20 Reasons to Love New Hampshire
Published: April 2009
By Peter Jon Lindberg
Sure, the state motto—Live free or die—has a bit of a standoffish ring to it, but New Hampshire in the summertime is chockablock with surprising and unpretentious charms. Dover native <b>Peter Jon Lindberg</b> enumerates
Every four years the clichés are trotted out on the evening news: "crusty, renegade" New Hampshire; "flinty, old-fashioned" New Hampshire. Anchormen set up camp in luncheonettes straight out of a Pepperidge Farm ad, and presidential primary voters are beamed into America's living rooms in all their feisty glory. You know the types: guys in L.L. Bean boots and unironic trucker hats, farmers' wives wearing no makeup. These, we're told, are the echt-New Hampshirites, and they're a stubborn bunch indeed. In the midst of last winter's primary, the national media reported (with uncontained delight) that New Hampshire's legislature was mulling a proposal to rescind the federal income tax. The federal income tax. The bill was abandoned when someone pointed out that one state can't nullify the Constitution, but not before another coalition proposed that the state mint its own currency.
This is how the rest of the country sees New Hampshire, when—every 48 months—it bothers to look. What such coverage fails to convey is how varied the state really is. Eager to portray New Hampshire as a Thornton Wilder-scripted anachronism, reporters neglect to mention that it is also the homeland of Aerosmith, Adam Sandler, and the Segway transporter. Nor do they note how dramatically New Hampshire has evolved in recent years. More than half the state's current inhabitants were born elsewhere, so whatever crankiness they possess was presumably learned, not inherited. The influx of newcomers, coupled with rising incomes among native New Hampshirites, is bringing a newly cosmopolitan outlook to the state.
The "old-tyme" elements, however—those sepia-toned clichés, as familiar as a screened porch or a country store—are what endure, and what make New Hampshire so engaging. "It's all true!" my wife remarked, dumbfounded, on her first visit north. She's right. What's more, the new milieu (sybaritic resorts, urbane restaurants) coexists easily with the folksy, homespun one, which is still embraced by all, albeit with a wink and a nod. So while software firms, balneotherapy spas, and other newfangled imports make their mark, New Hampshire feels refreshingly grounded. In a world obsessed with authenticity, this is where you find it—right next door to a tiki lounge.
I grew up in southeastern New Hampshire, the region we call "the seacoast," as opposed to simply "the coast," for no fathomable reason. Like many local families, my parents and I vacationed in more exotic locales, such as Maine and Vermont. Only later in life, returning with the longing of a city dweller, would I fully appreciate the singular charms of my home state. Not least is the dizzying variety of landscapes (far more than in Maine or Vermont), from salty seaside towns to White Mountain glacier fields, from the manicured village greens of the southwest to the rugged Great North Woods.
New Hampshire is not about epic, sweeping gestures—for that, we go to California. It's the intimate moments thatdefine the place: the crunch of pine needles under your toes on a lakefront beach; the aroma of oatmeal bread at Calef's Country Store in Barrington; the wheeze of an accordion at the Shannon Door Pub in Jackson. In that spirit, here are 20 people, places, and things that epitomize this quirky corner of New England.
1. The porch at the Mountain View Grand, Whitefield
In the early 20th century, the White Mountains held more large resorts than any other region of America: sprawling clapboard palaces with dedicated railway lines, 36-hole golf courses, and 400-seat dining rooms. Nearly all have burned down or faded away. But on the heels of a $20 million rehab—it opened again in 2002 after sitting empty for 15 years—the Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa has rescued the cult of the grand hotel. The butter yellow Colonial Revival, constructed in 1865, sits on 400 acres of wilderness at the edge of the Whites.
Pull up a rocker on the front porch and look: a swath of pine stretching as far as the blue peaks of the Presidential Range and, above, a sky as big as Montana's. It was on the porch one evening that I met an elegantly attired couple from Maryland: he looked like Neville Chamberlain, she like Queen Elizabeth II. They'd honeymooned here in 1958. "Such a shame this view went unnoticed for so long," he mused as we watched the moon rise over Mount Lafayette. Then he taught me how to play pinochle.
2. Grandma's Kitchen, Whitefield
Breakfast at the MVG is good enough, but if you have any sense you'll take Route 3 into town and stop in at Grandma's Kitchen, a diner that looks exactly like its name, and you'll order some eggs for a dollar, maybe a slice of pie first thing in the morning. (Go on, everybody does.)
