New Hampshire Seacoast: 18-Mile Vacation
The New Hampshire seacoast is the Lichtenstein of New England–a small, generally overlooked principality much beloved by the few who know it, and given little thought by the rest of us. That’s ripe for change.
In an era when the long weekend has replaced the two-week vacation (itself a replacement of the months-long summer sojourn of the Victorians), New Hampshire’s seacoast is perfectly accessible for those with a modest amount of time but a large appetite for the salty and the picturesque.
New Hampshire offers a sort of a Currier and Ives version of the Maine coast: friendly, historic, somehow familiar, easily digestible. And the whole of it can be seen in a leisurely day. Do you know how much time it would take to drive the whole of the Maine coast? Me neither, but it’s way too long.
Remarkably, within New Hampshire’s 18 miles of coastline one finds an irresistible variety of landscapes. The pieces fit together as cunningly as a jigsaw puzzle: a sweep of broad, sandy beach interlocking with low, rocky headlands, and then lush marshlands, all ratchety with the sounds of red-winged blackbirds, that all but run into downtown Portsmouth, an enchanting jewel box of a city. And Portsmouth, on the Maine border, is a great place to start a tour.
When New England was first settled by the English some four centuries ago, life revolved around the sea. Master craftsmen built ships, sailors went to sea, and traders cobbled together small empires on improbable commodities like cod and molasses. The life of the colonists ebbed and flowed with the tide. If it wasn’t ocean or port, it was backyard.
At Portsmouth you still get that sense of a city looking proudly to the sea, from the salty tang in the air to the (briefly) enjoyable shrieking of the seagulls. The narrow streets twist and bend with a willful sense of purpose known only to themselves, and invariably seem to end up at or near the water.
The best way to consider how the city got this way is to stroll through Strawbery Banke. The original name of this seaside settlement is today the name of a nonprofit museum consisting of an eclectic collection of historic houses and buildings–some grand, some common–that together provide a glimpse of coastal life over the span of three centuries, back to a time when New Hampshire itself was a blustery outpost of a distant empire.
This historic village is set just across Prescott Park from the low-key harbor, but the water once intruded right between the buildings, and the settlement was originally bisected by a wharf-lined inlet. It was eventually filled in; today the footprint of the sea is marked by an irregularly shaped lawn. Squint, and with enough imagination, you can see a forest of sloop masts bobbing there.
A cooper quietly makes barrels in a nearby shed, and somewhere in the distance a blacksmith clangs on an anvil. The crunch of gravel lanes and the creak of building interiors manage to instill this historic oasis with a sense of calm–no small feat in a city that’s not all that tightly wound to begin with.