The bell atop the old meetinghouse chimes on the hour, every hour. The white buildings housing the town offices, police department, and Post Office are so picturesque, you half expect them to be cardboard cutouts from a movie set. Blink and sneeze and you'll miss most of Main Street, which has little more than a historic inn, a terrific cafe, a country store, an artisan cheese shop, and trees as far as the eye can see.
It's no wonder the town librarian cheerfully greets an out-of-towner like this: "Welcome to our little Currier & Ives town!"
She's right. Founded in 1779, Hancock is tiny (about 1,650 residents) but big on charm. Nestled in the Monadnock Region in southwestern New Hampshire, it's the reason Midwestern transplants like me move to this part of the country. It's exactly how non-natives imagine small-town New England in all its sleepy wonder and bucolic surroundings. Last week the leaves were already turning, paving the two-hour drive from Boston with patches of burnt oranges and reds and countless stops to take pictures.
The handsome Hancock Inn (33 Main St., 603-525-3318, www.hancockinn.com, current rates $199-$299) is the main attraction, the state's oldest continuously run bed-and-breakfast with roots reaching to 1789. Scrolling through the photos on its website, I couldn't resist the allure of the John Freeman Eaton room, whose corner alcove has a claw-foot tub and a window overlooking Main Street. It even came with two rubber duckies that I have no shame admitting I plopped into my hot bath at the end of the day. Innkeepers Jarvis and Marcia Coffin are hospitable hosts; he's a fine chef for the complimentary breakfast, and she handles the service with a warm smile.
Look no further than the Hancock Inn (entrees $16-$33), which serves the same menu in both its more formal dining room and the casual tavern. (It's so casual, in fact, that you might find Potter, the innkeepers' very sweet golden retriever, curled up at your feet.) A recent summer menu was surprisingly eclectic, from burgers and crab cakes to more adventurous fare such as flounder on a bed of grilled scallions and sesame-eggplant puree, topped with uni and fish eggs. Don't miss the excellent Merguez slider, a succulent little lamb burger that's a steal at $5 a pop, and a grilled watermelon salad features creamy goat cheese from Main Street Cheese (37 Main St., 603-525-3300, www.mainestreetcheese.net), a stone's throw from the inn. The kind of place where fresh baked goods are sold next to the cash register, Hancock Market (30 Main St., 603-525-4433) is a country store where you can stock up on the basics, along with cheeses, meats, and beer and wine perfect for a picnic. Next door is Fiddleheads Café (28 Main St., 603-525-4432, www.fiddleheadscatering.net), a cute place particularly for breakfast and lunch, with a display case full of prepared foods. It also serves a variety of sandwiches, salads, and soups (try the West African peanut soup, a hearty concoction that hits the spot on autumnal afternoons).
DURING THE DAY
No matter how compact it seems, Hancock is a sprawling haven of trails that let you experience the area's natural beauty, ranging from easy strolls to strenuous hikes that'll keep you busy for a few hours. The Harris Center for Conservation Education (83 King's Highway, 603-525-3394, www.harriscenter.org) is your best resource for the great outdoors in these parts, or you can also pick up a pamphlet at the Hancock Inn with directions to the trails and go exploring on your own. Right off Main Street, a steep walk up Norway Hill Road leads to the hand-painted "APPLES" sign for Norway Hill Orchard (5 Duncan Road, 603-525-4912, cash or check only and the closest ATM is a few miles away). Last week the trees were heavy with McIntoshes begging to be picked. Bags run from $6.50 to $20.50, but it's cheaper to pick your own. The road to Hancock is paved with places to buy fresh produce, but a pit stop at Rosaly's Garden and Farmstand (63 New Hampshire Route 123, Peterborough, 603-924-7774, www.rosalysgarden.com) is a must. The robust seasonal bounty yields everything from purple carrots and lettuces to peppers and fat tomatoes in multiple varieties. Time it right and you can pick your own flowers, for $12 a pound, right on the property. Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Columbus Day. The town library (25 Main St., 603-525-4411, www.hancocktownlibrary.blogspot.com) programs special events, such as a recent classical Indian dance performance. Pick up a copy of Hancock Happenings, the town's monthly newsletter, which is also available on Hancock's website, www.hancocknh.org.
You guessed it: Night life doesn't exactly exist here, at least not if you're looking for buzzing bars or a packed dance floor. The locals will direct you to Harlow's Pub in nearby Peterborough (3 School St., 603-924-6365, www.harlowspub.com), a 15-minute drive through some of the darkest country roads you'll encounter outside of a horror film. It's worth it. This neighborhood haunt has friendly bartenders, reliable pub grub, and live music (Celtic, bluegrass, open-mike night, guest bands). If skies are clear, you'll be treated to some spectacular stargazing at the Hancock Inn. Arrange one of the Adirondack chairs in the backyard, look up, and take in the panorama. It's mesmerizing, especially with a bottle of wine from Hancock Market. (I mean, so I'm told.)