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WHY GO: Small town Exeter NH, home to the venerable prep school, Phillips-Exeter, will charm you to pieces – and also provide an enlightening glimpse of our Founding Father’s debate over what makes “a more perfect union” at the American Independence Museum.
Visitors to Portsmouth are missing a great deal if they ignore the city’s outlying areas – within the region dubbed Seacoast New Hampshire.
From one of the oldest Country Stores in America, to exotic creatures from the Gulf Of Maine, to the Hotel that hosted a world-famous Peace Treaty – this Getaway stands on its own as a true Patriotic New England escape. But add Portsmouth to get the very most out of a Seacoast NH discovery tour.
Things to do In Exeter NH
TOUR: American Independence Museum, Exeter. One of the many misconceptions about the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution is that they emerged from the minds of our Founding Fathers fully-fledged, Intelligently Designed. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Both were works in progress, with many reworked drafts, and the American Independence Museum, located in the Ladd-Gilman House, illuminates this better than any other historical museum.
The circa 1721 Ladd-Gilman House, home to signer of the U.S. Constitution and State Senator, Nicholas Gilman, Sr. and his brother John Taylor Gilman, served as the New Hampshire Treasury (Nicholas), and Governor’s Mansion (John), and is now The American Independence Museum, renowned for historical documents dating back to the birth of our nation, and for a Club formed right after the War – The Society of Cincinnati.
In the 1700’s, the New Hampshire coastline was a British stronghold – Fort William and Mary (renamed Fort Constitution), a repository for gunpowder. Though there was never a major Revolutionary War battle in New Hampshire, the American raid on the Fort in 1774, to steal stockpiled arms, is considered one of the first (if not the first) volley in the Revolutionary War – a year before the Shot Heard Around the World in Concord MA.
The gunpowder, subsequently used in the Battle of Bunker Hill, was shipped to several other outposts, some to Exeter, and stored in the Powder House that you can still see across the river today. For a moment in time, when the British fleet threatened Portsmouth in July 1775, the government of New Hampshire was moved 27 miles upriver to Exeter.
After the War, in 1783, Military Officers formed a club; the Society of Cincinnati, named for Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman and military leader who retired to work his farm after heroic service. (Interestingly, the city of Cincinnati OH is named for the club, not the man).
Membership in the Society, which still exists today, was initially passed from father to first born son, and then expanded to include other sons and family members.
But never women: the Society remains a male-only club. The Society of Cincinnati purchased the Ladd-Gilman House in 1901, a few years after the last Gilman family member passed away, and used it as a clubhouse until 1991, when it was opened as a museum.
As a Society made up of Revolutionary War Officers, you can imagine the treasured documents they held and passed down through the ages. In 1985, researchers discovered an original broadside of the Declaration of Independence in the attic: one of 200 printed by John Dunlap in Philadelphia that were distributed to the original 13 colonies. This was the very same document read to the public by John Taylor Gilman (who served 14 years as New Hampshire Governor in the late 1770’s and early 1800’s) on July 16, 1776. The museum still owns this original Dunlap Broadside (one of only 26 known to exist), and though a facsimile is on display year round, each year, on the weekend closest to July 16th, the original is removed from the vault and an actor dressed as John Taylor Gilman reenacts the public reading.
The museum also features an original iteration of the United States Constitution, which is notated and differs from the final Constitution in one very significant way: it begins, “We The People of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island,” etc., spelling out each state rather than the collective “United States of America.” Why was it not finalized this way? The delegate from Rhode Island never appeared to the signing for fear of being found guilty of treason, and so that state could not be included. Again – a copy is on display in the museum, and the original is taken from a secure place and shown to the public for a day.
The first two drafts of the Declaration of Independence were never signed – it was still being agonized over, as you can see from a copy of the first draft with Thomas Jefferson’s notations. The museum also displays one of the original trial transcripts (printed in book form) of the Boston Masacre Trial dated 1770, a portrait of George Washington wearing the blue Society of Cincinnati Medal, and a double-sided “Partner Desk” just like one owned by George Washington.
Speaking of GW, the Folsom Tavern, moved to this property in 1929 and recently renovated, served as a high-end road house and was supposed to host a commesuratly high-end dinner for President Washington in 1789. But the honored guest arrived early, and staff scrambled to serve a quick brunch, which Washington scarfed down in the casual tavern room before he continued on his tour of the United States. Both the home and tavern are included in a modest entry fee. You can ask for a guided tour – a docent will be happy to show you the highlights. Open May – Nov. Tues-Sat 10-4, $6 adults, $3 kids. The museum offers plenty of programming including Lunch and Learn, Tavern Talks, Ghost Tours, and Beer-related events.
EXPLORE: Exeter NH. Known mostly as home to the elite Phillips-Exeter Academy, Exeter NH, an Amtrak stop (7 minute walk from the station to downtown) on the Boston MA to Portland ME line, is also a Portsmouth NH commuter town with a funky, open-minded, intellectual vibe. Exeter is so emblematic of a “small New England town,” in fact, there’s a bandstand in the center of Main St. just made for a 76-trombone-type parade. There are plenty of boutiques and restaurants – so plan to stay awhile. See below in “Where to Eat” for recommendations.
