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.

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.