Portsmouth breaks out of the cookie-cutter mold with its history, scenery, cuisine
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.
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-withNew 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.
On my first morning in Portsmouth, 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.”
It soon 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.
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 from a Colonial kitchen garden to a World War II Victory Garden.
According 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 multiple centuries.
To do justice to the museum would take most of the day, but visitors can get a sense of Straw- bery 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 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 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.
NOT JUST HISTORY
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 trails winding through dense seaside vegetation. But it also has Seacoast Science Center. 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, 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.
Restaurants 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. It is formed from what were two 18th century banks.
I dined at Mombo. Again, while the name suggests a Latin influence, there is nothing remotely Latin about it – from the elegant ambiance of woodbeamed 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.
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.
Strawbery Banke Museum, the most popular attraction in Portsmouth, N.H., is an outdoor history museum that includes 10 historical gardens.