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Market Square in Portsmouth. Photos by Pinaki Chakraborty. Click on photo to enlarge.
Market Square in portsmouth

Portsmouth: New Hampshire's Historic Seaport

A Sweet Start to the Day

“People come to Portsmouth to eat,” claimed David Hadwen, the owner of Café Espresso. After spending a weekend in the city, we couldn’t agree more. This postcard pretty coastal retreat by the Piscataqua River is a front-runner for the mantle of the U.S. city with the most restaurants per capita.

We were sipping coffee at Islington Street’s Café Espresso, bright and early on a Saturday morning when David emerged from the kitchen with plates of freshly-baked pastries and a warm smile.

Fragrant and juicy, the strawberries wore a deep shade of red, the cinnamon dusted buns oozed hot melted cheese and the pastries had a touch of the chef’s brilliance, both in taste and creativity.

Our initial order of confetti scramble and waffles loaded with walnuts and banana slices were the perfect foil to the onslaught of strawberry-induced sweetness.

“Be careful, the pastries are straight from the oven… so they may be still hot,” warned David, who had finished baking them minutes before our arrival. Coffee cups got drained and filled while we chatted over a leisurely breakfast.

By the way, two years back on January 7, then-presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton had her emotional moment in this very café… the one which was re-run for the umpteenth by the media during the 2008 presidential elections.

Market Square

Now, if I had to describe the streets of downtown Portsmouth in one word, it would be ‘lively.’ We came across a group of kids singing and dancing right on Market Street.

The spread at Cafe Espresso on Islington Street
The spread at Cafe Espresso on Islington Street

“What’s happening here?” I asked the lady handing out yellow flyers. Turns out the kids are from the Seacoast Repertory Theatre and were doing numbers from Schoolhouse Rock! Nothing perks up a sidewalk like a bunch of smiling faces matching steps with music.

While we are on the subject of music, I must mention the Music Hall on the nearby Chestnut Street. Built in 1878, this 900-seat theater is the oldest in New Hampshire and deemed to be an American Treasure.

The North Church and the Athenaeum (a library/museum incorporated in 1817) dominates the Square which is dotted with bistros, cafes and shops. Seated on the brick sidewalk, sipping lattes, slurping smoothies, reading and lounging, the people of Portsmouth made the most of the sun.

“People are Pretty Darn Funny”

Before I could even knock, the door to the Athenaeum swung open and we were welcomed in by J. Dennis Robinson, history writer and editor of seacoastNH, an independent website dedicated to the historic seacoast of New Hampshire.

The kids from the Seacoast Repertory Theatre pose after an impromptu performance
The kids from the Seacoast Repertory Theatre pose after an impromptu performance
With more than 1000 articles on the seacoast and many books to his credit, Dennis is a busy man. He ushered us into a room whose floor was covered in black-and-white checks and walls with gilded frames. Very apt setting for the history lesson we were about to receive… a lesson which refused to be dry or boring.

Dennis is not interested in the length of the ship or the size of the bullet, he is all about “the real history of real people” and in his own words “people are pretty darn funny.” He took us through the history and gave us a brief account of the economic ups and downs faced by this picturesque harbor town.

According to him, Portsmouth is a core sample of America but also a city much in need of the right branding. I agree. For a city whose economy mainly centers on tourism, having a brand identity does help.

“In the early 1600s, European visitors came to the seaport not for religious freedom but for wealth and adventure. Lots of guitars, lots of guns and one bible,” smiles Dennis. Not one for mincing words, his published work has the same sense of candor and that is what sets it apart from the usual historical accounts.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum on Market Square. Do not hesitate to walk in... you may be in for a surprise!
The Portsmouth Athenaeum on Market Square. Do not hesitate to walk in... you may be in for a surprise!

The Portsmouth Brewery – American Handcrafted Beer at its Best

Dirty Blonde, Bottle Rocket, Smutty Old Brown Dog and Smutty Star Island – what comes to your mind when you hear these names? To me it sounded like a good time!

Located on Market Street, The Portsmouth Brewery is popular among the locals for its fine selection of food and handcrafted beer.

Ben Bilodeau, the assistant manager who has been with the brewpub since 2003 gave us a warm welcome and told us that Peter Egelston, who owns the place and the Smuttynose Brewing Co. on the other side of town, was on his way over.

New Hampshire's original brewpub - The Portsmouth Brewery
New Hampshire's original brewpub - The Portsmouth Brewery

A tall man with a disarming smile walked in, introduced himself as Peter and slid into our booth. How did he get into the brewing business?

Well, he quit his teaching job in New York City and followed his heart which led him to owning his very own breweries.

We were in time for the American Craft Beer Week so a sample tray was in order. We discussed well-known beer brands in America vis-à-vis Smuttynose. Peter was of the opinion that, “Well-known brands come in handy when you want to grab a quick bite in a strange town.” Quite true, but luckily for us that day, we had a map to the local best.

Shortly, a wooden tray plugged with samples of beer and an accompanying list of names arrived. Dark, pale, stout, malty, fruity, earthy, some with a distinct bite in them, some more full-bodied than the other and all with catchy names like the ones mentioned above. Peter explained some of the processes that result in the differences between the various ales.  

He started out making beer at home as a hobby and now it’s his business, so it’s no wonder he has hands-on knowledge.

Portsmouth's scenic waterfront. Click on image to enlarge.
Portsmouth's scenic waterfront. Click on image to enlarge.

As we chatted, the tables around us filled up and the energy in the pub got hard to ignore. Never too loud, the pulse of the place had “a good time” written all over it.

Time flew as it does when you are having fun, and pretty soon it was time for us to leave for the harbor cruise. Bidding goodbye to Peter, the founder and president of New Hampshire’s first brewpub, we stepped out.

Harbor Cruise

If you ever happen to be in coastal New Hampshire, I suggest you take a cruise on the third fastest-flowing navigable river in the world, the Piscataqua River. Dividing New Hampshire and Maine, the sights and sounds around this river are worth every buck. Sip a drink as the Captain takes you through the maritime history and the seaport’s contribution to the economy and defense of the country.

Also, John Paul Jones, the father of U.S. Navy sailed on these very waters.

Whaleback Lighthouse, owned and operated by the town of Kittery in Maine, was built to protect the Portsmouth harbor.
Whaleback Lighthouse, owned and operated by the town of Kittery in Maine, was built to protect the Portsmouth harbor.

According to Dennis, his advertisement in the NH Gazette entitled "Great Encouragement for Seaman" is considered among the first recruitment posters of the US Navy.

As our boat pulled away from the dock, lighthouses, mansions, submarines, ships and islands started coming into view.

A great photo-op for shutter-happy people like my husband. He and a few others strode from one side of the deck to the other in pursuit of the perfect shot. I saw this little girl in a pink dress sitting with her grandmother; I realized she was one of the sailor’s daughters when she declared, “I have come to see daddy work”.

We sailed under the Memorial Bridge which connected New Hampshire to Maine, and as I looked up I realized that the structure was badly in need of a coat of paint.

The cruise on the Piscataqua River offers a stunning view of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Click on image to enlarge.
The cruise on the Piscataqua River offers a stunning view of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

My favorite part was when the Captain narrated the story of the U.S.S. ALBACORE which served with the United States Navy from 1953 to 1972 and was built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

Known to be the world’s fastest submarine of its time, ALBACORE was more of a prototype than anything else. ALBACORE never fired a weapon, nor did it ever go to war.

For detailed information on the various cruises offered, please visit Portsmouth Harbor Cruise.

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