New Ways to See the Old Portsmouth Seaport
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Portsmouth has earned bragging rights for preserving a large number of historic sites. If you know another little city of 20,000 souls with more nonprofit house museums, let me know and I’ll move there. Now the Old Port is angling for a record number of ways to visit its heritage spots. (Continued below)
If you love old Portsmouth, let me count the ways you can tour. Better yet, let’s count the ways you can’t. So far no one I know offers an historic helicopter tour, but it’s not a bad idea. Nor have I seen ads for tours via skateboard, jet- ski, duck boat, shopping cart, ski-doo or motorcycle. Scooters yes, motorcycles no.
“We don’t do a guided tour,” says Bob Marchewka, owner of Scoot, the new scooter rental business. “We just give you the Chamber of Commerce map and off you go.”
Marchewka got the idea for a scooter rental service (he has six new Hondas and Yamahas) after a visit to Nantucket Island. Renters need only a driver’s license and a credit card to scoot around the historic city. A tank of gas can take you 150 miles and renters have gone as far as Hampton, York, and Seabrook Beach.
“In the summer it’s hard to get downtown in a car, and you can go more places than if you were walking or on a bike,” Marchewka says.
Steve Bakula might not agree. He’s renting road and “hybrid” bikes (half mountain bike) by the day or by the week from his new shop Pedal Power Cycle on Lafayette Road.
“I’m biased,” he says, “but my thought has always been that a bike is the greatest and most versatile way to get around town.”
I recall reading in a Victorian newspaper that as many as 600 bikes were counted on the lawn of Wentworth by the Sea during a summer concert in the 1890s. Bikers can zip through city traffic jams, Bakula says, with no worry about parking, in the greenest form of transportation available. Okay, maybe not quite as green as shoe leather, which has been the primary mode for seeing the city for generations.
I couldn’t find a great list of Portsmouth tours, so I created my own (see below). It’s a pretty impressive catalog. Currently Portsmouth can boast one of the finest self-guided African American heritage trails in New England. Or select from walks and talks that focus on architecture, famous authors, George Washington, the Treaty of Portsmouth, ghosts, gravestones, historic homes, or sleazy city secrets.
For those who prefer to move fast without moving their legs, Portsmouth now has its very own Segway tours. These battery-powered personal transportation units (invented in my hometown of Bedford, New Hampshire) make it possible to see every historic house in the city in one trip. Each tour comes with a trained guide who knows volumes about local history. I know because I wrote the original history script for Seacoast Segway Tours.
For those more inclined toward sedentary touring we now have two motorized packages. Jeremy D’Entremont, aka ‘The Lighthouse Guy,” will chauffer your party around to the region’s historic lighthouses in a comfortable minivan. D’Entremont favors this “up close and personal” mode of touring because it allows him to share a wealth of stories in a comfortable setting. One tourist from Texas recently confessed to Jeremy that, when the tour ended, he felt he was leaving a close friend behind.
David Maloney, a well studied Portsmouth history buff, is now offering private history tours for up to six people in his car. He can pick visitors up at their hotel and offer a customized windshield tour of the sights that most interest each customer. Maloney also offers two history-rich journeys through the city and down the New Hampshire coastline. His new venture is called Seacoast NH Heritage Tours.
And, of course, the latest waterborne tour is aboard the freshly launched gundalow Piscataqua. With the possible exception of horse and buggy rides through Strawbery Banke Museum, this is the only tour in which the customers truly feel transported into the past.
CLICK HERE to see 20 Ways to Tour Portsmouth
“Sailing on the gundalow, you really get to experience the Piscataqua River as an adventure,” says Gundalow Company business manager Daisy Wilson.
She’s right. I was on the gundalow Piscatqqua recently talking about history. The massive sail was up. The day was perfect. The captain hovered for a short while just off Fort Constitution in New Castle next to New Hampshire’s only mainland lighthouse. I told the story of the 1774 raid on Fort William and Mary there, the one locals call the first battle of the American Revolution. I was able to tell a group of 40 tourists how locals stormed the British fort and carried away the gunpowder – on gundalows. How real is that? We could almost hear the shots being fired.
You can get even closer to the Piscataqua in a kayak. Tour guide Callie Aspinwall of Portsmouth Kayak Adventures assured me that she has been studying up on Portsmouth history from sea level. Her kayak renters often point to the Navy Yard Prison, Wentworth by the Sea, Creek Farm, or the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion and ask – what’s that?
This summer has been “wicked busy” with a lot of visitors from out of state, she says. “You get a completely different perspective on the city from the water, not like downtown.”
It’s a precious perspective the first European settlers knew well, long before the first Segway came rolling into view.
Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at Smuttynose Island. His accompanying Shoals archaeology exhibit at Discover Portsmouth closes this week on August 31
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