Portsmouth breaks out of the cookie-cut­ter mold with its his­tory, scenery, cui­sine

The Island Packet (Sunday) - - Lowcountry Life - BY PATTI NICKELL Lexington Herald-Leader

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.

Straw­berry Banke Mu­seum

Straw­bery Banke Mu­seum, the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tion in Portsmouth, N.H., is an out­door his­tory mu­seum that in­cludes 10 his­tor­i­cal gar­dens.

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