Keene – the college town in South West New Hampshire – was the second leg of our trip following on from the Squam Lake region near the centre of the state.
To be honest, I was nervous about Keene! Even though we were only staying for two nights. When we’d made plans for the trip, I said to Marie why don’t we avoid a 3 and a half hour drive from Squam down to the Berkshires, MA by having a short time in Keene. It’s ideally placed, and meant only an hour and a half drive for Marie. I’d read good things about it. Then closer to the trip, one travel guide mentioned a panhandling problem there. And Anthony, at our Ashland guest house, had pulled a face when we mentioned Keene and said he’d give us a special rate if we wanted to turn back to Ashland. And there’s not that many photos on google images. So I was anxious to see if I’d made a good suggestion for us…
…not only needn’t I have worried, we absolutely loved Keene from the off! In all our time there, we saw no panhandling – not that it would have concerned us at all had there been some – but more importantly Keene is a delight. It’s both modern (and immaculate) and historic, buzzing with great restaurants, bars and shops and is very relaxed and friendly. In fact, I shouldn’t big it up too much because we want to keep it as our secret. There are few tourists in town as far as we’re aware. The 1995 Robin Williams film Jumanji was made here and that might attract a few but it just feels like a proper town not based on tourism. Or city, I should say perhaps? A small one if so. Close by are the Monadnock Mountain ranges and both hikers and climbers do stop in Keene. Maybe because it was covid, but right now it was a nice balance of vibrant and quiet.
We arrived for lunch at Fritz in the main, attractive square by the bandstand. You order at the till, and it specializes in burgers, dogs and fries (or chips as I should call them, being English). The burger was great, almost Burger King sloppy style but we liked that. And the Belgian fries are perfect. It was quiet, with just a small handful of customers. We then sauntered back out in the tree shaded sunlight of the square and the famously wide Main Street to explore some more. There are quite a lot of carefully painted, colourful and realistic murals and the one created specially for Jumanji was right there.
Marie got a take-out coffee from a great-looking place called Prime Roast. We browsed around the well-known gift shop Hannah Grimes Marketplace. Items made by local artisans. They have some beautiful stuff but there was nothing we were tempted by or needed today.
As we couldn’t check in to The Elm City Carriage Barn for a couple of hours, we went on a drive around all of the covered bridges in the countryside outside the city. There are around 1,500 in the world and a lot are on the National Register of Historic Places. They’re humble mostly, and were made by law to cover the actual bridge so that it lasted longer from weather decay. Most were built between the late 18th century to 19th century and a few this century. Anyway, it was a lovely drive and we made sure to go through all of the suggested ones within an hour!
The Elm City Carriage Barn is just off Keene’s Main Street and opposite some of the splendid old buildings housing college quarters. It was built in 1810 and we immediately took to it. We were met by its perhaps unlikely owner, 24 year old Will. He’s a really laid back, cool and very nice guy. He told us he’s off site a lot playing golf, climbing or playing ping pong but he gave us his mobile number should we ever need anything. He was often around over the couple of days though, and came down to chat at breakfast time (free continental). Our room was the Joan Crawford room!! We’d chosen it from the, I think 4 rooms. I’m not that clear on how Elm City acquired it, but the bedroom set – bed, chest of drawers, dresser and chair – are said to have belonged to Joan Crawford, who passed the set along to her friend Lorena Coats and later Coat’s friend Mae Miller became the owner. There is an article in the room, and a signed copy of Crawford’s autobiography. So long as we weren’t sleeping with the ghostly skeleton of JC we’d enjoy the idea of sleeping on the bed of a young, rising Hollywood star of old. Mind you, maybe we wouldn’t mind seeing a ghost!
Marie and I then sat out in the deliciously peaceful, slightly ramshackle large back garden sipping white wine and watching squirrels.
We went out to walk up Main Street at about 6pm. We’d seen some fine places at which to dine later. We’d asked Will, and we’d said we were thinking of the Thai place or maybe a bar-restaurant we’d passed with a lot of outdoor tables, Machina Arts. He said both are very good. We oped for Machina, which supports artists and has indoor and outdoor seating. The weather was still a bit parky, slightly chilly, so ‘in’ seemed best for us. Machina does tapas and small plates too. We shared potstickers (dumplings) and mini biscuits – as in Southern American biscuits and not British biscuits, as small appetisers. The biscuits were especially amazing little bites, made with “pink peppercorn butter, spiced honey and salt”. For mains we chose the pan seared strip steak with mash and what would have been sprouts, but they were out so we double-potatoed with sweet potato fries. We asked for the steak medium-well, but it’s always tricky: medium can be too pink for us if it’s not quite cooked correctly (as is often the case) but ask for medium-well and often restaurants cook it too well done, as was the case now. Still, the food was excellent and a the whole restaurant is in a classy spot. We enjoyed the drinks too! Marie a special, off-menu “golden” cocktail with burnt butter simple syrup and rum, and me a Pimm’s Cup No.1. Pimms is a British drink I believe, but I’d never had it before and it was served with fruit, soda and lemonade. Before you know it, I’ll be on babychams!
