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.

Maple Syrup Season. Awww, Yeah.

A balanced New England breakfast.

A balanced New England breakfast.

When the streams start rushing and the icicles start dripping, the sap starts rising in the sugar maples — which means it’s maple syrup in the north country.

I’ve always wanted to go on a “sugaring season” weekend in New Hampshire or Vermont, and last weekend I had just that opportunity. It was “NH Maple Weekend,” which meant that sugar shacks across the state were holding open houses. I visited three.

The southernmost, Benton’s, offered a heaping breakfast of maple baked beans, ham, eggs, pancakes, hash browns, and coffee, as well as a look at their sap-boiler out back. If you’re only going to visit one, this is the one I would choose. The Benton family has been sugaring for five generations. Their dining room offers delicious comfort food served on paper plates with plastic forks and a big smile. A long line develops quickly — they’re only open on weekends, and the staff is minimal, so get there as close to 8 am as possible. Avoid the pancakes, frankly; no pancake is as good as the flapjack you’ll have at Polly’s Pancake Parlor, further north. But if you want to get something “mapley” try the maple baked beans which are insane (sorry vegetarians, they come with bacon mixed in). Next time I go, I’ll also be giving the French toast a try. No matter what you order, it’s the perfect way to load up for your day of skiing or hiking. I know I didn’t need to break for lunch after breakfasting there. And my grand total came to all of 12 bucks. Oh, and yeah: they had a bluegrassy guitar player singing in the backroom.

Built by a 19th century Chicago tycoon, today the Rocks Estate offers maple "experiences" in March and April.

Built by a 19th century Chicago tycoon, today the Rocks Estate offers maple “experiences” in March and April.

Further north, the Rocks Estate was offering a more comprehensively educational look at sugaring in New England. I sat through about a thirty-minute presentation of the history of maple sugar in the region, including a homespun video. From this I learned a) that maple sugar was originally called “Indian Sugar,” because Native Americans in the region had long ago learned how to harvest it from maple trees, and b) that in the 19th century, Abolitionists advocated using it because, unlike sugar cane from the South, it was produced without slave labor. Also, c) that it takes anywhere from 40 to 60 gallons of sap to get a single gallon of delicious maple syrup. I also got the opportunity do try a classic New England combo: a plain donut, warm maple syrup, and a homemade sour pickle. OM NOM NOM.

At Benton's in Thornton, NH, you can truly taste the rainbow.

At Benton’s in Thornton, NH, you can truly taste the rainbow.

The Rocks Estate also offers hay rides, a gift shop, the chance to tap a tree yourself, and cooking demonstrations. I, for one, saw the chef from the Sugar Hill Inn explain how to make maple creme brulee. Mm hmm, that’s gonna happen. The one downside: the ticket for the “NH Maple Experience” (as they call it) was 15 clams. Anyhow, I definitely want to go back in the summer. The estate at one time had amazing formal gardens; I don’t know if they’ve been restored, but they’re close enough to Polly’s Pancake Parlor that I figure it won’t hurt to just…check.

The most remote sugar shack I explored was Fuller’s, which I had convinced myself was the BEST. Only, it wasn’t. I’m sure their maple syrup is lovely, but there was no sap to be had that far north — it’s still too cold, so no boiling demo — and no breakfast and no activities. However, they did offer me free sugar on snow with a pickle, a classic New England treat from my childhood. I was also recommended a few sugar shacks further south, notably Parker’s, which is close enough to the Massachusetts border that it could probably make an easy day trip for any Boston-bound person. However, I dallied a bit too long in the north country and didn’t make it down there before close.

In the end, what I learned was this: it’s best to go to the sugar shacks with a) food, or b) activities. The ones without, “authentic” as they may be, and delicious as their syrup may be, just aren’t as much fun to visit.

I broke up the weekend with a visit to Littleton, NH, where I picked up some new ski bindings at Lahout’s (knowledgeable staff, always a great price) and had a delicious lunch at Miller’s Cafe, right on the river. The Yankee pot roast sandwich was a great addition to my uber-Yankee weekend. I also had a surprisingly good dinner at the Coyote Grill in Waterville Valley, NH. I’d been there before and, at that time, wasn’t terribly impressed — it was over-priced and not very well executed. This time it still felt over-priced but was excellently executed, and they had a small but carefully chosen beer list. Rumor has it there’s a new chef. Just don’t be put off by their location — in the Waterville Valley athletic center. Also, penny-conscious patrons be advised: there’s a cheaper bar menu. And of course, I skied — you can’t spend an entire weekend mainlining maple syrup and not get a little bit of physical activity in. Right?