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 Spring Weekend of Food, Walking, and Beer in Boston

In the foreground, Syringa Vulgaris "Grand Duc Constantin." In the background, hardy Bostonians.

In the foreground, Syringa Vulgaris “Grand Duc Constantin.” In the background, hardy Bostonians.

We began Saturday morning with a morning stroll around the lilacs at Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. Some of the early blooming specimens were in full flower, while the late-bloomers were still just buds. Undaunted by the lightly falling rain, Bostonians wandered from shrub to shrub, sniffing away. Go now if you don’t want to miss them; lilacs don’t last long once the weather heats up.

After satisfying my hunger for all things lilac, we felt the need to satisfy a hunger of a different sort — at Sportello. We headed over to Boston’s Fort Point where we bellied up to the counter for our panini, chips, peanut butter truffles, Alex Palmers (like an Arnold Palmer but with grapefruit juice), and the piece de resistance, the strozzapreti with braised rabbit, green olives, and rosemary.

From there, it was over to the nearby Harpoon Brewery to visit their new beer hall. After waiting about 25 minutes to get in — which has to be a record for any bar in Boston, at least any I’ve been to — we got the IPA sampler, tasted the cask ale, and then tried one of their “pilots,” an experimental beer they usually only keep around for a couple of weeks. The winner? Hands down, it was the hot-out-of-the-oven giant soft pretzel with cheese-and-ale sauce. Just don’t burn your fingers trying to eat it too fast.

Then it was home for a movie (and another beer) at the Somerville Theater in Davis — we saw Gatsby, but it only whetted my appetite for some of their upcoming silent films, showing in their classic main theater. Where else can you see these films as they were meant to be seen — in a huge theater with a balcony, box seats, elaborately painted ceiling, and gold-trimmed vermilion curtain?

There's no more attractive way to get from Davis to Alewife.

There’s no more attractive way to get from Davis to Alewife.

Sunday started with a drizzly morning walk along the Davis Square bike path, which is covered in cherry blossom petals this time of year, and then segued into an afternoon game at Fenway Park (with mom and dad, of course). I got off the T at MGH and walked down Charles Street, through the Public Garden (where hordes of children waited with mothers to have their picture taken in front of the ducklings), and along Marlborough Street, in my view the handsomest in the Back Bay. In front of every massive architectural pile is a postage-stamp sized garden, each one unique. By the time the Red Sox succumbed to the Blue Jays, the sun was shining in earnest, so I took another long walk, this time up Beacon Street and over the Mass Ave bridge to Central Square, making a quick pit stop in Toscanini’s — as far as I know, the only ice cream store that’s ever inspired its own bailout — before hopping on the T.

The gorgeous weather was still very much in evidence when I arrived home. This early in the year, it still feels like a precious novelty, a rare resource not to be wasted. Only six months until winter! So Ben and I headed out again, this time to his secret fishing inlet on a part of the coast I somehow had never visited in 31 years of living in the state. Unfortunately, the wind was now picking up, making it hard on a fly fisherman (and his windblown, along-for-the-ride girlfriend), so we packed it in and drove back, stopping for dinner at Belle Isle Seafood in Winthrop. The good news: you don’t have to drive to the Cape (or to Rhode Island, or to Maine) for your fried-fish fix. That is also the bad news (for your waistline). The clam chowder is some of the best I’ve had, and the crab cakes were also excellent. I don’t think I’ve ever had anything more deeply fried than their scallops — and I mean that in a good way.

Best Gardens of Greater Boston

Daffodils at Tower Hill

Spring in New England is like Dustin Pedroia: short but powerful. As the sap rises in the veins of trees and New Englanders, my countrymen flock to open spaces in shorts and skirts freshly unpacked from winter storage, their Anglo-Saxon legs as white as Lamprey eels, their faces as rapturous as the Pope on Easter.

And then, two weeks later, we start complaining about how hot it is.

But I can think of no better way to spend the precious interlude between dismal winter and steamy summer than enjoying the flowers that will soon be scorched out of existence. So here is my incomplete, unscientific list of a few spots around Boston to take it all in. Please add your own suggestions in the comments!

The Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain. But wait, isn’t an arboretum just full of trees? Yes, yes it is — all kinds of beautiful flowering, budding trees! The Arnold also contains one of my all-time top-ten favorite places in all of New England: a path through 375 lilac plants, covering 180 different species. When they’re in bloom, run, do not walk!. They’re always gone quicker than you think.

The Public Garden, Boston. Boston’s central, formal park isn’t large, but it punches above its weight with gardeners who rotate in new annuals as the season progresses. It’s also (if you didn’t know, and I didn’t) America’s first botanic garden. No spring is complete without a ride on one of the Swan Boats and a peak at the little kids visiting the ducklings.

Mount Auburn Cemetery, Watertown. This historic burying ground helped launch a new movement in America: “rural” cemeteries where the dead could find their final rest among beautifully landscaped grounds. The popularity of such cemeteries helped launch the movement, a few years later, for more public green spaces like the Public Garden and Central Park. However beautiful it is, it’s important to remember that this is a graveyard, so no running, cycling, or dogs are allowed. Be sure to grab a map at the entrance so you can find the graves of New England notables like Henry Wadsworth Longfelow, Winslow Homer, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Buckminster Fuller, and Julia Ward Howe, along with any number of Cabots, Lodges, and Lowells.

Beacon Hill, Boston. Some of the most stunning small gardens I have ever seen are tucked behind the gracious mansions of this gas-lamped hill. But the only way to see them is to cough up $30 for the Beacon Hill Garden Club’s annual “hidden gardens” tour. It’s worth it. It’s generally (always?) the third Thursday in May. Cambridge runs a rival event called the Secret Gardens of Cambridge, but apparently only on even-numbered years. Well, there’s always next year.

Tower Hill Botanic Garden, Boylston. This 132-acre plot is relatively new, as gardens go, having been founded by the Worcester County Horticultural Society in 1986. But it’s well worth a trip west to stretch your legs in their lovely (and well-labeled) grounds.

And one of my favorite “garden walks” is really just walking the Comm Ave/Marlborough Street loop in the Back Bay. On Marlborough, in front of each architectural extravaganza is a tiny postage stamp of a garden, a “bit of ivory, two inches wide,” on which Boston’s remaining brahmins paint their horticultural fantasies. And on Commonwealth, when the magnolias are in bloom, you can’t imagine a finer boulevard.

Please share your favorite gardens (or urban gardens) in the comments!