Pawtuckaway to Portsmouth: Hiking and Eating

Just about an hour and 15 minutes north of Boston, Pawtuckaway State Park in southern New Hampshire is the perfect middle-ground between leisurely woodland strolling and vigorous actual hiking. On a recent excursion, Ania and I chose the park’s longest loop trail, roughly 8 miles and passing over two peaks, as a way to break in our legs for a new hiking season. (Don’t get too excited; even the taller north peak was scarcely over 1,000 feet.)

A damn fine dam at Pawtuckaway State Park.

A damn fine dam at Pawtuckaway State Park.

Our path took us past all sorts of wildlife — or signs thereof — from the sparrow-sized mosquitoes that followed us most of the way (it being our first hike of the spring, we naturally both forgot to bring bug spray) to a massive beaver dam separating two large ponds. One has to wonder if the beavers look at the park’s rustic little wooden bridges and scoff. Or perhaps wonder how we manage to get the boards so flat using only our teeth.

We also tramped past rockclimbers belaying one another among the park’s house-high boulders, and startled some unidentifiable black birds who’d made a huge nest in a notch in the cliffs. If anyone knows of a cliff-dwelling bird whose cries sound like a buzz saw, let us know.

OM NOM NOM at Portsmouth's Black Trumpet Bistro.

OM NOM NOM at Portsmouth’s Black Trumpet Bistro.

Having completed our leisurely hike in about five hours, we were ready for some beer. Suddenly, the 45-minute drive to Portsmouth (or more specifically, the Portsmouth Brewery) seemed like NBD. We were there in a flash, a sampler spread out before us, ranging from the smokey stout “Chat Noir” to the pleasingly refreshing session “Petite Enffronte” to the stealthily strong (10% ABV, not that you could taste it) “Wheatwine.” At 5pm, the barkeep produced a plate of fries doused in bacon, feta, garlic, and chives, announcing that it was their free 5pm bar snacks. We ate most of the plate before we could stop ourselves, then tore ourselves away to stroll around the town.

We reasoned that the best way to miss the crush of weekenders returning from Maine to Boston on I-95 would be to have an amazing dinner at the Black Trumpet, a cozy bistro tucked into one of Portsmouth’s antique seaside buildings. We sat upstairs in the wine bar, which had a homey, casual ambiance, and faced the paralyzing indecision of the menu. Fortunately, in such a situation there are no bad choices — and plenty of excuses to go back.

Cross-Country Skate Skiing in Waterville Valley

Spend the winter gliding through deep pine forests and over snow-covered streams -- and it will be spring before you know it.

Spend the winter gliding through deep pine forests and over snow-covered streams — and it will be spring before you know it.

To be happy living in New England, one needs a winter sport. Otherwise, beautiful autumn days turn ominous as you begin to dread six months of frost. The dark, cold days between Thanksgiving and Easter just stretch on… and on… and on. Sure, hibernating is fun, too — for a while. I like to imagine being curled up by the fire, swathed in layers of cashmere, reading British mysteries and enjoying a buttery snootful of old Scotch. The reality — a YouTube video of a crackling fireplace, my Grandma Harriet’s old scratchy tartan blanket, the Pottery Barn catalogue, and a mug of ginger tea (supports digestion!) — is pretty cozy, to be sure, but somehow less comfy-cozy than my imagined den of wintry delight. And eventually, one’s legs start to feel stiff.

Find the right activity, however, and you start to find yourself looking forward to winter. That’s what happened to me this fall after I discovered skate skiing last year. I’d never gotten into downhill skiing — too expensive, too cold, too many lift lines. And the slow pace of traditional cross-country skiing left me frustrated. I did enjoy a good snowshoe trek, but that never really felt like exercise somehow. Then a ski instructor at Waterville Valley’s Nordic Center suggested Ben and I try skate skiing — easier on the knees, she said. She let us borrow a pair of rental skis and take them around the golf course, and we were immediately hooked. The speed was much more satisfying than traditional cross-country, the side-to-side motion a lot more fun, and the sweaty endorphin rush quicker to attain. After a winter of skiing happily on rented gear (which, at $20 a day, does add up — but is still half the price of renting downhill equipment) we lucked into an insane sale at the L.L. Bean outlet in Concord, NH. Ever since, I’ve been all geared up with no snow to ski on.

This weekend I finally got the chance I’d been waiting for. We drove the two hours north to Waterville Valley and ventured out on the trails — Waterville offers a day-and-a-half pass for only $20 (by it at 2pm on Saturday and it covers all of Sunday, too). While the snow wasn’t fantastic, we had a great time anyway. We zig-zagged past frozen streams and snow-covered pines and worked up a sweat despite the bitterly cold weather. It was the perfect combination of focus, exertion, nature, and gravity. Since I’m a rookie, I’ve only been to a few different spots — Waterville Valley’s cross-country trail system and Fahnestock Winter Park in New York state — but I’m always on the lookout for more. I’ve heard good things about Carlisle’s Great Brook Ski Touring Center, for instance, but have yet to check it out. If you have suggestions of places to go, let me know in the comments. And if you have any good British mystery recommendations, leave those too — today’s 60-degree rainstorm means I’ll be doing a little more reading and a little less skiing in the immediate future.