Thomas Breathnach samples the sights and sounds of true festive spirit in one of America’s oldest cities
‘The holidays are coming.” From a team of Budweiser Clydesdales cantering through the snow to a convoy of Coca-Cola trucks trundling into a fairy-lit town, sometimes nothing says Christmas more than a good ole side order of Americana nostalgia. New England, with its old-world allure, conjures perhaps the greatest festive romanticism of all US regions. And so, I paid a festive visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the nation’s self-proclaimed “Capital of Christmas”.
While best known for its mountain ski resorts, fall foliage (and for political buffs, the primary elections), New Hampshire is also sales tax free, making its malls, outlets and mega liquor stores a magnet for the likes of the Black Friday and seasonal shopper brigade.
Not long after traversing America’s shortest state coastline — an 18-mile stretch dotted with beach clubs and lobster shacks — I arrive in Portsmouth, surrounded by über pretty pastel-panelled homes, rocky islets and boat jetties. Today home to a population of just 21,000, Portsmouth was settled in the relatively ancienne era of 1623, easily earning its claim as one of America’s oldest cities.
Rather refreshingly for a US town, Portsmouth’s town planning predates the urban grid movement, and the city’s old town welcomes with winding streets of impressive red stone buildings, all festively festooned with Martha Stewart wreathes and garlands.
Parked up and wrapped up, I began by ambling towards the centre with Portsmouth’s bohemian quirk already kicking in: at NW Barrett, the local craft community were selling their wares, while at Art with a Splash, amateur painters, vino in hand, were water-colouring their way through the afternoon (on works presumably unlikely to be showcasing at the former).
Arriving on the main drag of Market Street, marked by a giant Tannenbaum, the December Sunday spree was on, with shoppers laden with hampers of New England fare, from Maine blueberry jams to maple syrups from Vermont.
Such an establishment keeping up with the merry mirth was Attrezzi’s, a quirky hotch-potch homestore run by ukulele-playing Mainer, Matt Maynard. Maynard runs wine tastings 362 days a year and he was soon pouring me out a Muscat referred to as “happiness in a bottle” paired with samples of some creamy aged cheddar.
Having whetted up an early appetite, I made my way to Portsmouth’s old harbour district, moodily backtracked by the sounds of chugging tug boats and seagulls. The Oar House Restaurant, one time red-light knocking shop, now surf-and-turf delight, was my lunchtime port of call, where scallops wrapped in apple-smoked bacon were followed by a deliciously bubbling bouillabaisse of lobster, mussels and shrimp.
Afterwards, I headed for a dessert chaser at the Portsmouth Brewery, where downstairs in the basement I joined a bar full of crunchy, lumberjack hipsters who were shooting eight-ball, listening to the Pixies and necking back a menu of pun-inspired local craft beers. Hoppy Holidays!
From hipster hangouts to festive haunts, I ended my stay with a visit to Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth’s oldest neighbourhood, which also doubles as a super-quaint open-air museum.
Every December, the museum hosts Candlelight Stroll (strawberybanke.org; $22 (€16)); an annual Christmas event that time-travels visitors through 350 years of Portsmouth’s Christmases past.
Iarrived along the lantern-lit trail of historic homes just as the fa-la-la festivities were in full swing: horse-drawn carriages jingling by filled with locals all jollied on the yuletide joie de vivre of carol singing and craft ale.
Dozens of period properties were on site to visit, all featuring historically garbed, role-playing actors who lent a curious ambience of Amish Country meets A Christmas Carol.
I began my trail at the Goodwin house (complete with off-the-boat Irish servants with Darby O’Gillbrogues) before paying visits to homes of sea-captain Keyran Walsh and Russian-Jewish immigrant, Sarah Shapiro, who was busy cooking potato latkes for the feast of Hanukkah.
The sound of a strumming double bass, however, beckoned me towards the Cider Shed, an inviting refuge from the winter flurries about to hit the coast. Sipping on a warm apple brew, we toe-tapped our way into an evening of roots music as Portsmouth geared up for a Christmas Eve hoe-down. “Last one to leave, blow out the lantern”.
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) fly from Dublin and Shannon to Boston with fares from €398 round trip — there will be extra capacity on flights from Shannon come January. For car hire, Hertz (01-870 5777; hertz.ie) offer fly-drive discounts to Aer Lingus passengers: rates start from €23 a day.
For a funky New England base in Portsmouth, check in to the Ale House Inn (001 603 4317760; alehouseinn.com); a former brewery warehouse, turned trendy ‘boho’ (boutique hotel). Rates from €53pps.