VISIT: Seacoast Science Center @ Odiorne Point State Park, Rye. Situated in a State Park with a good chunk of New Hampshire shoreline encompassing a rocky beach, walking trails, and remnants of WWII military fortress, the area is a fascinating place to explore even without the Seacoast Science Center. But plan to add 30 – 40 more minutes onto a park visit to get a gander at what’s inside this compact, entertaining, and engaging institution. A stone building, the original Officer’s Quarters of the WWII fort, is completely encased within the Science Center’s modern structure – used for programming now. In fact, the center was built around it. What was once the wrap around porch is now enclosed – but look out the picture windows to see the harbor, lighhouses, and, at low tide, families with buckets exploring the tidal pools a few yards away.
Though traveling exhibits are compelling, don’t miss what makes this place tick. Most popular are the “Touch Tanks,” with sea stars, sea urchins, and other creatures of the tidal pools; during exceedingly hot or nasty weather, best observed inside. “Jumpin’ Jay’s Discovery Dock” is also a hit with kids, who pretend to pilot the wooden boat, fish, and sell their catch – surrounded by a photographic mural of Rye Harbor that places them right in the middle of the action.
There’s a Hurricane Exhibit with touch-screen showing videos on demand of some of the most devestating storms, and a whole room devoted to sea creatures found in the Gulf Of Maine. There’s 23 year old Raspberry – a 3-toed Box Turtle, two giant forty year old Blue Lobsters, a tank full of large active Sea Horses, and an assortment of Skates, Flounder, freaky Cuttlefish, Spider Crabs, Alewives, and in a tropical tank donated to the aquarium – a couple of Blue Tangs, recognized by squealing kids as “Dory!” Most surprising to me, however, were the Red Anemone – in vivid rosy shades I’d expect in the Caribbean, but not in the Northeast. Under the Sea indeed. Open Mid Feb-Oct daily 10-5, Nov to mid Feb, Sat – Mon 10-5.
SHOP: Calef’s Country Store, Barrington. As I walked into this 150-year-old Country Store on a country road in rural NH, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” was playing on the radio. How amazingly coincidental, I thought. Calef’s, “a New Hampshire Tradition since 1869,” is certainly the real thing, with its original creaky wood floors and wood stove – “buying local” since Ulysses S. Grant was President. Those in search of old-fashioned, personal service, hot and BBQ sauces, NH craft beer, bread mixes, canned brown bread, soaps and lotions, kitchen gadgets, and a deli known for “Rat Trap” Cheddar, will find all that and more here.
This well-trafficked store supports nearly 300 local vendors, and staff turnover is low. One employee, Joel Sherburn, has been at the deli counter for 60 years (a book about Joel, “60 Years of Cutting the Cheese” is on sale near check out). Recently, an 86-year old woman came in and mused, “I haven’t been here since I was six.” She was probably one of the many children who honed her math skills in the penny candy section – still there with a whole jar of candy for one cent each (and several others for two cents) and still attracting school kids who learn to make change though their purchases.
Where to Eat in Seacoast NH On Portsmouth Outskirts
EAT: Salt Kitchen and Bar,Wentworth By the Sea, New Castle. The formerly fusty Wentworth dining room is now contemporary and bright, yet retains its original hand-painted domed mural.
Dine on raved-about small plates like Handmade rustic Wood Oven Roasted Meatballs ($9 – bring me another plate of these, please), light and ethereal Hand Rolled Gnocchi ($10); Prosciutto Wrapped Maine Scallops ($10) and lip-smacking Aragosta Flatbread with Caramelized Shallots, Lobster Cream, Lobster chunks and a tinge of honey – like Lobster Bisque pizza.
EAT: Blue Moon Evolution, Exeter. For two decades, this upscale organic restaurant, owned by a mother and her two daughters, has been winning awards for its mouthwatering soups and other fresh fare. The vegan Cream of Asparagus Soup (made with coconut milk), paired with warm crunchy-chewy sourdough bread to die for, makes for a perfect lunch ($9).
EAT/EXETER: Locals also recommend Otis, Green Bean, Sea Dog, and 11 Water St.
Where to Stay in Seacoast NH Outside of Portsmouth
STAY: The Garrison Hotel, Dover. Though a visitor might first size up The Garrison as a high-end motel, walk through the door and this new hotel has all the earmarks of an upper-mid-level boutique. The lobby and common area are crisply styled in nautical fashion, with shiplap structural posts, rough-hewn ceiling beams, and fireplace. The dining area features a communal table with hidden electrical outlets for both work and morning breakfast, which is complimentary with guestroom. Directly outside French doors, you’ll find a pretty patio with fire pit for evening conversation. The indoor pool is relatively substantial, though the fitness room is on the smaller side.
Rooms, in earthy hues, are brand new, with comfy beds clad in white, punched up by a poppy pillow, and immaculate modern granite counter, ceramic “faux hardwood” floor bathrooms. Rooms from $107 offseason to about $259 in season include complimentary breakfast.
STAY: Wentworth By the Sea,New Castle. One of New Hampshire’s last grand hotels, the 1874 Wentworth- a landmark in Victorian-era travel with as imposing a history as the presence it commands on Portsmouth Harbor – was rebuilt as a flagship Marriott Hotel. President Teddy Roosevelt earned the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize by negotiating, in absentia, the end of the Russo-Japanese war here (The Treaty of Portsmouth), and treaty delegates stayed at Wentworth (30 days at no charge) while conducting formal negotiations at the Shipyard. Though much of the hotel was renovated in 2003, the central portion, including the main entrance and lobby fireplace, remained intact. As a full-service resort, rooms are luxe and come with a number of amenities and activities. Room rates start at $179 off season, $379 in season up to $1500 per night for 2 bedroom villa.
STAY: Inn By the Bandstand, Exeter. Patrons rave about this very upscale canary yellow boutique inn right by the bandstand in downtown Exeter.