11 Surprisingly Romantic Things to Do in Portsmouth NH

WHY GO: Into engaging with US History? Biking? Cruising out to an under the radar constellation of New England islands? There’s an abundance of things to do in Portsmouth NH for the incurable romantic.

As a Colonial seaport and one of the country’s oldest Naval Shipyards, Portsmouth New Hampshire was open to many immigrants from foreign lands who lived and socialized together in an enclave picturesquely called “Puddle Dock.”

The town bustled with shops and eateries. Barges plied the rivers delivering goods. It was lively and friendly – and still is. At one time, Portsmouth was home to the country’s largest brewery, and craft brewers still take their beer seriously here.

Portsmouth NH From River
Portsmouth NH From River

Known for unique boutiques and shops, zero sales tax on purchases, and a burgeoning culinary scene, Portsmouth NH melds history with pleasure in the best of ways.

Portsmouth borders Kittery, ME on the Piscataqua River. Add this Southern Maine Coast getaway to extend your road trip. 

Want to check out other destinations in New Hampshire? We’ve got you covered in our Best Romantic Getaways in NH post.

Things to Do in Portsmouth NH

Discover Portsmouth NH
Discover Portsmouth NH

WALKING TOUR: Discover Portsmouth Walking Tours

To understand this multi-layered city, the 4th largest during the Colonial era, it’s a good idea to start at Discover Portsmouth. The Portsmouth Historical Society is situated in the large Federal Style brick building (built in 1810 as an Academy with 25 women in the first class) right across from the John Paul Jones House. 

Encompassing an art museum, gallery, and great gift shop, Discover Portsmouth is also the starting point of several 75 to 90 minute walking tours that begin with a 12-minute video.

New World Resources, England’s Riches

Fort William and Mary aka Fort Constitution Portsmouth NH
Fort William and Mary aka Fort Constitution Portsmouth NH

Portsmouth NH was founded for economic, not religious, reasons. Five tributaries pour into the Piscataqua River, and the area was found to be rife with timber and fish. England prospered from these natural resources, and during the 1700’s, English shipbuilders and ship’s Captains grew wealthy working for the King.

But when word got out that the Brits would be confiscating all the gunpowder in the Colonies, a locally formed militia stormed nearby Fort William and Mary (which became Fort Constitution). The rebel band absconded with 96 barrels of gunpowder, sending it upriver to Exeter for protection. This theft was considered the first act of defiance leading to the Revolutionary War.

Naval Shipyard

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery ME
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery ME

The newly formed U.S. Navy began to build ships here. That’s when naval hero, John Paul Jones, entered the scene. He lived in Portsmouth for a short time in 1777 while overseeing the construction of his Naval ship, the USS Ranger, which he subsequently sailed to France and the Irish Sea to assist with the American cause.

Post War, the shipyard, and thus the local economy, was in the doldrums. The downturn lasted until the mid to late 1800’s when the titan of beer-making, Frank Jones, turned Portsmouth into a brewery town. The brewer employed over 500 people and shipped off 250,000 barrels of beer a year.

Treaty of Portsmouth

John Paul Jones Stayed Here Portsmouth NH
John Paul Jones Stayed Here Portsmouth NH

Early in the 1900’s, over half a million people died in a war between Russia and Japan. In a Camp David move of his day, President Teddy Roosevelt appealed to leaders of both nations to come to the coast of New Hampshire to hash things out.

Though Roosevelt made sure that local dignitaries fêted those leaders with dinners and lawn parties, he stayed in the White House at a respectable distance.

This resort-set diplomacy culminated in the “Treaty of Portsmouth,” signed at the Shipyard on September 5, 1905. It was an historic event that put Portsmouth NH on the international map.

American Melting Pot

By the 1940’s, the local economy was booming, thanks to the Naval Shipyard. In fact, the city’s location and ample employment opportunities during WWII drew many African Americans, women, and immigrants, who all lived and worked together in one big melting pot.

(The best place to learn about this era is at the living history Strawberry Banke Museum, see below.)

