Portsmouth: New Hampshire’s Historic Seaport
By Esha Samajpati
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dinner by the Dock
As the sun began to fade, we drove to Newick’s Lobster House in nearby Dover. Located by the scenic shores of the Great Bay, the dock is a working waterfront for local lobster fishermen.
We were greeted at the door by Wes Rogers, Director of Operations and then introduced to Jack Newick, owner of Newick’s Lobster Houses. There are two of those in New Hampshire and one in South Portland, Maine.
We had expected a typical dinner in a seafood joint; little did we know that Jack and Wes had planned a tour of the surrounding dock especially for us. As the last rays of the sun faded over the horizon, the four of us walked out to the jetty. Lobster cages, crates, barrels, fishing rods, live baits and small boats lined the water’s edge, the air was salty and Jack had stories to tell.
“I’m a lobster fisherman who fell into the restaurant business,” Jack assured us. It’s not often that you see the restaurant owner himself take pride in fishing and sailing. Well, Jack is not your ordinary businessman.
In 1984, Jack dived down 15-20 feet underwater and saved a life from the treacherous waters of the Great Bay, but he would much rather talk about the joys of fishing or his sons, one of whose boats we saw in the distance.
A former member of the Coast Guard, Jack was ‘lobstering’ since he was all of eight. These days, he keeps tabs on the stock market and in his free time, builds playhouses for his grand-kids. But he maintains, “My heart is in the water.”
“The restaurant seats over 600 people,” Wes chimed in. An avid surfer, Wes has been working in Newick’s for most of his life. He enjoys being near the water and does a pretty good job of managing the eateries.
I realized how huge the place was as we walked in, past the store, the lobster tanks and into the dining area. As for the food, I don’t think I have to mention how deliciously fresh my baked seafood platter was. After all, the dock’s just outside! The chips were crunchy and made in-house. The lobster sliders my husband ordered were perfect as was the evening.
Back to the Inn
Soon we were back at the Anchorage Inns and Suites, where we had put up for the night. Located conveniently off I-95, this hotel has 92 exquisitely decorated rooms apart from the usual amenities like an indoor swimming pool, a fitness center, a hot rock sauna, conference rooms and free Wi-Fi.
We were offered a tour of the rooms by Tom but finally had time for a quick photo-shoot with Jason who took us through each room with efficiency and gave us a brief background whenever required.
The Prescott Park and the Seacoast Sands Suite had more to do with the location while the pretty Strawbery Banke Suite had historical significance.
We also met with Frank Tuscano, the General Manager who had thoughtfully prepared a folder with maps and brochures of local attractions for us. All in all, the nice clean rooms and the friendliness of the hotel staff made for a very pleasant and comfortable stay.
Next morning we found ourselves again at the Market Square, this time for breakfast at Popovers. We ordered a Swiss quiche and a panini filled with apple bacon, tomato, pesto and mozzarella. Each dish was accompanied by slices of fresh fruit and great-smelling coffee. The bread for the Panini happened to be my favorite, rosemary foccacia baked just right.
The thing that I loved about the place was the brick patio where locals relaxed over coffee and the Sunday newspaper. Some had their dogs with them and you could even open the umbrellas if it got too sunny! The place embodied the very spirit of Portsmouth… eat, drink, chill.
Strawbery Banke Museum
If you are wondering about the spelling, “the missing ‘r’ in ‘strawbery’ and the added ‘e’ in ‘banke’ were contrived by the colonial revival founders of Strawbery Banke Inc.,” says Dennis in his book on the seaport museum. According to him, “Strawbery Banke Museum is a core sample of a changing America.”
The entire city of Portsmouth has many preserved historic structures, but this seaport museum with its 32 on-site restored buildings on a 10-acre campus and a large collection of antiques is a must for history buffs.
Enactors and tour guides have a certain make-believe quality to them, so you need to wander off on your own for a while, as we did, to absorb the true colonial essence of the place.
Across the street from Strawbery Banke, lay Prescott Park on the Piscataqua waterfront, a summer favorite for concerts, festivals and art shows. The amazing view of the fish pier from Peirce Island is not to be missed on a trip to Portsmouth.
A thriving tourism industry, a working port, and a passion for preserving its history are things which make Portsmouth tick. One of the finest vacation spots in New England, this pretty harbor town has a strong sense of its past without losing sight of its future.
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Esha Samajpati worked in advertising in India, before moving to Connecticut and becoming a travel writer. “Even now, when I visit a city, the billboards draw my attention,” she says. “How a city advertises tells me a lot about the place and the people.”