3. Old Man of the Mountain memorial kitsch
After 200 million years of keeping watch over Franconia Notch, and another century of gazing out from license plates and highway signs, the Old Man of the Mountain collapsed in a landslide in May of last year. The 40-foot profile, carved by ice and wind from five granite ledges, had been crumbling for years, its sagging cheeks held up by epoxy and wire cloth. The collapse was a shock nonetheless. Local papers ran 48-point headlines normally reserved for primary results, and the governor set flags at half-mast. Seeing as the Old Man was New Hampshire's only recognizable symbol, the state was in a quandary. Well, the Great Stone Face is now more visible than ever. Within days, shops were flooded with refrigerator magnets, Old Man bobbleheads, and T-shirts with slogans like NEVER TAKE HIM FOR GRANITE and MAY HE LIVE FREE AND NEVER DIE. Some defiant souls have made noises about rebuilding the face. And the former Old Man viewing area off I-93 is now twice as crowded with mourners as it ever was with sightseers. If that's not America, I don't know what is.
4. Driving Route 12 south at sunset
Thirty minutes of sheer glory. The road in question wends through the Connecticut River valley between Claremont and Walpole. Just south of Charlestown (boyhood home of legendary Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk), the valley widens to a few miles across. The smell of manure and cut hay fills the car; between the road and the river stretches a fertile pasture dotted with cows. Suddenly you're driving through a Thomas Cole painting, especially at dusk when the Connecticut goes all glossy and gold.
5. Toadstool Bookshop, Peterborough
Peterborough is a town apart. In the post office you hear talk of "theosophy" and "new paradigms." At Acqua Bistro you might spot author Michael Chabon, set loose from the nearby MacDowell Colony, a legendary artists' retreat since 1907. This village of 5,600 can feel like Cambridge or Berkeley dropped into the woods. Colonial meetinghouses, 19th-century churches, and an idyllic brook provide an inimitable Our Town setting. (Indeed, Peterborough inspired Wilder's play.) Fittingly for a literary mecca, the local A&P was replaced by a purveyor of another sort of nourishment, the Toadstool Bookshop. Toadstool is big and busy and has the requisite café, but this is no Barnes & Noble. Rather, it's a musty, cluttered place where aesthetics is secondary to content, and where patrons hunker down in the aisles to ruminate on Charles Simic poems. Oh, and the excellent coffee is still only a buck.
6. Ashuelot covered bridge, Winchester
See, it's like a regular bridge, only covered. This one, built in 1864, traverses the Ashuelot River in bucolic Cheshire County. New Hampshire has 54 "covereds," as aficionados call them; Ashuelot's intricate latticework certainly makes it the most elaborate and, arguably, most handsome. Your job is to drive, bike, or walk across, ideally half a dozen times to get the full effect: dappled sunlight streaming through, the smell of old wood, the gurgle of the river below.
7. Climbing Mount Monadnock
There are taller peaks to ascend in the Whites, yet Monadnock—rising alone from a valley in the southwest—has distinct advantages. In the early 1800's, a fire burned off Monadnock's forested slopes, an accident that turned out to be a hiker's gain, as the bare-rock summit now affords unobstructed views in all directions. The exposed summit and 40 miles of trails explain why Monadnock is the second-most climbed mountain in the world, after Mount Fuji. The White Dot Trail can take you up and back in three to four hours. On a clear day you can see Boston, 60 miles off, along with the Berkshires, the Green Mountains, and the snowcapped Whites.
8. Swopper's Column in Yankee Magazine Published in the village of Dublin, Yankee has been a New Hampshire fixture since 1935, and its original "Swop" page is still going strong, in print and on the Web. Thank God for that. The Swopper's Column is an illuminating—and hilarious—glimpse into the minds of New Englanders. They're want ads with a twist, wherein readers offer up the detritus of their attics in hopes of finding a particular item in exchange. For instance:
—Will swop Victorian pump organ for 10 gallons dark-amber maple syrup
—Will swop 100 antique circus tickets for The Nancy Drew Cookbook
—Will swop collection of trolls made in Ozarks (survived a fire, very sensitive, must go to a loving home) for autographed photo of John Candy
Seriously, you could spend hours imagining what these people's living rooms look like.
