Follow the Piscataqua River from New Hampshire's short Atlantic coast, and you'll find a seaport with a rich maritime heritage and a charming downtown waterfront.
For most cruisers, the main attraction along New Hampshire’s short coast is Portsmouth, four miles up the PiscataquaRiver, which separates the GraniteState from Maine.
“New Hampshire’s 12 miles of shore is the nicest stretch of coastline in New England,” says Mark Cooney, 55, who has run a boat-and-breakfast in Boston, served as Portsmouth harbormaster, and now operates Wentworth by the Sea Marina’s launch in Little Harbor.
The river’s deep, well-marked channel is used by Navy and commercial vessels, but because of the 4-plus-knot current and two downtown lift bridges, the harbormaster advises boaters to travel only near slack tide. You can tie up downtown at the municipal dock in PrescottPark — the place to be during the frequent summer festivals — or The Marina at Harbour Place. BadgersIslandMarina is across the river in Kittery, Maine.
Sailors in particular may prefer Little Harbor, on New CastleIsland just west of the Piscataqua’s mouth, to the downtown riverfront. Little Harbor is easily entered, protected by two breakwaters, and has less current than the river. Wentworth by the Sea Marina, near the head of the harbor, offers many amenities, including courtesy transportation to downtown.
A seaport for more than 350 years, Portsmouth’s charming downtown riverfront has the vitality of a college town, with a treasure trove of period architecture. The waterfront bustles, as it has since English settlers landed here in 1623 on banks lush with strawberries. Before the Revolutionary War, the city of “Strawbery Banke” was renamed “Portsmouth” and became the regional commercial center and capital of Colonial New Hampshire. Its early economy — based on cod fishing, lumbering and shipping — shifted over the centuries to shipbuilding, manufacturing and brewing. Today tourism and lobstering are major contributors, along with shipping and shipbuilding.
Boatbuilding in Portsmouth dates to the 1600s. In fact, flat-bottomed gundalows carried cargo on the river into the 1900s. And the Continental Navy commissioned the Portsmouth-built ships Raleigh, in March 1776, and Ranger, in May 1777. In 1800, Congress established the first U.S. Naval shipyard on an island in the PiscataquaRiver opposite downtown Portsmouth. Since then the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has built and repaired Navy vessels, including today’s nuclear submarines. Locally built vessels on display include a reproduction 1800s gundalow, often berthed at PrescottPark, and the USS Albacore, a 1950s research submarine dry-docked off Market Street Extension just north of the TouristInformationCenter.
StrawberyBankeMuseum (www.strawberybanke.org), adjoining PrescottPark’s docks, is a must-see for its living history perspective on Portsmouth. The museum stands on 10 acres surrounding what was Colonial-era “Puddle Dock” (now filled in). Many of the 40 exhibit-filled buildings — dating from 1695 — are on their original foundations.
“Puddle Dock neighborhood is the oldest in Portsmouth,” says Stacey Brooks, the museum’s marketing and communications director. “Our mission is to show how ordinary citizens lived and worked, and how the neighborhood evolved once the center of trade moved inland when the railroads arrived in the mid-1800s. Our challenge is to present [Puddle Dock’s] entire history, including the lives of immigrants who moved into this less-desirable neighborhood after its Colonial prosperity ceased.”
Throughout the grounds, coopers, potters and carpenters ply their trades while costumed re-enactors cook over hearths, tend heirloom plant varieties in period gardens, and portray real persons, from an 1800s sea captain to a 1940s storekeeper. Exhibits encompass the evolution of furnishings, architecture, tools and construction techniques. The museum’s 1902 nail-making machines produce copper clench nails still sought by modern small-craft builders.
Also just steps from PrescottPark is Market Square, the city’s vibrant heart since the 1700s. It is encircled by the 1805 Athenaeum, 1854 NorthChurch, and sidewalk cafes popular with students from the University of New Hampshire, 15 miles away in Durham. Trendy shops and restaurants occupy nearby four-story brick waterfront warehouses that reflect the city’s late 19th-century prosperity. From a window table or the sidewalk, you can watch tugboats maneuver ships to the StatePort north of the Interstate 95 high-rise bridge. Downtown shops include a number of bookstores. Don’t miss Tugboat Alley, with its fascinating stock of nautical gifts, ship models and maritime books.
Portsmouth’s scores of restaurants range from elegant gourmet dining at Victory and The Dunaway to Gilley’s Lunch Cart (diner fare since 1912) and Geno’s Chowder and Sandwich Shop, a South End institution. Pizza places, nightclubs and performing arts venues are varied and plentiful.
You can explore the compact city easily on foot, its picturesque, historic residential neighborhoods clustered around the coves and creeks of the convoluted waterfront. History buffs should visit restored 17th- and 18th-century homes, or take a self-guided or narrated downtown walking tour, each featuring a different facet of Portsmouth history, from its Colonial and maritime heroes to breweries and the waterfront’s seamy side. Or take the Downtown Loop Trolley, which stops throughout the city daily in-season.
The Seacoast Trolley offers a wider overview of the area’s interconnected islands and peninsulas as it circles between downtown, Wentworth Marina and New CastleIsland, Sunday through Thursday. Under way, Paul Reardon discusses nine forts, three lighthouses, homes dating from the mid-1600s, and several state parks. You can get off at the beach or another stop, then return on a later run.
The river’s back channels, islands and the waters above Portsmouth reveal their own histories and wildlife when you tour by water. You can dinghy the backwaters from Little Harbor to the PiscataquaRiver. Portsmouth Harbor Cruises’ MV Heritage threads those channels, tours the harbor, travels upstream to GreatBay, and occasionally to the Isles of Shoals. Capt. Bob Hassold skippers his tug, Tug Alley II, on harbor tours. The Isles of Shoals Steamship Company’s MV Thomas Laighton gives twice-daily narrated tours among the Isles of Shoals, plus lighthouse, harbor, dinner, music and GreatBay wilderness cruises.
Lodgings within walking distance of the docks range from the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel to bed-and-breakfast inns. At the Martin Hill Inn, you can swap sea stories with owner Margo Doering, who spent childhood summers cruising New England on a 50-foot schooner. Whether you arrive by water taxi or your own boat, put on your walking shoes and enjoy the delights of this historical New England seaport.