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Discovering the Dynamic City of Portsmouth, NH


Portsmouth, NH, is a city abuzz with young people, where art flourishes in the streets. Plus, the city's location makes it ideal for day trips to Boston and Cape Cod.

Photography by the authors

Portsmouth, NH, is the most appealing city in the Granite State. It is, for sure, the place where 3 family members (who spent their youth in the state and went to University of New Hampshire in nearby Durham) wish they had lived: on the water, the river Piscataqua, in a city with the buzz of young people, where art flourished even in the streets.

Portsmouth’s water reflections compete with locals’ sculptures. A recent mural reveals the whimsy of a German touring artist.

Settled in 1623 it claims to be the third oldest city in the United States. It’s about 180 miles from our previous inn in the Green Mountains of Vermont, through Franconia Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, past the broken face of The Old Man of the Mountain—whose 5 granite ledges collapsed in May of 2003—down Interstate 93 and across to Portsmouth on New Hampshire’s pocket-sized coast. (Its coastline of 13 miles is the smallest of all coasts in the US.)

The town’s architecture goes from simple townhouses to glorious sea captains’ mansions to the very home of John Paul Jones himself (bottom image)

New Hampshire has neither sales tax nor income tax. Its tax base is just property tax, but 48 other states know from their own experience that property tax alone doesn’t cut it. Alaska’s situation, with no state-wide, just local, sales tax and no income tax, is almost similar to New Hampshire’s but the 49th state has all its oil revenues.

Although ongoing exhibitions at Discover Portsmouth are very helpful in drawing the picture of the city’s history, don’t come to Portsmouth expecting to discover great presence for its shipbuilding history. Its tourist attractions are seasonal.

There’s a buzz in town as if this is a place for young people. Certainly, the shop signs suggest some stores cater for more than senior citizens.

The city’s marvelous Strawbery Banke Museum, for example, wasn’t open in April. The museum of 40 restored homes spreads over 10 acres on the bank of the river where the first colonists saw wild strawberries growing. The city’s long shipbuilding history is impressive: It built the Falkland, the first British warship constructed in the 13 Colonies; and during the American Revolution in 1776, the Raleigh, the first ship to fly the American flag into battle. In World War II the city built more than 70 submarines. Although the USS Albacore can be visited, an attempt to create a submarine museum around it has come to nothing. The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is actually next door in Kittery, Maine.

The Athenaeum answers some questions such as “What do hard tack biscuits look like?”

What is conveniently local in Market Square, however, is the Portsmouth Athenæum, an 1805 federal-style building that is, itself, on the National Register of Historic Places. It has a library and a small museum—and its share of history. Formerly built for an insurance company, it later became a Masonic meeting room, and in 1860 the ceiling in the library was removed so gas lighting could be brought in for illumination.

In the Athenæum nautical instruments, ancient maps. old busts, and historical books.

Maritime art and references to the sailing trade are exhibited in a side room and, in the library, stand a host of marble busts.

The Athenæum is surrounded by the many small restaurants. Portsmouth’s dining opportunities are the city’s strongest attraction. Across the street from the Athenæum is a great sandwich shop called Popovers, one of 2 in New Hampshire.

Round the corner, just before you get to the home of John Paul Jones, stands a more formal steakhouse guarded by 2 stone lions: The Library, “one of Portsmouth’s most valued historic landmarks.” Built in 1785 as the home of a wealthy judge, then converted into a hotel, it was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1884. In the late 1880s the new owner rebuilt it at a payroll that was “more than the entire Naval Shipyard”! (Click here for its extraordinary and extravagant history.)

Top and middle images: Book and Bar and owner David Lovelace. Popovers.

A mere block away is another great place for meals: Book and Bar. The building has been a Customs House, a brokerage firm, an auto parts store, then a doll shop, and, finally, a restaurant and bar. The owner, David Lovelace, has been a bookseller for 25 years, but he is a carpenter who saw his chance to combine reading and eating.

