Summer Preview of Portsmouth
Seacoast gardens are bright with tulips and boats are in the water for a preview of summer by the sea
Arriving in time for dinner, we chose Brazo, studying its Latin America-meets-New England menu as we sipped caipirinhas, made of sugar cane rum and fresh limes, to soft salsa music. Our empanadas’ flaky crust overflowed with Portobello and crimini mushrooms, onions, roasted tomatoes and Manchego cheese. For mains we chose crispy roasted chicken with black bean purée and whipped cilantro goat cheese over orange-saffron rice, and slow-roasted Brazilian pork confit. The latter was finished with a sweet guava sauce and served over orange-scented black beans.
Our bedroom at Martin Hill Inn was named for the 1855 clipper ship Cathedral, evoking the era when Portsmouth’s harbor teemed with tall masts, with a canopy bed, an elegant armoire and wide floor boards. A comfortable loveseat and wing chair invited lingering, but we’d heard about the breakfasts here, so hastened to join guests at the large dining-room table. Banana-nut waffles were garnished with sliced bananas and walnuts, over which we poured real maple syrup. While the waffles cooked, we enjoyed poached pears and I was delighted to be served a pot of loose-leaf tea.
After breakfast we set out on foot for Strawbery Banke, about 20 minutes away, stopping to admire gardens bright with tulips and to sniff the lilacs, already in bloom. We were reminded that America’s first lilacs were planted in Portsmouth, at the Wentworth-Coolidge House.
A garden tour at Strawbery Banke introduced us to four centuries of gardens, with authentic designs and planted with the varieties of each era, many preserved through the museum’s heirloom seed program. We visited the 1908 Thomas Bailey Aldrich Memorial Garden, the beautiful 19th-century formal garden at Goodwin House, a Victory Garden and an herb garden, stopping to visit the adjacent Shapiro House. Quite different from the Colonial and Federal homes, this is my favorite because of Mrs. Shapiro. She always draws me into her kitchen with the tantalizing aromas emitting from her oven and from the steaming pots on her black iron stove. I feel like I’m visiting my high-school bf’s grandmother. I love it that Strawbery Banke isn’t stuck in any period, but shows the evolution of the Puddle Dock through the centuries.
As Market Square was on our way to the waterfront, we stopped at The Friendly Toast for lunch. Sandwiches are served on home-style breads or sturdy rolls – mine was a Kaiser piled with smoked turkey and Chambord-roasted red onions; the triple-decker marinated chicken club looked just as good.
The choice of tours is overwhelming, from architectural curiosities on Portsmouth Looking Up to adults-only Portsmouth Underbelly historic tours.
Walk with Washington Tours with an historian from the John Langdon House don’t begin until May 31, so we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon on the water with Isles of Shoals Steamship Company. Sailing through the harbor, past Fort Constitution and around the Isles of Shoals, we heard the fascinating history and a few legends of the coast and islands.
After the cruise, we climbed through a little terraced garden to Market Street, then stopped at Kaffee Vonsolln, a German café on Daniel Street, for an “enhanced coffee” —cappuccino with a shot of Bailey’s. As dinner reservations were late, we added a couple of raspberry truffle squares for energy.
Oblique rays of late-afternoon sun intensified the brilliant reds and yellows of the massed tulips as we strolled through Prescott Park, and cast lengthening shadows in adjacent Point of Graves Burying Ground. Carved stones record burials from as early as the 1600s; no wonder there are tales of hauntings here.
Dinner at Black Trumpet Bistro and Wine Bar Housed in a former ships’ chandlery, Chef Evan Mallet’s restaurant is one of our favorites, both for the creative menu and for Mallet’s insistence on locally produced ingredients. We also like the option of “medium” dishes, allowing us to sample more. We split Canadian smelts with sundried tomato tabouleh before my entrée of truffled wild mushroom arancini, bursting with melted cheese and served with sautéed escarole and tomato-date sauce. The other entrée, Rhode Island fluke with braised celery, came with a pilaf of Vermont-grown rice and carrot harissa.
We lingered over quiche filled with spinach and sweet peppers, and learned from our hosts that the eggs came from a local four-generation family farm. After savoring my tea, I had to sample the hot chocolate that a fellow guest nearly swooned over, made from premium cocoa seasoned with fragrant spices.
We had plenty of time to walk to the banks of the Piscataqua River, where we read a sign from the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail marking the site of slave auctions on the wharf where ships once unloaded. Our sail with Gundalow Company was on an authentic reproduction of a gundalow, the flat-bottomed wooden barges designed to haul goods throughout the Great Bay and tidal rivers. This tour on board the Piscataqua took us in the opposite direction from yesterday’s, as we learned about the bay’s ecosystem and marine heritage, and how these single-masted boats helped shape its history.
It was warm enough to sit outside so we settled on the Old Ferry Landing deck to watch harbor traffic as we munched on fried clams and a giant lobster roll. We toyed with idea of swinging past Fuller Gardens to see their tulip displays, but opted instead to tour the USS Albacore. This submarine was the first boat built specifically to operate underwater. Earlier submarines were really surface vessels that could submerge, and from 1953 until 1972, this was the Navy’s working laboratory, the prototype for today’s nuclear submarine force. The tour is narrated by audio stations where we heard about Albacore from former crew members.