9. Lunch at L. A. Burdick, Walpole
Unassuming Walpole (population 3,387) is the headquarters of chocolatier Larry Burdick, who made his name at Le Cirque and Bouley in New York, then ditched Manhattan for New Hampshire—something I occasionally dream of doing myself. Burdick and co-owner Ken Burns (whose documentary film studio is also in Walpole) have turned a former IGA grocery into a Provençal bistro, with chalkboard menus listing specials such as duck confit and pork terrine. A note-perfect salad uses golden, red, and purple beets from a nearby farm; dessert, of course, comes from Burdick's adjacent confectionery. Order the Harvard Square (ganache and dark chocolate with walnuts), take it to go, then bench yourself on Walpole's town green and read Emily Dickinson—she used to sit here, too.
10. Cheese from Boggy Meadow Farm, Walpole
A few miles away lies one of the few cheese-producing dairies in New Hampshire. You can smell the pungent Boggy Meadow Farm long before you reach it, at the end of a country road lined with shade trees. Some days there's no one tending the store—they're all out milkin'—so just walk in, take your pick from the fridge (jack, baby Swiss, or smoked Swiss), and leave some cash in the metal box. Shut the screen door when you leave, now.
11. Listening to Dan Colgan on NHPR
The voice of New Hampshire Public Radio is a savvy newsman and a tawp-nawtch announcer. He's also got one of the best New England accents since the guys from Car Talk. Since outsiders can't get enough of the way New Hampshirites speak—as a tourist attraction, elocution must rank up there with the Mount Washington Cog Railway—Colgan's accent is a fitting sound track for a country drive. Think of it as a language lesson. Like many of us, Colgan doesn't drop the final R's. That's more a Massachusetts thing. Here the R's are emphasized and rounded off, as in "This is NHP-ahhrr." Colgan's is the first voice I hear whenever I return home; when I'm away I'll tune in on the Web just to hear him say "dawt-cawm." He's an icon. (That's eye-cawn to us.)
12. Home Hill Inn, Plainfield
The scent of fresh lavender ushers you in; a pétanque court awaits beyond the swimming pool, which the staff calls la piscine. Could this be New Hampshire?French hotelier Stéphane du Roure and his American wife, Victoria (a Ritz-Escoffier-trained chef), have refurbished this 1818 mansion with Gallic flair; it's now a member of Relais & Châteaux. Sconce-lit public rooms are hung with oils by Stephen Parrish, who, with his son Maxfield and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, transformed nearby Cornish into an artists' retreat. Upstairs, plank floorboards, which slope a bit off-kilter, are laid with Oriental rugs. The dozen guest rooms are appointed with early French and American antiques; outside your window lies a pasture full of horses. (Stéphane plays in a local polo league.) The kicker is Victoria's assured, creative cooking: her seafood tasting menu is superb.
Though the inn feels satisfyingly remote, secreted away on the banks of the Connecticut River, its location is near-perfect. Within walking distance are pick-your-own berry farms and apple orchards. A short drive takes you to the genteel campus of Dartmouth, or to the Simon Pearce glassblowing studio in Windsor, Vermont—which, repeat after me, is the only reason to cross the border.
13. Canoeing the Connecticut River
The stretch of the river north of Cornish is plenty wide, yet shallow enough to discourage motorized boat traffic. North Star Canoe Rentals can shuttle you to a launch site upriver, from which you paddle the four miles downstream, passing riverbank farms, flocks of herons, and the Cornish-Windsor covered bridge, the longest in the nation at 450 feet. Bring along a lunch from Home Hill and picnic on uninhabited Chase Island, just past the bridge.
14. Jackson Falls swimming hole
Honestly, is there anything better than a bracing dip in a swimming hole?Of course not. Jackson Falls, a series of rushing cascades, granite ledges, and rock-bowl pools on the Wildcat River in Jackson, is the platonic ideal of swimming holes. The others just go home and cry.
15. Tom and Tess Mulkern, at the Shannon Door Pub & Restaurant, Jackson
After your swim, you'll need to warm up. Do it over a pint of Harp at the Shannon Door. Tom Mulkern's parents, old Irish stock from South Boston, came north and opened this rustic wood-beamed tavern in 1953. Now it's run by Tom and his wife, Tess, both in their late sixties and charming as all get-out. Daughter Nora tends the bar. Musicians play lively Irish reels on weekends, when the pub fills up with visitors from "down below," as Tess calls all points south of Jackson.
