Romance can happen any old time. But let’s face it, some places are more bewitching than others. Take Portsmouth, N.H. This picturesque port city, set along the Granite State’s abbreviated coastline, always edges the top of our list when we’re traveling in the name of love. Perhaps, you’ve visited in summer when the streets are bustling. Winter is an entirely different (we’d say more romantic) experience: hushed and intimate, with all the ingredients for a starry-eyed getaway. The walkable downtown is crisscrossed with brick and cobblestone streets and alleyways, lined with historic buildings, boutiques and galleries, bakeries and chocolate shops, and a choice of great restaurants. There are ocean and Piscataqua River views, too, and it’s just an hour or so north of Boston. Here’s a weekend itinerary designed to get hearts thumping.
Friday arrival: Check into The Sailmaker’s House (rates start at $119). The chic, intimate inn, housed in a circa 1800 Greek Revival home, is within easy walking distance to restaurants, shops, and attractions. We love the blend of old and new, combining nostalgic charm and historic details with contemporary, luxurious touches. There are 10 light-filled rooms, with glossy white woodwork, polished pine floors, soft neutral palettes, modern baths, and luxurious linens. Room 3 is a popular choice, with a king bed, nautical blue walls, and a high ceiling decorated with an original copper medallion. Or splurge on room 8, a spacious queen suite with a walk-in shower and a separate living room. The hotel will be offering a variety of winter packages, including ice skating at Strawbery Banke, dinner for two at a choice of local restaurants, chocolates from Byrne and Carlson, and flowers from Jardiniere, a local florist.
Don your winter garb for a walk to the upstairs bar at the Black Trumpet restaurant. The dimly-lit, uber cozy space has brick walls, old wood beams, and just a handful of tables with peek-a-boo views of the Piscataqua River. Consider one of their handcrafted cocktails or something off the extensive wine list, and a nibble or two, like sauteed mushrooms with whipped ricotta, or the braised Burgundy snails with roasted Brussels sprouts, New Hampshire mushrooms, and Vermont raclette cheese. It’s tempting to stay, but why not check out another restaurant? Cure is an intimate bistro serving soul-warming comfort food, like confit duck legs, classic French onion soup, and lobster mac and cheese. Upscale Ristorante Massimo, housed in an 1816 brick former Custom House, is consistently voted the city’s most romantic restaurant, with handcrafted, elegant Italian cuisine. Or, if you believe the connection between oysters and sexual desire (or simply like the bivalves), grab a dozen to share at The Franklin.
Saturday morning: Cup of Joe Café & Bar is a popular local hangout, with a casual, hip vibe, and great coffee, and Popovers on the Square has lovely breakfast sandwiches and pastries. If you’re looking for a full meal, consider Colby’s; the homemade cinnamon swirl French toast is a popular choice.
Time to do a little exploring! The mile or so Portsmouth Harbour Trail includes 10 buildings on the National Register of Historic Buildings, and three homes maintained by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, including the Portsmouth Athenaeum, the Moffatt-Ladd House (William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence lived here), the 1716 Warner House, the John Paul Jones House, and the 1785 Gov. John Langdon House (President George Washington was a guest in the home in 1789).
Saturday afternoon: Earth Eagle Brewings is a fun little spot for burgers and dogs, or enjoy in-your-face Piscataqua River views at Martingale Wharf, with a large menu of sandwiches, salads, and seafood platters.
Stroll hand-in-hand through downtown, popping into some of the city’s unique galleries and boutiques. Sleuth out fabulous finds at Esta, a high-end vintage store with new and gently used clothing and accessories. Pickwick’s Mercantile is a curious shop/museum with unique gift items, vintage toys, soaps, fragrances, and more. Stock + Spice has an impressive collection of handmade spice blends, and Book & Bar, housed in a historic building, has new and used books, and is a great place to warm up and relax.
Consider popping into 3S Artspace in the city’s Northern Tier neighborhood. The nonprofit contemporary art gallery will be showing “Where Everybody Is Somebody,” the works of Henry Horenstein, a professional photographer, filmmaker, author, and a professor of photography at RISD. The exhibit runs through March 20.
End your afternoon with a twirl around the ice-skating rink at Strawbery Banke (skate rentals available). The professional figure skating company Ice Dance International will also be offering free performances and lessons here on select days throughout February. Find a schedule here. On your way back to The Sailmaker’s House, stop for a velvety, rich cup of hot chocolate at Kilwins Portsmouth.
Saturday evening: Dinner, of course! Consider Cava Tapas & Wine Bar, a warm, snug eatery serving creative small plates like tuna crudo with lemon truffle, chickpea fries, and seafood stew. If you’re looking to spice things up a bit, you can pick your heat level at Durbar Square, a busy, bi-level restaurant specializing in authentic Nepalese cooking (try the wild boar Momo or the traditional Takari.)
Slip into a pair of plush chairs at the stylish and sexy Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club. The recently opened venue, set in an impeccably restored 1905 brick-and-beam building, features a lineup of world-class musicians (reserve tickets in advance).
Sunday morning: Sleep in, check out late, and have brunch at Raleigh, a sleek, contemporary wine bar with a carefully curated menu; bacon Benedict on a buttermilk biscuit and sourdough pancakes are favorites.
The perfect ending to this romantic getaway: a celebratory margarita at the fun-loving, good-tasting Vida Cantina, and then a couple’s massage at the grand Wentworth by the Sea resort and spa. You might decide to check in here for another night.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com