African Burying Grounds Portsmouth NH
African Burying Grounds Portsmouth NH

One walking tour takes you to the house that John Paul Jones rented, past the African Burying Grounds Memorial (when civil engineers were laying sewers, they unearthed caskets and bodies of slaves), and through small cobblestone streets.

Tide Clock Portsmouth NH
Tide Clock Portsmouth NH

Our guide pointed out the Tide Clock on top of People’s Bank – indicating how important the tidal swings are to the local economy. And, at St. Paul’s Church, we learned that it possesses one of only twelve “Vinegar” Bibles in existence. Printed in 1717, the heading of one chapter in this multi-typo’d version of the Holy Book read “The Parable of the Vinegar” instead of “The Vineyard.” Check website for seasonal opening and closing dates, walking tour themes, and fees.

Warner House, Portsmouth NH
Warner House, Portsmouth NH

VISIT: Warner House

Built in 1716 for a sea captain, the Georgian style Warner House is the oldest urban brick house in Northern New England. After six generations, the house was rescued from demolition by the Warner House Association. In 1932, it opened as a museum. Check website for hours, dates open, events, and admission fees.

PortCity Bike Tours, Portsmouth NH
PortCity Bike Tours, Portsmouth NH

BIKE TOUR: PortCity Bike Tours

An alternative way to see Portsmouth while on the move, PortCity Bike Tours offers a Historic Tour, Coastal Tour, Island Tour, and Neighborhood Tour. Check website for dates and times.

Strawbery Banke Living History Museum, Portsmouth NH
Strawbery Banke Living History Museum, Portsmouth NH

TOUR: Strawbery Banke

When English merchants first sailed up the Piscataqua River in 1630 and noticed wild berry bushes along its shores, they called what is now Portsmouth “Strawbery Banke.”

Perhaps more than in any other New England seacoast town, it’s easy to imagine what life was like in this country when it was new and growing, thanks to Portsmouth’s living history museum, Strawbery Banke. This living history museum engagingly depicts 400 years of life in Portsmouth with costumed re-enactors, hands-on-archaeology digs, and other innovative programs. 

Live and Love History

Strawbery Banke isn’t a “museum” so much as a collection of over three dozen homes and establishments. Most are in their original locations, manned by guides who interpret the lives and duties of the actual families that lived and worked in them. 

Wandering in and out of buildings, you’ll meet “Mrs. Shapiro” – a Russian immigrant who arrived here in 1909. And you’ll engage with innkeepers at the Pitt Tavern – the origination point for the first Portsmouth to Boston stage coach, where wayfarers could find three meals a day served family style. 

Step into the Little Corner Store that served as a community center during WWII. Locals traded ration stamps for canned goods and gossiped about the neighborhood. And you can, too.

Jewish Immigrants in Puddle Dock (A Section of Strawbery Banke) Portsmouth NH
Jewish Immigrants in Puddle Dock (A Section of Strawbery Banke) Portsmouth NH

Begin with a 7-minute video that introduces you to the history of this settlement.

In the 1700’s, Portsmouth rivaled Boston and Philadelphia in overseas commerce, and the streets bustled with trade.

The 1800’s Industrial Revolution brought immigrants to town: Italians, Russians, French, Germans – over 30% of the town’s citizens were foreign born.

The Shapiro House

Sheva Shapiro demonstrates Russian method of drinking tea through a sugar cube at Strawbery Banke Museum, Porstmouth NH
Sheva Shapiro demonstrates Russian method of drinking tea through a sugar cube at Strawbery Banke Museum, Porstmouth NH

Though all buildings hold interest, one of my favorites was the home of Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, Sheva Shapiro. Built in 1775, the Shapiro family was the 13th  to live in the home after immigrating from Russia in 1909.

Enter the Shapiro’s home, and it’s 1919. Sheva, dressed in period clothing, might talk about her home-apothecary garden, her daughter Molly’s tenth-year birthday gift – a pogo stick – sitting in the corner (if you ask, she may allow you to use it), and about the innovative way she expanded Molly’s sweaters as her daughter grew.

After the “War to End All Wars” (WWI), Sheva explains, it was her “patriotic duty” to rent a room to Mr. Russell, who worked in the Naval shipyard across the bridge. You’re invited to visit Molly’s room and the rest of the house –and to see pictures on the walls of the family that “Mrs. Shapiro” brings to life.

