The McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center Opens in Concord, NH
By Isadora Dunne Medley
“Are you headed up North or are you going down South?” asked the waitress at dinner on our first night.
“Actually, we’re here in Concord for the weekend,” I replied.
Her eyes lit up and she told us that she was happy we had come. So were we.
Having grown up in Massachusetts my boyfriend Ty and I had no excuse as to why we had never visited the nearby capital of New Hampshire.
So when I was invited to the opening of the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center we jumped at the chance.
The city is accessible and exceedingly easy to navigate, which is a huge plus, especially if you’re lacking a navigation system in your car as I am.
Trolleys and Buses
There are also plenty of public buses and trolleys that run through the center of town, and if you are staying right in the city, as we were at the Holiday Inn Concord, the State House and downtown Concord are a short walk away.
Often passed over by skiers headed up north, Concord has been undergoing a revival of sorts.
The expansion of what was originally the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium, along with a downtown full of thriving boutiques and cafes has made Concord a charming and unique New England destination city.
Downtown Concord, though in the midst of a capital city, has the feel of a bustling village center.
One can window shop at quaint specialty stores just across the street from the beautiful State House with its gold plated dome.
It is more affordable than other nearby cities like Boston, and if you’re lucky like we were, you just may see the governor of New Hampshire while wandering through the old halls of the State House.
That’s the thing about traveling to a city like Concord: prices are low and people are friendly because you’re ahead of the curve.
Honoring New Hampshire’s Space Heroes
My excursion was to the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, a short drive from downtown Concord and a must-see for visitors to the area, especially if there are kids in tow.
It is the first Air and Space Museum in New England and pays tribute to two of New Hampshire’s space exploration pioneers: Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s Teacher-in-Space, and Alan Shepard, America’s first astronaut.
The Discovery Center began as a planetarium in tribute to Christa McAuliffe in the years following the Challenger tragedy.
As visitors continued to ask for more, various space exploration exhibits were installed. McAuliffe had been a social studies teacher at Concord High School.
After undergoing massive expansion and renovation the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center opened its doors in early March 2009 and is now four times bigger than its predecessor, with expanded exhibitions and the capacity to educate lots of new visitors.
They have also added a 92-foot Mercury-Redstone rocket at the entrance, just like the ones that carried US astronauts into space.
Meg O., one of the many friendly staffers at the Discovery Center, says the best part of the expansion is the space — after years of operating in cramped quarters, she treasures the beautiful open two-story concourse, which provides visitors with new exhibits about Earth, Mars, and space beyond, accompanied by a large-scale model of a US space shuttle.
On the second level, an exhibit called Conservation Quest teaches children about the importance of reducing energy use at home by providing fun activities to explain wattage, provide energy-saving tips, and to demonstrate which home appliances use the most power.
With this expansion, says Meg, the Center is looking to appeal to a much wider demographic, and having added aviation exhibits, a gift shop, and the Countdown Café for snacks, they are well on their way.
Inspiring the Next Generation
Opening Day at the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center began with a ceremony honoring the families of the two New Hampshire heroes, and state politicians like Governor John Lynch, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and Congressman Paul Hodes came out to speak at the event.
The Governor praised the work of the Discovery Center, saying that he hopes the museum inspires children to continue learning about space, always remaining curious about the world around them.
Senator Shaheen echoed his sentiments, adding that she believes the Discovery Center will encourage the next generation of minds to study math and science.
The Discovery Center clearly aspires to do just that; Interactive Educational Planet shows for a wide range of ages has been added to the planetarium line up, which will be sure to draw visiting groups from schools in the area.
In addition, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center offers up Super Stellar Fridays, an educational astronomy talk given by space educators and guest speakers every week at 7 pm. The presentations are geared for kids age eight and up and are free for Discovery Center members, $9 for adults and $6 for children.
The New Hampshire Astronomical Society hosts SkyWatch, a free event, on the first Friday of every month, gathering telescopes outside the Discovery Center for a night of stargazing starting at 7 PM.
Beyond bringing tourism and vitality to the Concord area, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center cultivates learning in an exciting way.
Child or not, a planetarium show at the Center provides 45 minutes of relaxing and informative fun. On my visit I took advantage of the 7 pm Friday show time and went for dinner after — it was a great way to start off the night.
Hero pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger III was honored with the first “Real People, Amazing Jobs” award at the Center’s opening ceremony, and gave his acceptance via video.
His advice to the masses was this: “find your passion because you are likely to be good at it.” Clearly, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center has done just this.
Not Your Average Restaurant
After a few hours spent wandering through the Discovery Center, my boyfriend and I were looking for a hearty meal, so we headed over to the Common Man, just a few miles away.
