PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Seriously, Portsmouth?
You're going to be that perfect? So ideal that I ache, I envy and I curse my childhood for not including your idyllic splendor?
Yes. You are going to be that perfect.
I've visited many places, but you, Portsmouth, may be the most pleasant of them all. It's in how your cozy downtown streets curve just so, with rows of adorable shops bending out of sight with the promise of more adorable shops. It's in your waterfront seafood restaurants, where boats stream by as if on cue. There is no litter on your ground, but if there were, it would probably be dollar bills and composting instructions. You seem to be almost wholly made of the most perfect red brick I have ever seen.
I suspected you held such allure when picking up my rental car in Boston, an hour to the south. The woman at the counter, Amanda, asked where I was heading. I told her, and her eyes widened. She loves Portsmouth. Her friends love Portsmouth. When Boston needs a vacation, it loves Portsmouth.
Then I saw your clapboard houses dating to the 1700s, painted all sorts of fun colors like purple and green, though I bet you call them "eggplant" and "mint." I saw your downtown square, highlighted by a white-steepled church whose spire soars to the heavens. It looks like the kind of place where George Washington worshiped — and in fact, Washington once worshiped there. Your downtown was home to Franklin Pierce's law practice, too, which makes me wonder how many former presidents you are going to claim. But I guess you deserve it, being settled 150 years before the United States was a country, and all.
Oh, Portsmouth, lovely little town of 21,000 with the perfect dab of salty grime behind the ear, mostly from the naval shipyard that calls you home. You stir the soul for a simpler time, a time that KFC and Denny's didn't exist. And here, neither does. Even when you're mean, you're nice: "Please enjoy your food and drink outside," a sign in one business reads. And did I mention that the street dead-ending into your town square is called Pleasant Street? I mean, come on!
Of course, all your pleasantness means ample tourism. Summer's masses come from far and near, and it's little wonder. You have been lauded as one of the nation's most kid-friendly, walkable, food-centric, historic, livable and romantic cities. On any East Coast car trip, you are a charming little must.
As I sat in your square, surrounded by visitors flipping through Sotheby's catalogs with dreams of buying one of your homes, I realized that marveling at you, Portsmouth, is almost a full-time occupation.
"It's like Europe in America," said a guy passing by in a Grateful Dead T-shirt.
"I think I could live here!" a woman gushed to her travel companions. "It's like a mini-Boston!"
History runs deep in you, Portsmouth. There is your history with the former presidents. You boast of Temple Israel — the "first permanent Jewish house of worship in New Hampshire" — and historic structures such as Gov. John Langdon's great white gothic home, which dates to 1784. It's wonderful historic eye candy.
But you know what becomes of a place that only looks back without looking ahead? It gets boring. So you built yourself for the here and now. You have shops. You have restaurants. One of the most popular boasts among your locals is that you have "the most restaurants per capita." Here I actually might believe it.
Upon checking in at my downtown hotel, I asked the desk clerk what there was to do in town.
"Do you like to eat and drink?" she said.
She wasn't joking.
Downtown Portsmouth is home to about 50 restaurants. In a town of 21,000!
Just as I started to wonder if you could be any more perfect, Portsmouth, I strolled out of downtown and into the neighborhoods. I wound up in the South End, the oldest part of town, on Gates Street.