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New Hampshire getaway a feel-good stop on any East Coast road trip

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

7:23 PM EDT, June 11, 2013

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PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Seriously, Portsmouth?

You're going to be that perfect? So ideal that I ache, I envy and I curse my childhood for not including your idyllic splendor?

Yes. You are going to be that perfect.

I've visited many places, but you, Portsmouth, may be the most pleasant of them all. It's in how your cozy downtown streets curve just so, with rows of adorable shops bending out of sight with the promise of more adorable shops. It's in your waterfront seafood restaurants, where boats stream by as if on cue. There is no litter on your ground, but if there were, it would probably be dollar bills and composting instructions. You seem to be almost wholly made of the most perfect red brick I have ever seen.

I suspected you held such allure when picking up my rental car in Boston, an hour to the south. The woman at the counter, Amanda, asked where I was heading. I told her, and her eyes widened. She loves Portsmouth. Her friends love Portsmouth. When Boston needs a vacation, it loves Portsmouth.

Then I saw your clapboard houses dating to the 1700s, painted all sorts of fun colors like purple and green, though I bet you call them "eggplant" and "mint." I saw your downtown square, highlighted by a white-steepled church whose spire soars to the heavens. It looks like the kind of place where George Washington worshiped — and in fact, Washington once worshiped there. Your downtown was home to Franklin Pierce's law practice, too, which makes me wonder how many former presidents you are going to claim. But I guess you deserve it, being settled 150 years before the United States was a country, and all.

Oh, Portsmouth, lovely little town of 21,000 with the perfect dab of salty grime behind the ear, mostly from the naval shipyard that calls you home. You stir the soul for a simpler time, a time that KFC and Denny's didn't exist. And here, neither does. Even when you're mean, you're nice: "Please enjoy your food and drink outside," a sign in one business reads. And did I mention that the street dead-ending into your town square is called Pleasant Street? I mean, come on!

Of course, all your pleasantness means ample tourism. Summer's masses come from far and near, and it's little wonder. You have been lauded as one of the nation's most kid-friendly, walkable, food-centric, historic, livable and romantic cities. On any East Coast car trip, you are a charming little must.

As I sat in your square, surrounded by visitors flipping through Sotheby's catalogs with dreams of buying one of your homes, I realized that marveling at you, Portsmouth, is almost a full-time occupation.

"It's like Europe in America," said a guy passing by in a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

"I think I could live here!" a woman gushed to her travel companions. "It's like a mini-Boston!"

(Boston wishes.)

History runs deep in you, Portsmouth. There is your history with the former presidents. You boast of Temple Israel — the "first permanent Jewish house of worship in New Hampshire" — and historic structures such as Gov. John Langdon's great white gothic home, which dates to 1784. It's wonderful historic eye candy.

But you know what becomes of a place that only looks back without looking ahead? It gets boring. So you built yourself for the here and now. You have shops. You have restaurants. One of the most popular boasts among your locals is that you have "the most restaurants per capita." Here I actually might believe it.

Upon checking in at my downtown hotel, I asked the desk clerk what there was to do in town.

"Do you like to eat and drink?" she said.

I laughed.

She wasn't joking.

Downtown Portsmouth is home to about 50 restaurants. In a town of 21,000!

Just as I started to wonder if you could be any more perfect, Portsmouth, I strolled out of downtown and into the neighborhoods. I wound up in the South End, the oldest part of town, on Gates Street.

I passed a plastic box affixed to a stick planted in the ground. On the box, stuffed with white sheets of paper, was written, "These poems are brought to you by the Poetry Readers of Gates Street." New poems are added every other week, and "there are extra copies in the back!" That week's offerings included Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore and Robert Frost.

Poetry as a civic right? Aren't we getting a little professorial, Portsmouth?

But then Vern Stump, 71, a former interior designer in Boston who moved here 15 years ago, said it gets even better. Through his church, he volunteers to feed homeless people once a week. Different restaurants take the lead each week, and one of them routinely serves gourmet meals.

"Once they served a lobster and shrimp bisque, with pieces of lobster this big," Stump said, holding his hands about 4 inches apart. "But the gentlemen there, you know, they'd rather have meat and potatoes."

OK, so there's one down side to you Portsmouth: You're a tough place to be homeless. I mean, the lobster is so large and plentiful!

But Stump had a few complaints of his own. He missed when you were a little more blue-collar and hardscrabble, a motif that he said started to flee in the 1960s.

"So much money has moved in," he said. "And it used to be more local. There used to not be tourists in winter. Now it's all year round."

Really, it's your own fault. It's what you get for being so darn perfect, Portsmouth.

If you go

Getting there: Portsmouth is about 60 miles north of Boston. For any New England road trip, Portsmouth is a worthy stop for a couple of nights. The closest airports are in Boston and Manchester, N.H., about 45 miles away.

Eating: Several locals insisted Portsmouth has "the most restaurants per capita," and though I could find no evidence of that, it is an undeniably rich restaurant scene. Highlights include Black Trumpet bistro and wine bar (29 Ceres St., 603-431-0887, blacktrumpetbistro.com), Cava, a wine bar that serves tapas (10 Commercial Alley, 603-319-1575, cavatapasandwinebar.com), Portsmouth Brewery, where the food is just as good as the house-made beer (56 Market St., 603-431-1115, portsmouthbrewery.com), the steakhouse Four (189 State St., 603-319-1547, fouronstate.com) and Mombo, which is heavy on red meat and fish (66 Marcy St., 603-433-2340, momborestaurant.com).

Staying: The hotel landscape is dominated by chains, but for an alternative, consider Ale House Inn (121 Bow Street, 603-431-7760, alehouseinn.com; between $119.99 to $299.99, plus tax, depending on room and season), which has 10 loftlike rooms in a former brewery warehouse and includes in-room iPads.

jbnoel@tribune.com