16. Finding the perfect country store
Kazoos, night crawlers, hand-carved cribbage boards, WD-40: New Hampshire country stores have a comical array of stuff for sale. In smaller towns they also function as community center, post office, café, and town museum. Walk into the Plainfield General Store and you'll see notches in the wooden doorframe tracing the growth of local children. Over in Barrington you'll find Calef's Country Store, founded in 1869. But the mother lode is up north, in Tamworth. Here you'll find two idyllic country stores—one called the Tamworth Village Store and the other called, aptly, the Other Store. Besides the usual staples, they offer a $15 for-charity calendar, Women of Tamworth, featuring nude photos of local grandmas, their private parts obscured by a well-placed horse, easel, or woodstove.
17. White Lake State Park
Up the road from Tamworth is my all-time-favorite swimming beach, on the pine-rimmed shores of White Lake. It's as tranquil as state parks come, and small enough to feel utterly private. Try not to chortle like a child as you pad barefoot over a carpet of sand and pitch-pine needles, the sap sticking to your heels, and throw yourself headfirst into lake water.
18. Saturday night at Weirs Beach
Boat culture rules on Lake Winnipesaukee, a vast playground with 280 miles of shoreline, 240 islands, and 2 gazillion water-skiers. Every New Hampshire family seems to have a summerhouse on or near "the lake," or at least knows someone who does. On the eastern shore lies Wolfeboro, with its whitewashed gateposts, coiffed hedges, and English-rules croquet club. At the opposite end, in every sense, is Weirs Beach, which the faithful know simply as "Weeahz." If you've had enough of Baptist meetinghouses and are itching to see a fiberglass volcano with a biplane crashed into it, this classic summer funland is just the thing. Weirs is a small-scale, lakefront Coney Island, only better, since the beach is great for swimming. The town's main drag is a disarming confluence of candy-floss Victorians, mini-golf courses, biker bars, and a water park (hence the volcano).
19. A bike ride from Portsmouth to Odiorne Point
Portsmouth is New Hampshire's most alluring city, with a briny, maritime air that's more Maine than Maine (which is just across the river). The waterfront is a jumble of tugboats and chowder houses. Back in high school, my friends and I came to Portsmouth for our kicks. Its red-brick sidewalks are still lined with outdoor cafés and funky record shops. Foodies from Boston drive the hour north to eat at chic restaurants such as Pesce Blue, whose smoky grilled octopus is reason enough to come here.
Better still is a ride to the outlying coast. Rent a bike at Papa Wheelies in town, and ride to the 130-year-old Wentworth by the Sea resort, another of New Hampshire's classic grand hotels, which reopened last summer after a wholesale restoration. From there, follow the coastal road to Odiorne Point. Suddenly the smell of the sea is pervasive, and lighthouses appear on the horizon. This is the least-developed swath of New Hampshire's 18-mile shoreline; at the water's edge lies Odiorne Point State Park.
20. Sweet corn from Tuttle's Red Barn, Dover
Tuttle's is only five minutes from my boyhood home, and I grew up on their corn and tomatoes. If I hadn't discovered Tuttle's as a kid, I would have spent my adulthood looking for the place, or some approximation of it. This is the ultimate family farm—the oldest in the nation, started by Lucy Tuttle's ancestors in 1632. Back in the day Tuttle's was simply a big red barn, its rustic bins stocked with strawberries and zucchini from the fields outside. It has since grown into a full-scale market. But the clincher, still, is Tuttle's outstanding sweet corn. If you don't have access to a kitchen, buy a few ears, go to a restaurant, and beg the chef to boil them up. Hell, eat them raw if you have to. This is what New Hampshire tastes like.
PETER JON LINDBERG is an editor-at-large for Travel + Leisure.
The state is at its best in August and early September, when the lakes echo with loon calls, trails are canopied in green, and local fairs set up their tents. More airlines serve Boston, but the gleaming airport in Manchester, New Hampshire's largest city, rivals Boston's for user-friendliness. Distances here are minimal. Driving from the Mountain View Grand, near the Great North Woods, to Portsmouth, on the seacoast, takes less than three hours on the interstate, though doing it that fast misses the point. Slow down and smell the spruce.