The Corner Store

Little Corner Store, Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth NH
Little Corner Store, Strawbery Banke Museum, Portsmouth NH

At Mrs. Abbott’s Little Corner Store, the “War Effort” is on full display. This was a Naval town – most residents worked in the shipyard where dozens of submarines were built during WWII. Patrons used ration stamps to purchase cans of food (on display), most grew “Victory Gardens,” and managed to stretch their food in ways that are just coming back into style today.

"Wax Melts" at Pickwick's @ Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth NH
“Wax Melts” at Pickwick’s @ Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth NH

New to the Banke is a shop like no other. Pickwick’s Mercantile is a theatrical, sensory experience incorporating a costumed shopkeeper and artfully displayed Maritime Heritage gifts. Named after the Charles Dickens character, the shop is meant to evoke the curiosity store of Victorian times.

You’ll need at least a full day here to see everything – and most likely will want to return for more!Check website for entree fees, dates open, and special programs.

Note- history buffs may want to check our list of getaways to historical sites.

Isle of Shoals Steamship Authority Portsmouth NH
Isle of Shoals Steamship Authority Portsmouth NH

BOAT TOUR: Isle of Shoals Steamship Authority

Both ships in the Isle of Shoals Steamship Authority fleet leave from the Market St. dock between the two bridges that connect Portsmouth NH to Kittery ME.

On a narrated tour, passengers get a good overview of the natural and maritime history of Portsmouth Harbor, before heading seven miles out to nine small islands collectively called the Isle of Shoals.

Oceanic Hotel, Star Island Isle of Shoals NH
Oceanic Hotel, Star Island Isle of Shoals NH

On the border of Maine and New Hampshire, five of the Isles belong to Maine, four to New Hampshire. The second largest, Star Island, is the only island open to visitors. You’ll want to spend at least an hour there.

Star Island, Isle of Shoals

Art Barn, Star Island, Isle of Shoals NH
Art Barn, Star Island, Isle of Shoals NH

Now owned by the Unitarian Universalist Church, the whole small land mass is comprised of residences, a Chapel, and the Oceanic Hotel, built in 1875. The Oceanic is one of the only Victorian era hotels in New England still standing in its original state.

Front Porch Oceanic Hotel Star Island Isle of Shoals NH
Front Porch Oceanic Hotel Star Island Isle of Shoals NH

Walk around the whole island via its outer dirt road. Scramble over rocks for one of the best views of the Atlantic Ocean waves bashing up against granite cliffs. Or, just hang out on the front porch of the Oceanic Hotel watching the boats in the harbor.

Those who wish to stay overnight can do so by signing up for a weeklong conference, or a few nights for a “personal retreat.” Contact starisland.org for arrangements.

Portsmouth Harbor and Star Island Tour (3 hr 45 min), check website for costs. There are also Portsmouth Harbor Tours, Star Island Full Day Visit, and Sunday Sunset Harbor cruises. Check website for details.

This is also one of the Getaway Mavens recommendations for a quirky romantic place to pop the question in New Hampshire.

Gundalow Captain sailing past the crumbling but still grand decommissioned Naval prison referenced in the movie “The Last Detail” - Portsmouth Harbor NH
Gundalow Captain sailing past the crumbling but still grand decommissioned Naval prison referenced in the movie “The Last Detail” – Portsmouth Harbor NH

DO: Sail on Piscataqua – a Replica Gundalow Boat

Experience a Portsmouth harbor tour on a gundalow, a flat-bottom sailing barge considered “the semi-tractor-trailer truck of its day.”

This replica, The Piscataqua – which took wooden boat craftsmen six months to build in 2011 at Strawbery Banke, represents those that plied New England rivers and bays from 1600’s until early 1900’s. Back then, it was more efficient to ship lumber, bricks, cotton, farm goods, oysters and other products by boat than by land.

Heave-Ho on the Gundalow; Portsmouth NH
Heave-Ho on the Gundalow; Portsmouth NH

You can join the crew and “heave-ho” the sail, while passing sights like the crumbling but still grand decommissioned Naval prison (referenced in the movie “The Last Detail”) and Fort Constitution at the mouth of the river. The Fort is considered the site of the first Revolutionary War act – when, in Dec. 1774, Patriots stole gunpowder and munitions from the British stronghold.