I had heard great things about the Common Man family of restaurants, which includes seven Common Man restaurants and two other affiliate diners in different places around New Hampshire. I was excited to see what all the fuss was about.
As soon as we walked in, I could tell this place was different. We felt instantly at ease and were seated in mere minutes. I would recommend making reservations, however, because this place is popular, and always seems to be full of customers. The number to call for reservations at the Concord Common Man is (603) 228-DINE.
The atmosphere inside is that of an ambient, inviting home with crackling fireplaces. The décor is classic New England; if I didn’t know any better, I’d think my grandmother had opened up shop. As it turns out, many Common Man restaurants are old homes or barns that have been renovated.
The staff is helpful and friendly, and work hard to ensure that your experience is a great one. As we were finishing our glasses of wine, the restaurant manager came over and offered up white chocolate shavings in place of after-dinner mints — a Common Man signature.
Spring Skiing at Pat’s Peak
We woke early the next morning and drove 30 minutes down scenic winding roads to Henniker, where Pat’s Peak Ski Area is located. It was early March and the brilliant sun was making for perfect spring skiing conditions. I couldn’t wait to get started.
Before I did, I met with the director of marketing Lori Rowell, who gave me a rundown of the place. The main draw for Pat’s Peak is accessibility; its location in southern New Hampshire makes it an easy drive from Concord or Boston, and Rowell told me that lots of season pass holders come from Rhode Island and Cape Cod.
There are lots of options when buying a pass; one can grab a day pass, good from 8:30 am to 4 pm, a night pass from 3 to 10 pm (Pat’s Peak has great night skiing), a Twilight or tubing pass, the list goes on.
One of the most popular deals is the POP (pay-one-price) Under the Lights pass, which gives the buyer access to both ski and tubing lifts on Saturday nights from 3 pm to 10 pm for a very reasonable $36.
Pat’s Peak is a sweet little mountain, perfect for day-trippers like me and for beginners looking for fun. Breeze, the aptly named beginner’s trail, winds for one and a half miles down from the summit and is the only beginner’s trail in New England that is open all day and night — until 10:00 pm.
There are 22 trails with 100% snowmaking, so when we hit the slopes at around 9:00 am the snow was crisp rather than slushy, despite the warm weather.
The lift lines moved quickly, and after a few quick runs, I had to shed my warm winter jacket, leaving me to snowboard in just a long-sleeved t-shirt. And I was loving it!
I’m no expert at snowboarding so I stayed off the black diamonds, but there are plenty of challenging trails for those inclined, as well as the Turbulence Terrain Park, which changes each week to keep the snow fresh
During summer months, Pat’s Peak is open for business meetings, banquets, and weddings, with the unique opportunity to be wed on top of the summit.
Quiet Indulgence at Serendipity Day Spa
Having thoroughly exhausted ourselves on the slopes, Ty and I took a quick 25-minute drive to Serendipity Day Spa in Pembroke, a small town just outside of Concord.
The spa is located in a quaint old New England home that was built in 1792, and though additions and renovations have been made, the owners strive to keep things as original as possible, making for a structure with an abundance of nostalgic charm. The building has a history, too: it was once part of the Underground Railroad.
Serendipity offers a variety of different treatments, the most popular being pedicures, massages, and facials, of which the spa offers 12 varieties, one being a “Gentleman’s Facial,” specifically suited for men.
The spa offers plenty of options for spa packages as well, some of the most popular being “It Isn’t Easy Being Queen” and the “Couples Escape.”
There is also a laser hair removal service available which has a loyal local following says Tara Davenport, the friendly receptionist I talked to at the spa. She said that beyond the many local clientele, people come from just over the border in Massachusetts and New York to get their Serendipity Spa fix.
The moment that we had checked in for our Swedish massages, we were offered a variety of drinks: water, tea, coffee, even wine, the latter of which we gladly accepted.
The waiting room is the oldest room in the house and has been changed very little over the years. You can tell. It has a tranquil feel about it and a little bit of character.
The massage was excellent. My masseuse was Ashlea Beaupre, and she somehow managed to erase the exertions of the day with an amazing hour-long Swedish massage.
As I drifted in and out of consciousness, relaxing on the padded table in the quiet room upstairs, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that a mere hour ago I had been tubing down the slopes at Pat’s Peak. What a day.
When You Go:
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Concord, which had outstanding amenities and was located in a great spot, right near downtown.
The State House is a great place to stop by while exploring downtown. You can go on guided or self-guided tours of the historic building, and the building is the nation’s oldest state house in which the legislature still occupies its original chambers.
Granite State Candy Shoppe is a fun candy shop with homemade ice cream in the summer and homemade chocolates year-round, located in downtown Concord. Look on the walls for pictures of former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit during the 2008 Primary campaign.
Isadora Dunne Medley just got married and she has settled in the Boston area where she grew up.