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Long Weekend: Discovering Portsmouth, N.H.

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By M.J. McAteer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009

I admit it. I have a chip on my shoulder about my Portsmouth getting its proper due.

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I grew up about 10 miles from the city, visiting it regularly when I was old enough to drive. It needed a facelift back then, but its bones were always pure Katharine Hepburn, and in the many years since I was 16, it has received the spa treatment and looks terrific now:

Same huge inventory of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century homes and public buildings, but way better tended. Same picturesque waterfront setting, but no longer seedy. And so many atmospheric restaurants added in that the city of 21,000 has become quite the foodie destination. Yet the elegant old seaport's profile seems to remain as stubbornly low as its colonial-era skyline.

I therefore took satisfaction from learning that the National Trust for Historic Preservation had listed my Portsmouth as one of its dozen distinctive destinations for 2008, describing it as "one of the most culturally rich destinations in the country with its captivating blend of coastal beauty, historic buildings and a lively downtown."

You go, National Trust.

Even so, I'd take even odds on a lobster-dinner bet that most people outside New England couldn't name the state where my Portsmouth is located.

Not Maine and not Massachusetts, though those would be close-but-no-lobster-bib guesses.

No, the melted butter and claw crackers would go to anyone who went with the live-free-or-die Granite State. New Hampshire's 18-mile seacoast separates Maine from Massachusetts, and Portsmouth proudly sits right at the top of it, on the Piscataqua River.

My photographer friend Frank and I recently spent a late summer day there while I was visiting family in the area. While Washington sweltered, we rolled down our sleeves and zipped up our windbreakers against the chill coming off the river.

Piscataqua is an Abenaki Indian word meaning something like swift-flowing, divided water. Despite the unpromising sound of that, the river provided a fabulously safe harbor, which is why British settlers arrived in 1623, just three years after the founding of Plymouth.

They originally called the colony Strawbery Banke, in honor of the wild fruit growing by the river, and today Strawbery Banke is the name of a 10-acre living history museum, a la Sturbridge Village, adjacent to the Piscataqua. We didn't go onto the museum grounds but walked the surrounding neighborhood, which was plenty picturesque. To this Hawthorne fan, the narrow streets fronted with closed-face clapboard houses evoke Hester Prynne. Nearby were grander 19th-century Federal-style homes, still square and no-nonsense but oozing patrician refinement.

Prescott Park, across the street from Strawbery Banke, was where I saw a performance of "Guys and Dolls" when I was a teenager. This summer, "Grease" was the word. In addition to its riotously colored flowerbeds and view of Maine, the park is the sometimes docking spot for the Capt. Edward H. Adams, a reproduction gundalow.


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