It may be less than 18 miles long, but New Hampshire’s coastline packs a punch, from honky-tonk Hampton Beach to the cobblestoned Colonial alleyways of Portsmouth. Along the way, you can tidepool at Odiorne Point State Park, have lunch at a grand hotel, visit historic 18th-century homes, and shop art galleries and designer boutiques. Point your car north on Interstate 95 to the Hampton exit, then follow Route 101 east to the ocean, where you pick up Route 1A.
Get to Hampton Beach early before the hordes of sunbathers and swimmers arrive; take a leisurely stroll along the wide swath of sand. In another hour or so, the beach will be filled with bodies and the air redolent of fried dough and french fries. But for now, you’ll get a whiff of the sea, hear the shrill of gulls, and have expansive views of the open ocean. Stop by the Coffee Break Cafe (23 Ocean Blvd., www.hamptonbeachcoffee.com) for a cup of joe and breakfast sandwich to go, before heading north on 1A.
You pass a string of beaches and parks as you travel the meandering oceanfront road. Watch surfers ride the waves at North Hampton Beach State Park, or go for a swim at family-friendly Jenness State Beach. Pull into picturesque Rye Harbor, about seven miles from Hampton Beach, with its active marina and views of the far-off Isles of Shoals. Stay longer to hop on a whale-watching cruise or deep sea fishing excursion. Or, continue north on Route 1A, driving past seaside cottages and luxe mansions.
Stop at Odiorne Point State Park, the largest undeveloped stretch of shore along the state’s coastline. Look for tiny sea creatures in the Sunken Forest tidepools, and hike along the shoreline, past freshwater ponds and salt marshes. If you have kids in tow, be sure to visit the Seacoast Science Center also located at the park (603-436-8043, www.seacoastsciencecenter
.org, adults $5, children ages 3-12 $2), with touch tanks and interpretive displays. Back in the car, follow 1A until you reach a rotary, where you will veer right onto Route 1B.
Pull into the historic 1874 Wentworth by the Sea Hotel (888-252-6888, www.wentworth.com), overlooking the Atlantic. Meander the garden paths before having an al fresco lunch at Latitudes (try the crab and lobster cakes or the fish tacos), with views of the resort’s lively marina.
Continue along Route 1B into tiny New Castle Island. The town, one of the oldest in New England, comprises a string of islands located at the mouth of the Piscataqua River and Portsmouth Harbor. The road narrows, hugged by 18th-century homes and cottages. Next stop: Fort Constitution and Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. Turn right into the Coast Guard Station, off Route 1B, and follow the road to the end. Park in the lot and walk the short path to the Fort Constitution State Historic Site. Here you see ruins of one of the earliest forts erected to protect Portsmouth Harbor, along with sweeping views of the ocean and lighthouse.
Scenic Route 1B crosses a low-slung bridge into Portsmouth, passing fish shacks, piles of lobster traps, and historic homes, as you weave your way into town. There is still time to tour one of the city’s historic properties (there are nine open to the public). The 1784 Governor John Langdon House (143 Pleasant St., 603-436-3205, www.historicnewengland.org, $6), home to the three-time governor of New Hampshire and signer of the US Constitution, is a fine Georgian mansion, and one of our favorites to visit. Or, spend time browsing the boutiques, galleries, and shops that cram downtown streets and alleyways.
Grab a seat on the waterfront deck of the River House (53 Bow St., 603-431-2600, www.riverhouse53bow
.com), for drinks and perhaps a bowl of the award-winning seafood chowder, and then head to Moxy (106 Penhallow St., 603-319-8178, www.moxy
restaurant.com), a sexy new restaurant led by chef Matt Louis, who performs magic with his inventive American tapas dishes (try the tiny bites of salt cod fritters, crispy pork belly with marinated watermelon, or the tender beef brisket wrapped in Napa cabbage leaves).
Catch I-95 south to head home.
Or . . . why not stay the night, and retrace your scenic route home?