Submarine coming into Portsmouth Harbor
Submarine coming into Portsmouth Harbor

The Piscataqua River, a 12-mile long tidal estuary that empties out into the Atlantic Ocean, is rife with fish and tankers. Also, if you’re lucky, you’ll witness a Naval submarine coming in for repairs. The gundalow is an open boat, so bring rain gear if raining and plenty of sunscreen if not.

Check website for schedule of a variety of afternoon and sunset cruises, and prices. Generally sails from Prescott Park, home to the Prescott Park Arts Festival and other events year round.

TOUR/BEER: On Your Own Or With New Hampshire Brews Cruise, Portsmouth

Although Portsmouth Brews Cruise NH now only offers private tours, you can still get your group (or office) together for a Portsmouth Brewery tour. “Hops” on and hops off on an engaging bus tour to several of the NH Seacoast’s best breweries and pubs.

Earth Eagle Brewery Portsmouth NH
Earth Eagle Brewery Portsmouth NH

Guides elucidate on beer and the seedier side of Portsmouth history – “what they don’t tell you on regular city tours.” Did you know that last century, the whole working waterfront was a red-light district with 140 bars and brothels?

America’s Original Brewery Town

Portsmouth was also one of America’s original brewery towns. In the late 1800’s the Frank Jones Ale Works was the largest brewery in the United States, shipping out 250,000 barrels of beer and employing over 500 workers. (The buildings have been converted into apartments and restaurants).

Even if you don’t take a tour, you can still visit/taste the following spots:

One of the most popular is the rare women-owned Throwback Brewery – on a sheep farm in North Hampton NH. In my case, I visited two very distinct spots within city limits – Earth Eagle Brewing, and Liar’s Bench Beer Co.

Earth Eagle Brewing

Earth Eagle Brewing Portsmouth NH

Owned by Alex McDonald, the hole in the wall Earth Eagle (nickname for wild turkeys) sells growlers and 4-pack cans, plus outrageously good hot dogs, veggie dogs, and nachos,.

Earth Eagle offers a wide range of craft beer styles brewed in-house, from modern American and Belgian ales, to lagers and even herbal ales known as gruit. Ask a local and they’ll surely point to the ever popular New England Gangsta (West Coast-style IPA).

Liar’s Bench Beer Co.

Liars Bench Portsmouth NH
Liars Bench Portsmouth NH

Liar’s Bench Beer Co. is named for the seat at the terminus of the Appalachian Trail where hikers are known to spout some tall tales. With its outdoor dog park/beer garden, this nano-plus brewery is a hit with neighbors with canines in tow. Owned by Dane and Dagan (who makes his own sausage), LB is a great local hangout.

Take your No Dice Pilsner, Babble On Saison, Punxsutawney Swill, and other brews on draft to the convivial atmosphere outside, where a hub of beer lovers play with puppies and converse with each other. Not a cell phone in out of pocket.

Not to be left out, other breweries in town include Great Rhythm Brewing, Loaded Question Brewing, and Portsmouth Brewery. 

Futuristic Lounge at The Music Hall, Portsmouth NH
Futuristic Lounge at The Music Hall, Portsmouth NH

SEE: The Music Hall

Even if you don’t see a show at this 900-seat Music Hall theater (built in 1878, renovated in 2008), pop in to see the otherworldly blue-lit lounge, jack-hammered out of a wall of rock. The Harry Potterish lavatory, with circular sink and elaborate mosaic floor should be on any Best Theater Bathrooms in the World list.

Wildly funky bathrooms at The Music Hall, Portsmouth NH
Wildly funky bathrooms at The Music Hall, Portsmouth NH

Showmen and women have been hoofing on Music Hall floorboards since this Beaux-Arts Theater opened. As an example of how far back this venue goes, during renovations, workers found decades old candy wrappers that had fallen beneath the floorboards. See musicians, top authors, comedians and indie movies throughout the year. Or just stop in to say hi and check out the bathrooms.

