First in a series.
NEW CASTLE — We have long loved the town of Portsmouth for the historic feel and modern charms that blend together seamlessly, and the same can be said of the nearby Wentworth by the Sea Hotel & Spa. This grand dame has got one foot in its storied past, the other in a stylized present.
The Wentworth — named for the first royal governor of New Hampshire — was built in 1874, and still shows its three Victorian turrets. The oceanfront resort operated continuously for more than a century, hosting movie stars and politicians, but closed in 1980. For 23 years it sat vacant until, after a $38 million renovation by new owners, it reopened 10 years ago with all the modern comforts any guest could want. Though it is affiliated with the Marriott Corp., it is owned and managed by Ocean Properties Ltd. and retains the ambience of an old New England inn.
We checked in on a recent sunny but cool day, stepping into a lobby that offered chairs by a gentle fire, and a dispenser of iced tea with lemons floating atop. I grabbed a cup of tea and headed for the fire, a lovely welcome.
The next choice was tough: Should we take the papers and sit on the long porch, with its Adirondack-style rockers? Or head for the heated pool and hot tub? We opted for the glassed-in pool room, with its white pillars and fluffy towels. The inn also has two outdoor pools.
Paying due respect to the inn’s Victorian bloodlines, the hallways boast ornately carved antique cabinets, chairs, and benches of polished burled wood. There are gilded mirrors and sconces, period wallpaper, marble-topped tables, and crystal chandeliers.
The 21st-century Wentworth shows up in the guest rooms, with wide-screen TVs, down comforters, and, critical to mediocre sleepers like me, perfect pillows: not too firm or soft. The bathrooms have marble counters and upscale toiletries. Since New Castle is an island — you drive over a couple of small bridges — most rooms have a water view. From ours, we could see the distant Portsmouth Naval Prison, closed 40 years now, where a young Humphrey Bogart was a guard during World War I.
It’s a huge — and rare — bonus if your hotel has a great restaurant, and the Wentworth does. Salt Kitchen & Bar is the in-house restaurant, and the hotel also operates Latitudes, at the nearby marina, from May through October.
Salt, too, is a blend of past and present: We walked through a newly updated, ultramodern bar into the dining room, where we were seated beneath an original 19th-century “whisper dome” with a mural that features cherubs raising garlands amid the clouds. If you listen closely, the dome’s acoustics carry other diners’ chatter your way, a bonus for us eavesdroppers.
At sunset, the large windows offered a view of pine trees set against a blue and peach sky. A small bunch of rosemary and a votive candle provided a simple, fragrant centerpiece, and our waiter brought a warm basket of housemade rosemary bread and beer bread.
The dishes are creative and well prepared. We loved the duck arancini, the flatbread pizza baked in the brick oven with wild mushrooms, asiago cream, tartufo oil, and arugula. The pastas come in two sizes, great for a couple to share. The carbonara with pancetta and scallops and the pappardelle with braised short rib ragu are terrific choices. Dinner for two, without tip, was about $100. One complaint: The service is a little too relaxed.
The next day, we were set to go into Portsmouth, about a 10-minute drive, and stopped by the concierge desk. That’s where we met George Predaris, who introduced himself as “the resident schmoozer here.” He’s not kidding.
Predaris cares about the Wentworth as if it were his grandmother: He’s both proud and affectionate. He proceeded to fill us in on the hotel’s history, and asked if we wanted a tour. It’s clear that he heeds the words written on the white board in the staff room, whose door happened to be open: “Guests First. Smile!”
Predaris, 73, came out of retirement nine years ago to work as the weekend concierge, and it’s a job he takes very seriously. As he led us down hallways and into ballrooms and conference rooms, he talked about the Treaty of Portsmouth, signed at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in 1905, which ended the Russo-Japanese War.
The what? “It was called World War Zero,” he said. The Japanese came out the surprise victors over Russia’s ambitions in the East, and President Theodore Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomacy in arranging the peace conference. The hotel donated free accommodations to the Japanese and Russian delegations for the 30 days of the conference.
Predaris said the Wentworth still gets many Japanese visitors who want to photograph the conference room where the two sides met. “This is huge in their history,” he said.
The hotel also hosts lots of weddings, sometimes two a day in high season. When we were there, a bridal party was assembling, the groomsmen wearing tuxedos and sneakers.
Before checking out in the morning, we peeked in at Salt, having heard about its build-your-own bloody Mary and mimosa bars ($11 per person) at breakfast and brunch on weekends. There was bartender Kayla Putnam setting things up: mixes, spices, herbs, sauces, juices, purees, fruits, candied orange and lemon, and crystallized ginger.
For the bloody Marys, there’s also Maine lobster meat and applewood smoked bacon. For the mimosas, there’s housemade puree to put in the bottom of your glass, the better to pour the champagne over.
The $16 breakfast buffet is a smorgasbord of hot and cold delights: an omelet and pancake station, breakfast flatbreads made in the pizza oven, homemade pastries, smoothies, parfaits, and so on and on and on. There’s also a Sunday jazz brunch, which we’ll be back for on some wintry day.
But we were eager to visit our old Portsmouth standby, a cafe in Market Square named Breaking New Grounds. Fortified by caffeine plus one Peanut Butter Explosion and one Grand Sequoia Mousse, we wandered the streets of old Portsmouth, which has something in common with the Wentworth. Strawbery Banke, an open-air museum with Colonial-era buildings, period gardens, and staffers in historic dress shares the ’hood with an array of cool shops and restaurants, including a microbrewery.
No trip to Portsmouth is complete without a stop at Macro Polo, a joke-and-gift shop that sells crazy cards, fake mustaches and dog poop, religious mints (“Jesus, I could use a breath mint”), games, penny candy, and much more. It’s worth going in just to hear the guffaws from browsers.
We couldn’t leave town without going to the Old Ferry Landing restaurant downtown, on the Piscataqua River. The original ferry landing has been there for more than 100 years, and had served many uses until it opened as a bar and restaurant in 1973. Good beer, food, and view. Over seafood plates, we raised our Shipyard Summer Ale and toasted Portsmouth, and the Wentworth, and started planning our next trip north.