A Weekend in Ipswich

After our wedding, Ben and I were too wiped out to do much of any honeymooning. So instead of jetting off to New Zealand or Patagonia or the Adriatic, we took a couple of days and went to recuperate in Ipswich, at the Inn at Castle Hill. Set on a wooded hill emerging from a salt marsh, the landscape is unlike any other in New England; it’s hard to believe it’s only an hour from our home.

An ipswich salt marsh, seem from atop Castle Hill. Photo by Ben Carmichael.

An Ipswich salt marsh, seem from atop Castle Hill. Photo by Ben Carmichael.

The Inn itself is an old farm that the Crane family lived in while constructing their massive dream house, then turned into a guesthouse when the mansion was finished. Today, the B&B is a perfect blend of homey comforts and gracious hospitality. We spent most of our time simply sitting on the wide, jasmine-smothered front porch, drinking coffee in the mornings and rosé in the evenings and looking out at the marsh. It’s funny how when you slow down, two nights and three days can feel like a week.

The view from the veranda at the Inn at Castle Hill. Photo by Ben Carmichael.

The view from the veranda at the Inn at Castle Hill. Photo by Ben Carmichael.

We did venture out for a bit of exploration. We went to see Cogswell’s Grant, a colonial-era home maintained by Historic New England. But it’s not the house itself that people come to see — it’s the quirky and extensive collection of early American folk art inside.

We also had some amazing meals. The North Shore punches well above its weight in terms of culinary offerings. We had a fantastic dinner at Brine in Newburyport, and excellent lunches at The Deck in Salisbury and Salt Kitchen and Rum Bar in Ipswich.  Rum is a great old New England spirit, and I am glad to see it making a comeback among the hipster crowd — it’s time we stopped letting the beach bums and Parrotheads have all the fun.

But probably the best meal we had was at a little hidden gem in Annisquam, a tiny seafaring town I’d never even heard of before we stumbled into it. Overlooking Lobster Cove is a low key little spot called The Market Restaurant. It’s so low key, in fact, that when Siri triumphantly told us we’d arrived, we looked around in befuddlement. We didn’t see any restaurant; only a few shingled houses and an old grocery store. Finally, after driving around the peninsula again, we phoned them to ask for directions, only to be told we were sitting right out front. Walking around to the back of the apparently abandoned grocery store, we found the restaurant, leaning out over the water. The food, view, and wine list were all excellent.

And of course, we couldn’t leave before wandering over to the Crane Estate. One evening, we strolled from the Inn for cocktails — for a $30 cover charge, we got snacks, drinks, and the ability to wander freely around the house, as well as a chance to go up into the cupola and out onto the roof. Anyone who has ever toured the estate will tell you about the bathrooms — the Crane family made part of their considerable fortune in bathroom fittings, and the restrooms are appropriately luxe — but what really struck me was that the house felt like a house.

I’ve toured Hearst Castle, the Newport Mansions, and a seemingly infinite number stately homes in the UK, and in general they feel like museums. Like movie sets. This one felt different — not homey, exactly, but intimate in its way. You could imagine the Cranes arriving, relieved to be back in this beautiful spot. You could envision their two children taking the long walk through the woods and over the hot dunes to the four miles of white sand shoreline today known as Crane Beach. And you could imagine the parties spilling out from the house onto the lawn, the great sweep of grass rolling out to the cliffs over looking the sea. Maybe some of the young Cranes would drunkenly dare their friends to jump into the saltwater pool, or challenge them to a game of billiards in the poolhouse.

The Crane Estate on a midsummer night. Photo by Ben Carmichael.

The Crane Estate on a midsummer night. Photo by Ben Carmichael.

Today, though, the house does have a bit of an abandoned feeling. The Trustees of Reservations, the nonprofit charged with upkeep of the estate, could use a few more resources. With events like evening cocktails, concerts, specialized tours, and an end-of-summer Roaring Twenties lawn party, they’re clearly trying to get the money together to keep the old pile together. And, in a move I find particularly exciting, they’re beginning to renovate the gardens. While the grounds are evocative and a few treats remain — for instance, Mr. Crane had a massive stone mounted on a pivot, so that he could impress his guests by appearing to move it — the gardens are long gone. Peering into the rose garden, for instance, all you see is grass and a circle of broken columns, like a concrete Stonehenge. But this may soon be changing. The old Italianate garden had a backhoe in it when I was there, and I hear they’re trying to hire a couple of landscapers to bring it back to life. If and when that happens, you can bet we’ll be back.

A Books-and-Beers Drive Through the Pioneer Valley

New England has a rich literary history. Thanks to its ivy-choked universities, Boston’s history as a publishing town, and, very likely, just something in the water, the region has given rise to more than its fair share of writers — Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, and Robert Frost, to name just a handful.

