All photos/art by Erick Ingraham
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.
The area’s natural history is every bit as intriguing as the human sort. Aim south and you’ll soon begin a desultory tour along the coast and around the edges of harbors and marshes. You’ll find a half-dozen state parks, too. Odiorne Point State Park is one of the best, offering a lot in a little space.
With a bit of sleuthing, seven varied and distinct ecosystems may be found here, from rocky shores to rustling marshes. Most visitors seem to gravitate oceanside. Come in the early morning, when the landscape is emptier and the rising sun glints off the water. Nearby are open fields and shady groves dotted with picnic tables and barbecues, where visitors soak up time on summer afternoons.
To learn about the living landscape, leave time enough to wander over to Seacoast Science Center in the park at the water’s edge. It’s filled with engaging exhibits and hands-on activities, helping make sense of all that space out the windows–including what’s lurking under the water.
The museum’s new million-dollar Gregg Interactive Learning Studio features a broadcast studio, a computer lab, and microscope stations that will open hidden worlds, from the deep and silent seas to the state’s blustery mountains.
Freshly informed, you’re ready to set off on Odiorne’s hiking and biking trails in search of those ecosystems. Along the way, look for concrete traces of a more recent past: During World War II, the military acquired all the land, swept away the homes and hotels, and turned Odiorne Point into Fort Dearborn, which for 20 years was part of a network of defensive strongholds protecting Portsmouth’s harbor. In 1961, the federal government sold the entire parcel to the state.
When you’ve had your fill of history, both cultural and natural, pack up and push southward. Continue along rocky shores, where the cobblestones roll in against low headlands of striated rock, which here and there looks like a library shelf that’s toppled forward, leaving pages bristling upward.
Then comes sand: great and unexpected expanses of it as you near Hampton Beach, a summer town, where you ease into the present. Well, near the present. To visit the southernmost stretch of New Hampshire’s coast is more like slipping into the 1950s. It’s imbued with a slightly honky-tonk beach-town vibe. Visitors stroll the shore and drape themselves on the seawalls, rousing themselves from time to time only to achieve some high objective, like tracking down a cardboard tray of fried clams.
After all that education on history and outdoor life that you’ve endured, you’ve earned a long afternoon of indefensible laziness. Enjoy it. It makes for the perfect ending to a perfect summer day.