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’s, Panera’s, Starbuck’s and McDonald’s — Portsmouth came as a breath….no, make that a gust, of fresh air.
This port 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.
I arrived 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; 17th and 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.
I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Ichabod Crane come charging down the cobbled streets — the headless horseman in hot pursuit.
On my first morning, I stopped at the Goods Market and Café 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.”
It soon became obvious that Goods Market and Café 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.
Freshly 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, ranging from a Colonial kitchen garden to a World War ll Victory Garden.
According to Stephanie Seacord, director of marketing communications, the gardens are just one of four sites in the world that teach about change in the landscape over multiple centuries.
To do 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.
Costumed 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 governor 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 unfold.”
I continued 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 fight.”
Often 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.
Having had 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.
While 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.
Of course, 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.
I stopped 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 Bloom’s heart.
The 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 shelf.”
From Irish 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 at Prescott Park — is something else altogether.
There is 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.
I had trouble choosing between the two soup options — crab and butternut chowder or lobster bisque sprinkled with cognac — but had an easier time with the entrée (cashew crusted swordfish).
One thing 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.
From 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 grateful.
If you go to Portsmouth:
Where to stay: The Sailmaker’s House, 314 Court Street; (603) 380-3447. 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 Banke.
Where to Eat: Ri Ra, 22 Market Square. Mombo, 66 Marcy.