Portsmouth: Where Naval History, Charm Converge

Special to The Courant

Portsmouth, N.H., is the kind of place that if you've already been, you likely want to go back. And if you haven't, then you need to go.

With roots predating the Revolutionary War by more than a hundred years, the seacoast city, an hour's ride north of Boston, is a heady mix of culture, charm and centuries of fascinating history.

Ask any local about the second world war and they'll likely tell tales of German U-boats patrolling the dark waters of the Piscataqua River (an estuary off the Atlantic), and German sailors brazenly disembarking to attend the theater and frolic along the beaches.

But while U-boats and Nazis lurking in and around Portsmouth make for captivating yarns, chances are, none of it's true.

"A German submarine, during World War II, could not make it up the river submerged," said Jim Craig, author, historian, and executive director of the USS Albacore Submarine Museum in Portsmouth.

"The Piscataqua River is the third fastest flowing, navigable river in the world, so the current is stronger than the engine output of the German sub under water," he said. "If a sub had tried to make it up the river, it would still be there today."

What isn't folklore, however, is that at the end of the war, several German U-boats, positioned along the eastern seaboard, surrendered at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and their sophisticated technology used to advance future American submarine designs.

Though none remain in Portsmouth today, visiting the USS Albacore is the next best thing for submersible aficionados, history buffs, or anyone else interested in experiencing the systems and inner workings of a sub.

The Navy research vessel, built in the early 1950s and used for nearly 20 years before being decommissioned in 1972, is a permanent attraction located in Albacore Park, 600 Market St.

For roughly $7 a ticket, visitors can tour the Albacore while listening to stories from former crew members played through audio stations along the way. From the radio room and navigation center (complete with nifty, working periscope) to the galley and mess area, it's a up-close look into the tiny — and insanely claustrophobic — world of a submarine.

The crew barracks, and their tightly sandwiched bunks, make for good selfies while, more importantly, serving as a reminder of the challenging conditions submarine sailors, both past and present, live under.

For an engaging trip at sea, set sail aboard a Portsmouth Harbor Cruise, located downtown Portsmouth on 64 Ceres St.

Lasting about an hour or so, the narrated tour aboard the 49-person vessel motors passengers past lighthouses, interesting attractions and historical sites including the Portsmouth Naval Prison, once considered the "Alcatraz of the East."

Striking an impressive figure atop Seavey Island, the now-defunct prison looks more like a castle than a penitentiary, earning it the moniker, "The Castle," and spawning countless urban legends since opening in 1908.

Among them is that Walt Disney served time at the prison and subsequently used it as his inspiration for Cinderella's castle.

Not true, of course. What is, however, is the tale of a Navy sailor who suffered a blow to the mouth, after the convict he was escorting to the naval prison attempted to escape by hitting him in the face with his handcuffs.

Fortunately, the sailor, Humphrey Bogart, subsequently managed to eke out a pretty decent film career despite suffering a permanent scar and lisp as a result of the incident.

The Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion is another historic site visible along the Harbor Cruise route. Located on the banks of Little Harbor, 375 Little Harbor Road, it's worth a visit on dry land to fully appreciate the residence of Benning Wentworth, the first royal governor of New Hampshire.

Looking more like a collection of hodge-podge home additions than a home, the bright yellow estate, established by the governor in 1753, sprawls out along the river in its 42-room glory, and its history reads like an episode of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," complete with pettiness, parties and Wentworth's scandalous second marriage to his 23-year-old housekeeper.

The mansion is open for tours from May to the middle of October, and the surrounding grounds (where swimming and picnics are permitted) are open year-round from dawn to dusk.

Located in Portsmouth's bustling downtown area is Strawbery Banke Museum, 14 Hancock St., a 10-acre outdoor history museum and village that draws more than 90,000 visitors a year.

Boasting 38 historic structures and six gardens, the museum offers guests plenty to do and see including interactive exhibits, live demonstrations and costumed role-players.

Decorated with period antiques and accoutrements, each dwelling is unique and whether you're touring the 1940s general store (complete with reproduction groceries and sundries) or the Shapiro house, built in the 1700s, you'll undoubtedly feel as though you've traveled through time to get there.

While exploring Strawbery Banke Museum, take a break to visit Pickwick's at the Banke, 64 State St., a charming, two-story mercantile and gift shop that's a destination on its own merit and doesn't require admission.

Outfitted with a heavy dose of nostalgia, the store sells everything from local art and artisan-made crafts, to books, antique reproductions and old-fashioned candy. Even if you end up leaving empty-handed, it's an enjoyable walk-through just to see it all.

While history serves as the backbone of Portsmouth's wide appeal, there's no denying that the city's shopping, Zagat-rated restaurants and seaside location, complete with red tugboats merrily bobbing in the harbor, add to its allure.

"We have over 100 individual and independent shops and boutiques in the downtown, and we have over 100 restaurants," said Valerie Rochon, president of the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce. "It's hard to find a bad restaurant in Portsmouth."

Rochon also said that often tourists come just to watch the variety of buskers that perform on Portsmouth's streets during the seasonal months.

"It's alive, it's vibrant, it's exciting," she said. "People come to Portsmouth not just to shop, not just to dine, but to walk around on the brick sidewalks, sit outside and people watch."

According to Rochon, the numerous brick buildings and sidewalks that the city is known for are largely due to a series of fires that destroyed Portsmouth in the 1800s, and as a result, locals passed an act requiring that buildings in the downtown area be rebuilt from brick to avoid future decimation.

Though it eventually fell out of favor, many of the brick buildings still remain, enhancing Portsmouth's overall aesthetic.

Finally, among the many unique shops and great restaurants, make it a point to stop into Fezziwig's Food & Fountain, 112 State St., for coffee, ice cream or a light meal.

Looking like the love child of Charles Dickens and Marie Antoinette, and owned by the same folks as Pickwick's at the Banke, the brasserie with its dollhouse shelves, miniature chandeliers, and Victorian ambiance, is so adorable that you'll want to pinch its cheeks before placing your order.

Serving up fabulous milkshakes, pastries, egg creams, crepes, and all sort of delectables, Fezziwig's makes for a delightful pit stop and the perfect place to rest your tired feet.

Editor's Note: The caption under the photograph of the costumed role-player standing ready to talk to visitors showed her at the 1940s-themed general store at Strawbery Banke Museum and not the Pickwick's Mercantile.

 

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