It soon became obvious that Goods Market and Cafe is a daily gathering spot for much of the town, due in large part to Jackie’s winsome ways and her oh-so-buttery croissants.
Freshly fueled, I was off for my tour of Strawbery Banke Museum. Portsmouth’s most popular attraction, it is a 10-acre outdoor history museum showcasing 400 years of Americana. Most of the 37 buildings are on their original sites alongside the riverbank, and are interspersed with 10 historical gardens from a Colonial kitchen garden to a World War II Victory Garden.
According to Stephanie Seacord, director of marketing communications, the gardens are just one of four sites in the world teaching about change in the landscape over multiple centuries.
To do justice to the museum would take most of the day, but visitors can get a sense of Strawbery Banke’s historical value by taking in buildings from different eras.
Costumed role players welcomed me to such diverse dwellings as the 18th century Wheelwright House offering an authentic open-hearth cooking demonstration; the Pitt Tavern, a Revolutionary War-era tavern frequented by George Washington, John Hancock and the Marquis de Lafayette, and Goodwin Mansion, home to Civil War Gov. Ichabod Goodwin.
Even if you think you’ve seen enough living history museums, this one you won’t want to miss, because as Seacord reminds, “Strawbery Banke is where the stories of America unfold.”
I continued my history lesson with a Discover Portsmouth Walking Tour, a jaunt through several hundred years of Colonial America. My favorite site was the lemon-yellow three-story dwelling that was once home to John Paul Jones, speaker of that early American sound bite, “I have not yet begun to fight.”
Often referred to as “the Father of the American Navy,” Jones lived here briefly following the Revolutionary War while he supervised the building of the ship America on the city’s docks.
NOT JUST HISTORY
Having had my double dose of early American history, I spent the next day taking in the glorious scenery of New Hampshire’s coast. It may be the shortest coastline of any U.S. state — only 18 miles — but as far as scenery goes, it can compete with the best of them.
One of the loveliest spots is Odiorne Point State Park, which has the requisite vistas of rocky cliffs punctuated by a distant lighthouse, and an extensive network of trails winding through dense seaside vegetation. But it also has Seacoast Science Center, a spot definitely worthy of a couple of hours of your time.
While primarily designed as a discovery zone for children interested in learning more about the denizens of the deep, I found it both educational and entertaining. There’s the skeleton of Tofu, a 32-foot humpback whale who migrated to the coastal waters here, but there’s also a Tide Pool Touch Tank, filled with sea stars, sea urchins and hermit crabs, and an aquarium that is home to a rare electric blue lobster.
Of course, I had to eat, and when it came to restaurants, they were as unique as everything else in Portsmouth. With 80 (mostly independently owned) restaurants in the downtown area for a population of just over 20,000, there are more bar and restaurant seats than there are residents.
I stopped in for lunch at the oddly named Ri Ra in Market Square. While it may sound vaguely Egyptian, it is straight from the Old Sod — Ri Ra being Gaelic for King of Good Times. Formed from what were two 18th century banks, it has an atmosphere that would warm the cockles of Leopold Bloom’s heart.
The elaborate bar was shipped over from County Cork; my red-headed server Joe had an expressive face on which could be read a road map of Ireland, and the cottage pie and soda bread represented the best of Irish pub grub.
Ri Ra also has traditional Irish music during Sunday brunch and on Wednesday evenings, while its official slogan is “if there is an Irish whisky to be had, it’s on our shelf.”
From Irish whisky to an apple cider margarita is quite a jump, but that was the featured cocktail the evening I dined at Mombo. Again, while the name suggests a Latin influence, the restaurant — painted a vivid lipstick red and located on the grounds of Strawbery Banke, across from the gardens of Prescott Park — is something else altogether.
There is nothing remotely Latin about it — from the elegant ambiance of wood-beamed ceilings and wrought iron chandeliers to the menu described as sophisticated comfort food. If comfort means starting with a charcuterie plate that Yankee Magazine called the best in New England, then it’s an apt description.
I had trouble choosing between the two soup options — crab and butternut chowder and lobster bisque sprinkled with cognac, but had an easier time with the entree (cashew crusted swordfish).
One thing that really impressed about Mombo: Being the undercover bourbon agent that I am wherever I travel, I was happy to discover that they didn’t list Jack Daniels on their menu as a bourbon. You might be surprised at how many 5-Star properties make that mistake.
From 400-year-old heritage homes to an oceanside park to one-of-a-kind shops, Portsmouth defies the notion of a cookie-cutter America, and for that, we can all be grateful.
Patti Nickell is a Lexington, Ky.-based travel and food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.
IF YOU GO TO PORTSMOUTH
Where to stay: The Sailmaker's House, 314 Court Street; (603) 380-3447; sailmakershouse.com. More like a well-appointed private home than a traditional inn, this 10-room property is a 15-minute walk from both Market Square and Strawbery Banke.
Where to Eat: Ri Ra, 22 Market Square, rira.com
Mombo, 66 Marcy, momborestaurant.com