Last updated: 08:00 PM ET, Wed August 24 2016

New Hampshire Without Plans

Destination & Tourism | Scott Laird | August 24, 2016

New Hampshire Without Plans

PHOTO: The Element Hanover-Lebanon. (Photo courtesy of the Element Hanover-Lebanon)

Sometimes traveling without plans is the best way to explore. I recently discovered a fellow thespian from high school was playing Evita in a summer stock production in rural New Hampshire, and I had a free weekend so I thought I’d head up to a new region (the closest I’d ever previously been to New England was New York City) and check things out.

Flying into Manchester, New Hampshire, from Texas in the middle of August is a transcendental experience. The brief transit from the terminal to the rental car lot, stepping into find arbor-fragranced air that was a good thirty degrees cooler than the century-mark temps I’d grown accustomed to, was certainly welcome. It was also rather novel to me (as I’ve mostly lived in big states) to drive from one end of a state to the other in about an hour. Learnings on the drive include the fact that Manchester is a picturesque small town situated on a river, the toll road to Concord is only a dollar (and the toll collectors are very pleasant if you have to pay cash) and liquor taxes are low in New Hampshire so there are a lot of outlets where out-of-staters can come stock up on booze.

I think it first hit me that I was in New England when I stopped into a small local grocery store (I’m a bit of a foodie and like to see what people are buying when I visit new places) and during my search for a soft drink overheard a small child proudly exclaim to her mother that yes, she knew it was odd, but she would like fish chowder for breakfast because she was particularly fond of fish chowder. It smelled heavenly. She’s on to something, I thought, and I followed her lead. It was a good decision.

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Aside from Evita, I had no other plans for my stay, so I checked into the somewhat new Element Hanover-Lebanon, poured myself a cup of (good!) coffee from the station in the lobby, and sifted through a stack of attraction brochures from a rack near the front desk. With a couple of hours to kill, I needed something close. The Ben & Jerry’s Factory? Promising, but an hour away. King Arthur Flour? Big fan, and the place is right across the river in Norwich, Vermont. That’s two new states checked off in one day. Done.

On the way, I discovered that Dartmouth College, with its near-specimen Ivy League campus architecture, is in neighboring Hanover, so I spent some time wandering around the manicured lawns and ancient halls of the campus before slipping across the Connecticut River into Vermont.

Dartmouth College, Hanover NH

Photo via Flickr/Josue Mendivil

King Arthur Flour has a gorgeous campus where diners enjoy sandwiches, pizzas and a variety of sweet and savory baked goods (I had the Northeast raised roast beef sandwich with creamy parmesan peppercorn aioli, sweet & sour peppers and onions and lettuce on a Kaiser roll that I still dream about) a store where you can find everything from butter crocks to rolling pins to gluten-free muffin mix (and sourdough starter!)

There’s also a baking school for true devotees, and a significant amount of thought put into the architecture, with a carved wheat design spiraling down from the central rotunda. It might seem weird to go geek out about bread flour, but somehow, in that locale, surrounded by gorgeous country and flour-buying gourmands, it seemed unnaturally natural.

KA Flour New Store

Photo via Flickr/Rebecca Siegel

There were also more than a few lobster rolls sampled during the visit, including from McDonald’s and Quizno’s (purely out of curiosity of how good lobster from a national fast food chain actually is, and it’s shockingly good, for the price; the McDonald’s version was $8.99) and a local New England chain, D’Angelo’s, which produced the best version (the secret is the griddled, center-split bun).

There were plenty of fun little things to notice, as well, that one might not have caught notice of on a more structured, planned weekend, like trying to decide whether to turn right or left while wandering through the village, and noticing on the welcome sign that the date of the city’s founding (July 4, 1761) was 15 years to the day before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and noting the adaptive reuse of a former textile mill as a commercial center.

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The 1924 vintage Lebanon Opera House (which does double duty as City Hall) was an utterly charming venue in which to spend an evening of regional theatre, and was an evocative reminder of how town squares, and live performing arts in particular, continue to form as strong a pillar of discourse in small communities today as they did in the last century. Equally as entertaining was the eclectic local Saturday night crowd dancing to a rock standards cover band in the Salt Hill Pub, itself in a historic 1882 building just across the street.

Lebanon City Hall & Opera House

Photo via Flickr/Jimmy Emerson

There were plenty of pleasant takeaways, from the fish chowder for breakfast to the need to rise early when staying in hotels with a free hot breakfast included in the rate (otherwise it gets crowded), but the most important takeaway for that brief, spontaneous weekend might have been that if you’re ever planning to explore a bit without definite plans, this particular region of New Hampshire is a great place to do it.

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