We’re somewhat less known for our alcoholic history. Which is too bad — because these six little states offer a wide variety of fantastic microbreweries.

Our ultimate destination: Brattleboro VT

Our ultimate destination: Brattleboro VT

One wintry weekend, my mother and I decided to combine both our love of literature and our appreciation of fine beer into a two-day scenic drive through the best used bookstores and craft breweries of the Pioneer Valley, so-called because the banks of the Connecticut River were popular with the early settlers. Today, it’s popular with college students — Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, UMass Amherst, and Hampshire are all located there — which makes it easy pickings books n’ beers fans.

We began with a swing through Massachusetts’ southern tier, driving west along the Mass Pike (route I-90). It is never my preferred road — there are tolls, traffic, and not a whole lot of character — but I wanted to get to the Opa Opa Steakhouse and Brewery (in Southampton, MA) in time for lunch. It’s a Texas-style steakhouse with New England craft beers run by Greeks: I was not going to miss this. Their beers are legitimately delicious (especially the IPA, their flagship) and the food was surprisingly good — and I think both are better at Opa Opa than they are at the nearby Northampton Brewery, which only has the advantage of being right in an adorable college town. (Opa Opa is on Massachusetts State Route 10, more or less surrounded by nothing.)

Felix bookstoricus.

Felix bookstoricus.

Then it was time for a postprandial bookstore. Sage Books is a sun- and cat-filled used bookshop in Southampton, where we enjoyed a leisurely browse. But the bookstore we’re really sentimentally attached to is the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, home to Mount Holyoke College. This involved backtracking a bit, to cross back over the Connecticut River and pick up Route 47, on the eastern side. But if you have the time, the local, state road is worth the detour.

In the afternoon, we crossed the state line to reach Brattleboro, VT, where we checked into the affordable Latchis Hotel. It’s an art deco building on the National Register of Historic Places, and contains a magnificent 750-person movie theater. Each guest room is different; ours was painted a vibrant lilac color. Brattleboro is a walkable, artsy, earthy town that has managed to pull itself up from its crumbling-mill-town nadir. It’s managed the trick of feeling remote, while also giving the impression that there’s always something going on.

We poked around the cafes and art galleries, hitting up a really excellent used bookstore that looks just like you want your New England bookstore to look: like a combination of a batty professor’s house and Diagon Alley shop. The simply named Brattleboro Books claims to offer over 75,000 used books. I believe them.

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Felix craftbeericus.

In the evening, we walked from our hotel to a brewpub called McNeill’s, famous for its ESB and its tap shaped like a catamount (which is Vermonter for “mountan lion”) carved out of a giant hunk of wood. But don’t let that give you the idea it’s a fancy-schmancy place. There were some hipsters playing trivia there when we arrived, but as soon as the game ended, they left and were immediately replaced with aging bikers who seemed to prefer darts. Mother and I hung out in a corner, nursing our beers and playing Scrabble.

The next day, we headed south back to Massachusetts. This is when I remembered an important difference between zoning in Vermont versus New Hampshire; we had taken the local road (Rt 142) on the West (Vermont) side of the Connecticut River north to Brattleboro and it was picture-book Vermont: snow-covered hills, red barns, and so on. But the road on the Eastern (New Hampshire) side, Route 63, was all Wal-Marts and motor home outlets: Southern NH at its finest. Keep this in mind if you decide to retrace our steps!

The Book Mill

The Book Mill

Our destination this time was Greenfield, Mass and The People’s Pint, a brewpub conveniently located right at the intersection of I-91 and Route 2. Full of delicious Pied Piper IPA, Farmer Brown ale, and their well-executed simple fare, we then traveled a bit eastward to the town of Montague, a town I love for two reasons: my grandmother was born there, and it’s home to the Book Mill, the used bookstore with the best bumper sticker of all time: “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” The rambling, rickety store overlooks a rocky stream (it was once, after all, a mill) and also plays host to the Lady Killigrew Cafe, a spot popular with quietly studying Amherst students. Don’t be afraid of the brown rice and setan salad. It’s delicious. I found myself having a second lunch. (But it was so healthy!)

Also in this Route 2-meets-I-91 corner is Element Brewing Company, in the gently crumbling town of Miller’s Falls. While there’s a lot of revival in this part of Massachusetts — old industrial mills have been turned into everything from world-class art museums (Mass MoCA) to condos — it doesn’t seem to have reached Miller’s Falls. But where else can you wander into a brewing facility, introduce yourself, and find yourself sitting down with the brewer himself, who’s interrupting his day to pour you both a taste?

It’s not hard to find either bookshops or brewpubs along this route — what’s hard is figuring out how to arrange all your eating and drinking so that you maximize both. But don’t sweat it: the worst that will happen is you’ll end up eating two lunches.

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.