First full day in Keene –
After an enjoyable, chatty breakfast we’d already decided before we left NY to venture slightly into Vermont this morning and to check out the town of Brattleboro. When I’d been unnecessarily anxious about Keene a day or two ago, I thought we should have stayed in Brattleboro instead. Well…we did like Brattleboro but really we much prefer Keene.
It’s a compact Main Street (Brattleboro, that is) and we stopped to look around a music shop, Turn It Up. I couldn’t quite find the vinyl I wanted but we did buy several absolute bargain second-hand CDs for the car and home. Marie even found the 1980’s Yaz album she’d wanted, the synth-pop band. We then had a very nice time at The Works, a coffee/tea and casual food cafe that we loved. We had big window views of the street.
We also had a successful foray into a consignments shop (we saw so many consignment and antique shops on the whole holiday, most of them really good). I bought a Monty Python record – Matching Tie & Handkerchief (I haven’t heard it in several decades!) – and a Bobbie Gentry record. Both seem mint.
We were glad we went to Brattleboro for a pair of hours, though it wasn’t as attractive or rustic as we’d expected. It might grow on us if we ever go back.
By the way, Keene is surrounded entirely by pretty villages and classic New England countryside (white steeple churches, and at this time blazing trees of oranges, reds and yellows). Next up for us was to try a distillery out a little into the country, Saxton. It’s lo-fi right now during covid, and there is simply an open large hatch from which you can peer into the distillery and shop, and order what you want. The flights of sample bourbons, liqueurs and rums are extremely cheap. We’d been to many, many breweries over the years but never a distillery. We loved the experience, and shared all 8 possible samples between us as we sat at the only table options, outdoors but in beautiful weather. Gentle reggae music was played over outdoor speakers, and they have food trucks visit weekly too. A lot of the samples were great, and we bought a bottle of the coffee liqueur to take with us. Saxton is a Lithuanian distillery.
Needless to say, Marie – being the driver – just took a really small sip of each and I drank nearly all the samples.
Next we took a scenic drive, and the leaf colours were getting more striking by the day. Way up in the high hills, Hogback Mountain overlooks amazing vistas of forests of ever-changing hues at this time of year. We took a lot of photos, and looked around the large gift shop. We bought fudge, of course!
To round off another massively enjoyable day, we drove out to one of the recommended villages near Keene: Walpole. There you can dine at French-inspired Burdicks, which has a restaurant and adjoining home-made chocolate shop. We’d made a reservation. The village is the kind of place you wished you owned a home in. And the meal at Burdicks was one of the best, and with the most generous lobster roll we had ever tried! There must have been ¾ pound of lobster in there! New England style, so served cold but with just a subtle amount of mayo. Our favourite is still the ones served warm with hot butter, but it was nevertheless superb. Marie had that, and myself a seemingly never-ending portion of delicious mussels and creamy broth. I had a local beer. The bill was only $57 (minus tip) but back home such a meal would have been about $90! And Burdicks is quite a posh place too. Afterwards we bought a few items from the expensive but worth-it chocolate shop: a cup of hot dark chocolate (so rich but so good), a $4 luxury cookie and a chocolate cigar.
Back at the inn, in our room we watched an episode of Taskmaster on the kindle. Hosted by Greg Davies, it’s the British one (there’s an American version now too, also good but we prefer the original one). Often hilarious and riveting! Davies sets comical, trivial tasks for a panel of mostly comedians and points are awarded to each contestant. Er…just watch it (hard to explain)!
Half day in Keene –
We would have liked longer in Keene. Another nice breakfast where we talked a lot to a nice Jewish lady who had been out on intrepid hikes and climbs with her husband the day before. And we thanked Will for everything. I even said “if Marie can work distantly one day, if you ever need me to be the Assistant Inn Keeper…”.
Marie and I then strolled to the edges a little out of the centre, and found some good spots like a fantastic little coffee shop/vinyl record shop combined where we sat outside having a coffee. The vinyl section wasn’t open. Then over the street to an antiques shop. I almost bought Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence elpee for $15 but on a closer look I saw a couple of scratches so decided against it.
For lunch we went to a recommendation from the Jewish lady: Elm City Brewing. It’s a large-ish, bright and buzzing place next to some luxury condos and the service, food and sample beers were all top class. We’d found a favourite in town just as we were about to leave. It would be dangerous to live in one of those condos, as the “covid 10 (pounds)” could rapidly become the covid 30!
We shared big Jamaican jerk chicken wings with blue cheese dip and for mains stellar fish and chips. I had a flight – or “paddle” – of very good ales from the slightly funky beer menu.
That was all we had time for, as we set the Toyota controls for the heart of the Southern Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts for the third leg of the holiday…