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.

A Weekend in Woods Hole

A typically stunning Cape Cod sunset as seen from near the Woods Hole ferry terminal.

A typically stunning Cape Cod sunset as seen from near the Woods Hole ferry terminal.

To most New Englanders, Woods Hole is the way station to Martha’s Vineyard — a quaint village we see in passing as we rush to hop on the ferry. But when my friend Susy got married in Woods Hole this September, Ben and I had the chance to slow down and savor this oft-overlooked little town.

We stayed at the Sands of Time Inn, which consists of an old-fashioned motor inn (the rooms have balconies overlooking the water) and a traditional harbor house with classic B&B furnishings. In the mornings, we’d stroll the seaside sidewalk into town, where we had breakfast at the Pie in the Sky bakery and cafe. With pastries the size of your head and breakfast sandwiches on Portuguese sweetbread with linguica, there was plenty to feed our post-wedding hangovers. I was happy just to sit for a while at a picnic table out front, enjoying the cool Cape Cod air and doing a crossword, watching the line expand and contract as ferries pulled in and out of the neighboring berth.

Another highlight: oysters and ocean views at the Landfall, a restaurant made famous to me by the bride. (She worked there for several consecutive summers.) Ben ordered a beer, and I got the rum runner — which came served in a pint glass. The waitress set it down and, with a certain amount of pride in her voice, described as “probably the most alcoholic drink we have.”

If you’re wondering why they call it “Woods Hole,” it’s so called because the tidal pond in the center of town — Eel Pond — was once entirely surrounded by woods. And, being round, it kind of looks like a hole. Hence… Woods Hole.

My only regret is that I did not try the tacos at Quick’s Hole. When Ben returned to Woods Hole for some saltwater fishing, he texted me an envy-inducing photo of their delicious fish taco.

However, we had plenty to keep us busy in not-so-sleepy Woods Hole and the environs, including a late night at Grumpy’s, a friendly local dive with live music, pool, and — my favorite — air hockey. And on our way out of town, we strolled around the prosperous shops of Falmouth before antiquing our way off the Cape. When you’re not rushing to catch a ferry, it turns out that there’s no need to hurry.

Boston’s ICA and Central Bottle Make an Excellent Pairing

The tasting flight at Central Bottle: expensive, but not skimpy.

The tasting flight at Central Bottle: expensive, but not skimpy.

Perhaps it is because there is no love lost between me and any art produced after, say, 1940 that my two visits to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art have both involved alcohol. Or perhaps it’s just because libations are just so libatable.

Hello, art-lover.

Hello, art-lover.

Whatever the root cause, my first visit to the ICA was a success largely because I toured the nearby Harpoon Brewery ahead of time and took advantage of the 30 minutes of unlimited tasting post-tour. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that — so enthusiastic was I during the tasting period of our brewery visit — the 15-minute walk to the museum, the hour or so perusing various installations made of Scotch tape, safety pins, and disassembled Volkswagens, and the 15-minute walk back to the Harpoon parking lot were all necessary before it was again acceptable to pilot a vehicle.) Scotch tape cloud sculptures have never looked as beautiful to me as they did on that day, through a haze of hefeweizen.

My second visit to the ICA took place yesterday, when I found myself (lo!) with a rare weekend in town. Heading over to the museum with Noah, we decided to catch the closing weekend of This Will Have Been: Art, Love & Politics in the 1980s. It featured the usual roundup of 80s artists — there was the Basquiat; there, the Koons; and over there, the Richter, along with a Cindy Sherman and a few Mapplethorpes — and was (at least to my unstudied eye) intelligently curated along interesting themes (gender, AIDS, Reagan, nuclear disarmament, poverty, etc). So often the entire decade of the 80s is reduced to a sort of caricature of Gordon Gekko/legwarmers/neon/Vogue (or, my secret dream: Gordon Gekko wearing neon legwarmers and dancing to Vogue) that it was actually sort of refreshing to be reminded that, oh yeah, it was also a time of activism, ambivalence, apprehension, and discomfort.

Then I wandered into a room with a video installation of two hipsters (oops, I mean artists) wearing coonskin caps playing bluegrass in front of various snowy mountain/forest scenes and realized it was time to leave.

So the two of us headed back over the river to Central Bottle, a fantastic wine store that is actually closer to Kendall. Despite being continually overwhelmed by my email inbox, this is one mailing list up for which I have never regretted signing. (Take that, Winston Churchill.) Every Thursday they have a “wine bar,” and occasionally they’ll do one on Saturday, too. This was one of those Saturdays. Fifteen dollars gets you four generous tasting pours, and for extra cash you can get a cheese plate, charcuterie board, or various salumi. I was especially interested in this Saturday’s event because it featured the wines of Sybille Kuntz, one of the few female vintners in Germany. She makes riesling in the Mosel valley… and was there, at the store, to meet and greet the drinkers. I learned, among other things, that she’d brought the 2006 vintage with her on the plane in her carry-on luggage. I snapped up the second-to-last bottle just as the main wave of tasters was coming in.

Ninety minutes, too much duck liver pate, and not nearly enough delicious riesling later, we headed next door to Flour Bakery for cookies.

Next weekend, I intend to repeat this theme with a different sort of art and a different sort of decadence: brunch at Mistral followed by an ikebana demonstration at the MFA, followed (getting ambitious here!) by a visit to the Gardner, followed by who-knows-what.

Sometimes one gets so used to rambling — Maine to New Hampshire to Connecticut to Rhode Island to Berkshires and beyond — one forgets the delights in one’s own backyard.