An Often Overlooked Treasure by the Sea

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.

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.

The gundalow was a shallow-draft cargo ship especially developed to handle the Piscataqua's fickle depths and swift currents. When in residence, the Capt. Adams is open to visitors, but during our visit we saw only lobster boats chugging by and a tour boat headed back from the Isles of Shoals, a group of small islands about six miles offshore. The islands have a spicy past that includes pirates and painters, a lady poet, a murder and an intrepid lighthouse keeper, but half the fun of the boat trip out there are the sights of Portsmouth Harbor, including Revolutionary-era forts and the massive Portsmouth Naval Prison, which starred in a Jack Nicholson film called "The Last Detail." The prison is a hulking white derelict now, but it was once the place where the Navy stowed what my mother called "bad actors."

We freelanced our walking survey of Portsmouth, because I know the city so well, hitting Market and Bow streets, once home to junk emporiums and used bookstores but now filled with galleries, boutiques and restaurants; Ceres Street, with its restaurant row facing the hard-working tugboats; and Market Square, dominated by coffee bars and the North Church, with its impressive 193-foot steeple.

Newcomers to the city, though, should try one of the guided or self-guided walking options, which include historic sites that are free or open to the public for a modest admission. For example, a visit to the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the nation's oldest private library, is free.

One tour focuses on black history. (Slaves were brought to Portsmouth as early as 1645.) Another visits places relevant to the Portsmouth Peace Treaty, which was negotiated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905 and ended the Russo-Japanese War. Yet another takes visitors to the John Paul Jones house. The "I-have-not-yet-begun-to fight" Revolutionary War hero lived in Portsmouth while his ship, Ranger, was being built.

Portsmouth, as noted earlier, has many fine restaurants, but I had always wanted to eat at the grand hotel Wentworth by the Sea in New Castle, a quaint island community that abuts Portsmouth. In 1682, Cotton Mather looked into reports that a stone-throwing devil was disturbing the peace in New Castle. His verdict: witchcraft.

Wentworth by the Sea arrived in 1874, long after that assault from the "unseen world." As a kid, I thought the huge white wooden Victorian hotel terribly grand and out of reach. Later, it fell on tough times and was almost demolished. At the beginning of this century, though, Marriott saved Wentworth by the Sea at the cost of what must have been a pretty penny, and it looks to be in its prime again. We ate lobster rolls in the formal dining room under a domed ceiling featuring the original fresco of garlands and cherubs, then walked down to the marina to ogle yachts big enough to circumnavigate the globe.

I thought of heading south after that to show Frank the New Hampshire seacoast, whose almost nonexistent national profile is the subject of the chip on my other shoulder. But unlike Cotton Mather, I realize that zealotry has its limits. I had converted Frank to my Portsmouth, and that was enough for me to live free or die until another day.

M.J. McAteer, a former Post editor, is a freelance writer and editor in Virginia.

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