The Library restaurant.

You like Italian? Students at UNH have raved about the Rosa family-style restaurant for several generations—for its cuisine, of course, but maybe also because it served the first glass of beer in Portsmouth in 1933 after the end of Prohibition. Established by Ralph Rosa in 1927 in his own home, the restaurant has finally changed hands to become, at the same location at 70 State Street, the new Rosa.

The new Rosa restaurant.

All those restaurants are within a couple of hundred yards of each other in this walkable city. As are a whole variety of small shops and boutiques offering their unique wares in a state without a sales tax.

The Bay and the Piscataqua River. Wentworth By The Sea. New Castle cemetery abuts the river.

Even those who enjoy walking may want to drive their car around the New Castle loop. The grand old 1874 destination resort, Wentworth by the Sea, now managed by Marriot, is worth a visit and the drive itself can be gorgeous.

So there’s a lot to see and do in Portsmouth. And, if you’re checking out northern New England's most interesting inns and innkeepers, we know where you’ll want to go: the Martin Hill Inn built in 1815 on one of the main drags in town, Islington Street.

Many of the paintings on the walls were done by Meg Hunter’s father. On the table await cookies for late arrivals. The binnacle compass was made by H. Hughes & Son in London, England, in 1880. One of the rooms conveniently had 2 beds.

The innkeepers are not unlike the 2 we had just met in Vermont, except Meg Hunter and Russ Levreault are relatively new to the game. Meg is a former clinical social worker from the island of Nantucket and Russ has a strong background in business. He actually has a PhD in astrophysics but says, ruefully, “So did 200 other persons chasing the few jobs in astrophysics.” He went to Maine and taught physics in high school for 3 years. Then he and Meg decided to buy their inn 6 months before we arrived. A previous personal home, it had been a going, thriving concern as an inn since 1978.

Meg Hunter and Russ Levreault innkeepers.

“We’re a B&B. We don’t have a pool!” says Meg.

“Nor do we have a front desk, or an exercise room,” adds Russ, rather proudly. “But what we do have for our guests is a sense of temporary community. Our secret weapon is guests meeting guests, something you don’t find in a large hotel.”

That’s true. Travelers who like bed and breakfast inns have a lot in common. Like Rail Europe train aficionados, they enjoy giving advice from their experiences.

Innkeepers, too, have concierge-like advice.

“Portsmouth is a lively, dynamic city with a small town feel,” says Russ. “It has a culturally diverse population of retired people and upwardly mobile young persons. We are one hour from Boston and one hour from Portland, Maine—and a 2-hour drive takes you to Cape Cod. You can stay here and take day trips.”

Small B&Bs have the kitchen next door and, often, the breakfasts are from long-tested family recipes. No wonder they are great.

The innkeepers upgraded an already successful B&B. They added refrigerators and better quality TVs and introduced the “Sherry Welcome.” They are now creating a picnic area and “adding color to create a spectacular garden.”

Such success would be their pleasure as new innkeepers—and they do enjoy reading guest comments. One wrote, “It was better than we thought it would be; don’t screw it up!” Another wrote, “Here we got lucky!”

The exquisite patriotic wood carvings of John Haley Bellamy are presently on display at Discover Portsmouth.

Maryellen Burke, the executive director of the Portsmouth Historical Society puts it in focus for us.

“What distinguishes our city from other communities is we understand our history,” she says sipping her tea. “We’ve had black people living here since 1642. Much of our wealth was built on the slave trade. We address that and for 2014 we’re presenting a series of participatory lectures related to New Hampshire’s Black history and African American culture. Currently we also are exhibiting the woodcarving art of John Haley Bellamy, much of it hallowed national symbols.”

For this series of articles the Andersons, resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest, drove 1,300 miles in 14 days across northern New England to review 7 B&Bs for Physician’s Money Digest.

The Andersons live in San Diego. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written 5 books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.

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