The Albacore Sub, Portsmouth NH
The Albacore Sub, Portsmouth NH

TOUR: The USS Albacore

Nicknamed the “Sub in a ditch,” The USS Albacore is far from the waterfront and situated, literally, in a hole in the ground. This diesel and electric powered submarine, built in Portsmouth in 1952, was prototype test vessel in the newest design and modern technology of the day. It returned to Portsmouth in 1985 without ever having been to war.

The Albacore was first sub ever built with this fish-like streamlined shape. It was fabricated to be hydroponically correct – at its best underwater – and could reach speeds in excess of 45 knots (faster than nuclear subs).

Now, you can take a very hands-on self-guided tour to learn how 55 men could work and live in a 205’ by 27’ space. Sit in seats and initiate dive sequence, drive the sub and wedge into bunks. It’s all highly interactive and great for kids and kids at heart. Check website for hours and admission fees.

DO: Portsmouth Kayak

Modern day paddlers can view Strawberry Banke living history museum while kayaking around gentrified Portsmouth. Or circumnavigate New Castle and the beautifully restored Wentworth By the Sea. Or choose from a variety of kayaking tours with Portsmouth Kayak. It’s a spectacular way to get out on the water. Check website for tours and costs.

Market Square, Portsmouth NH
Market Square North Church Steeple, Portsmouth NH

WANDER/SHOP: Market Square and Offshoots in Portsmouth Downtown

The center of Portsmouth, Market Square, is also the center of boutique shopping and for many visitors, the town’s number one lure. From the Square, wander up lovely Bow Street (curved like a bow). It was rebuilt in brick after the devastating 1806 fire completely consumed the original wooden structures.

Bow Street, Portsmouth NH
Bow Street, Portsmouth NH

At the back of Bow St. find a selection of waterfront restaurants: The River House for chowder and the relatively upscale Martingale Wharf featuring a fire pit and baskets of blankets.

Shopping alley, Portsmouth NH
Shopping alley, Portsmouth NH

Fun independent shops include Gus & Ruby Letterpress, Pickwick’s Mercantile, Kennedy’s Gallery, Pretty Poppy, Scallops Mineral & Shell Emporium , Puttin’ On the Glitz for the perfect hat, and one of my favorite spots, Hazel Boutique for unique clothing. Foodies may find The Salt Cellar – offering exotic salts from around the world – particularly tasty.

Izzy's Portsmouth NH
Izzy’s Portsmouth NH

ICE CREAM: Izzy’s

Izzy’s frozen stuff seems fresh from the cow. Ten minutes before closing time on a hot midweek June evening and the line is out the door. No big surprise – the ice cream and fro-yo is that good.

For even more fun things to do in Portsmouth NH, check out the list from our friends at We3Travel.com.

Portsmouth NH Restaurants

The Goods - Portsmouth NH
The Goods – Portsmouth NH

EAT: The Goods- Local Market and Cafe 

Tucked away downtown in the small pedestrian Vaughn Mall, The Goods is exactly that – GOOD. It’s got  a seriously excellent coffee and smoothie bar, bakery, specialty pizzas, and sandwich shop with salads as fresh picked crisp as any place on earth. From plucked to plate in under one second. How? A “Grow Tower” overflows with lettuces and herbs of all kinds right in the front window.

The Goods Grow Tower, Portsmouth NH
The Goods Grow Tower, Portsmouth NH

Owned by expat New Yorker, Jacqui Harmon, and her two daughters, Kayla and Shoshanna, The Goods is “all about healthy. Everything is made from scratch,” except the bagels, which are imported from NYC.

BLT Roundabout Diner Portsmouth NH
BLT Roundabout Diner Portsmouth NH

EAT: The Roundabout Diner

Located at the Route 1/I-95 roundabout, it’s easy to dismiss The Roundabout Diner as just a coach bus stop, but don’t. Formerly Howard Johnson’s and then Bickford’s until 2010, this fun “breakfast all day” eatery is now a “50’s classic retro style diner with modern twists.

Surprisingly, it’s got a strong local following. Some of this has to do with the diner’s full bar, rare for this type of eatery. Other reasons include way above average food and specials.