WHERE TO STAY
Mountain View Grand Resort & Spa
DOUBLES FROM $215. MOUNTAIN VIEW RD., WHITEFIELD 866/484-3843 OR 603/837-2100; www.mountainviewgrand.com
Home Hill Inn
DOUBLES FROM $275; TASTING MENU FOR TWO $178. 703 RIVER RD., PLAINFIELD; 603/675-6165; www.homehillinn.com
On the edge of Walpole, this 1762 manor has eight guest rooms with pencil-post beds and muted colors. DOUBLES FROM $135. 297 MAIN ST., WALPOLE; 603/756-3320; www.walpoleinn.com
An elegant resort in the heart of rustic Jackson, with 51 tastefully decorated rooms. Request one of the newly renovated Arden suites, in an outbuilding with a courtyard and a sauna and whirlpool. ARDEN SUITES FROM $318, INCLUDING TWO MEALS. 1 CARTER NOTCH RD., JACKSON 800/637-0013 OR 603/383-9700; www.thewentworth.com
Wentworth by the Sea
Another Wentworth (no relation), this one outside Portsmouth. The 161-room hotel, built in 1874, has been reborn as a Marriott resort, with traces of old-school glamour. DOUBLES FROM $259. 588 WENTWORTH RD., NEW CASTLE 866/240-6313 OR 603/422-7322; www.wentworth.com
WHERE TO EAT
BREAKFAST FOR TWO $5. RTE. 3, WHITEFIELD; 603/837-2525
Polly's Pancake Parlor
You'll need pancakes. Here's where to get them: whole wheat, cornmeal, or buckwheat, dished out with house-made syrup and maple spread in an old carriage shed with stellar mountain views. BREAKFAST FOR TWO $17. RTE. 117, SUGAR HILL; 603/823-5575
Bebel Gilberto warbling on the stereo, cured olives on the bar, vintage Italian posters: Acqua is the most inviting restaurant in town. The dining room hangs over a rushing brook, which makes the view even better than the stylish interior. DINNER FOR TWO $80. 18 DEPOT SQUARE, PETERBOROUGH; 603/924-9905
Tailor-made for primary candidates' photo ops, this 1950's railcar diner is as homey as a grilled-cheese sandwich, which they do awfully well here. LUNCH FOR TWO $20. 10 DEPOT SQUARE, PETERBOROUGH; 603/924-6202
L. A. Burdick
LUNCH FOR TWO $50. 47 MAIN ST., WALPOLE; 603/756-2882
Shannon Door Pub & Restaurant
RTE. 16, JACKSON; 603/383-4211
DINNER FOR TWO $90. 103 CONGRESS ST., PORTSMOUTH; 603/430-7766
12 DEPOT SQUARE, PETERBOROUGH; 603/924-3543; www.toadbooks.com
Boggy Meadow Farm
13 BOGGY MEADOW LANE, OFF RIVER RD., WALPOLE; 603/756-3300; www.fannymasoncheese.com
Plainfield General Store
RTE. 12A, PLAINFIELD; 603/675-2222
Calef's Country Store
RTES. 9 AND 125, BARRINGTON; 603/664-2231; www.calefs.net
Tamworth Village Store
85 MAIN ST., TAMWORTH; 603/323-8050
The Other Store
77 MAIN ST., TAMWORTH; 603/323-8872
Tuttle's Red Barn
151 DOVER POINT RD., DOVER; 603/742-4313
SIGHTS AND OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Mariposa Museum of World Cultures
26 MAIN ST., PETERBOROUGH; 603/924-4555; www.mariposamuseum.org
JUST OFF RTE. 119 IN THE UPPER VILLAGE OF ASHUELOT, WINCHESTER; alder.stonemarche.org/covered_bridges
Monadnock State Park (Mount Monadnock)
RTE. 124, JAFFREY; 603/532-8862; www.nhstateparks.org
North Star Canoe Rentals
FROM $15 PER PERSON. RTE. 12A, CORNISH; 603/542-5802; www.kayak-canoe.com
NEAR CARTER NOTCH RD., OFF RTE. 16A, JACKSON; www.swimmingholes.org/nh.html
White Lake State Park
RTE. 16, TAMWORTH; 603/323-7350; www.nhstateparks.org
Papa Wheelies Bike Shop
MOUNTAIN BIKES $40 PER DAY. 653 ISLINGTON ST., PORTSMOUTH; 603/427-2060; www.papa-wheelies.com
Odiorne Point State Park
RTE. 1A, RYE; 603/436-7406; www.nhstateparks.org