on
Wednesday evenings, while its official slogan is “if
there is an Irish whisky to be had, it’s on our
whisky to an apple cider margarita is quite a jump, but
that was the featured cocktail the evening I dined at
Mombo. Again, while the name suggests a Latin influence,
the restaurant — painted a vivid lipstick red and
located on the grounds of Strawbery Banke, across from the
gardens of Prescott Park — is something else altogether.
nothing remotely Latin about it — from the elegant
ambiance of wood-beamed ceilings and wrought iron
chandeliers to the menu described as sophisticated comfort
food. If comfort means starting with a charcuterie plate
that Yankee Magazine called the best in New England, then
it’s an apt description.
trouble choosing between the two soup options — crab and
butternut chowder and lobster bisque sprinkled with
cognac, but had an easier time with the entree (cashew
that really impressed about Mombo: Being the undercover
bourbon agent that I am wherever I travel, I was happy to
discover that they didn’t list Jack Daniels on their
menu as a bourbon. You might be surprised at how many
5-Star properties make that mistake.
400-year-old heritage homes to an oceanside park to
one-of-a-kind shops, Portsmouth defies the notion of a
cookie-cutter America, and for that, we can all be
IF YOU GO
stay: The Sailmaker’s House, 314 Court Street; (603)
380-3447; sailmakershouse.com. More like a well-appointed
private home than a traditional inn, this 10-room property
is a 15-minute walk from both Market Square and Strawbery
Eat: Ri Ra, 22 Market Square, rira.com