Of course you can get a lobster roll here. But, also, on the menu are un-dinery dishes like Truffle Lobster Carbonara and Sirloin with Truffle Jam and Risotto. The BLTCA (BLT with Cheddar and Avocado) is the best of its kind – anywhere – due to locally sourced “killer” maple bacon (yeah, baby).

Owners try to utilize local purveyors when possible, and mostly everything is made from scratch, including the homemade desserts, which are “all you can eat” on Sundays. Plus, as the owner quips, “the line goes quicker with liquor.” The Roundabout installed a “Build Your Own Bloody Mary Bar” on Sundays – a resounding success.

EAT: Café Espresso

In a strip shopping center a bit out of town, the casual Cafe Espresso is a local favorite, especially for breakfast. Besides the “Best Omelets,” it’s got great salads and “Lobsta Your Way” – Lobsta Salad. and Lobsta Roll.

Cava Wine Bar, Portsmouth NH
Cava Wine Bar, Portsmouth NH

EAT: Locals Recommend

There are “as many restaurant seats as citizens” in Portsmouth, so it will be virtually impossible to nail down the very best in this guide. But the following were mentioned again and again.

Cure, owned by Chef Julie Cutting, wins accolades time and time again. More faves include Row 34, Lexie’s Joint, Popovers on the Square for, well, the signature dish – a breakfast favorite for locals; Black Trumpet Wine Bar for Southern-inspired farm to table cuisine, modern-American Tapas at Moxy, Cava for small plates and great tasting menu, Jumpin’ Jays Fish Cafe for exceptional fish, and BRGR Bar for very popular “Adult Milkshakes.”

Where to Stay in Portsmouth NH

Martin Hill Inn backyard patio and gardens, Portsmouth NH
Martin Hill Inn backyard patio and gardens, Portsmouth NH

STAY: Martin Hill Inn

There are plenty of full service hotels in Portsmouth. But Getaway Mavens readers generally seek a more intimate, singular, boutique-y type of experience. And, you won’t find one better in Portsmouth than the Martin Hill Inn.  

Rooms, named after clipper ships, are dressed in an eclectic pairing of Federal and Contemporary. Example: The Ranger Room on the first floor, features two beds. (A King and Full: it’s great for friends traveling together).  

There’s a gorgeous garden out back, perfect for an afternoon glass of wine (or summer’s eve sherry). Although the inn no longer serves food, there are plenty of restaurants within walking distance, including the ever popular all-day-brunch spot, The Friendly Toast. (10 minute walk).

STAY: Sailmaker’s House

Like the Martin Hill Inn (above), this in-town boutique hotel has many fans. Formerly a sailmaker’s house built in 1801, rooms exude “historic charm” with a cool, contemporary sensibility. Please be aware, though, that given its age and preservation restrictions – the Sailmaker’s House is not handicapped accessible.

Fairfield Inn Portsmouth Seacoast NH
Fairfield Inn Portsmouth Seacoast NH

STAY: Fairfield Inn Portsmouth Seacoast

This well-rated, fully renovated hotel a couple of miles from town was fully booked on an early June Tuesday night. Why?

The rooms at the Fairfield Inn Portsmouth Seacoast are trendy-modern and spotless, beds are comfy, there’s a complimentary shuttle into town (no parking headaches), a complimentary hot and cold breakfast buffet, a nicely landscaped outdoor pool, free wi-fi and complimentary USA Today. And best of all, rates are slightly lower than in town.

STAY: If you prefer an in-town full-service hotel, the Hampton Inn and Suites and the Residence Inn By Marriott are both clean, comfy, and fine.

Weekend Getaways In New Hampshire

Portsmouth NH Pin

Author

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  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

2 thoughts on “11 Surprisingly Romantic Things to Do in Portsmouth NH”

  1. We just made a quick pitstop in Portsmouth on our way back home from Acadia National Park, and lucked into lobster rolls that give the best of Maine a run for their money. Surf Restaurant serves a quarter pound of fresh lobster meat on a buttered roll with slivers of celery, and not a drop of mayo.

  2. Thanks for all the great info. Unfortunately it is pouring rain today while we are here but your site makes me feel like I have seen it. Charlotte from Ontario Canada

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