The complete guide to New Hampshire

This American state will be in the spotlight next week as the race for the presidency gets under way. But with its magnificent mountains, peaceful lakes and forests, and clean sandy beaches, it's worth taking a look at New Hampshire any time of year, says Cathy Packe


WHERE IS NEW HAMPSHIRE?

WHERE IS NEW HAMPSHIRE?

In the middle of New England, nudging up against the Canadian border, between Maine and Vermont, with Massachusetts to the south. It was named after Hampshire in southern England by Captain John Smith, who first sailed along its shores in 1614. Nicknames such as "the Switzerland of America" or, more commonly, "the Granite State", hint at its geography: lakes, mountains, forests and state parks, with very little urban development, particularly in the north, where the White Mountain National Forest covers about a quarter of the state. The Appalachian Trail (001 304 535 6331, www.appalachiantrail.org), a walking route from Maine to Georgia, passes through this part of the state for 160 miles, providing hikers with terrain that is both dramatic and tough to negotiate. The state capital is Concord, although the largest city is Manchester, some 20 miles to the south.

New Hampshire's Atlantic shore - the Seacoast as it is known locally - does not compare with the coastline in Hampshire, UK. It is an 18-mile stretch whose main town is Portsmouth at the mouth of the Piscataqua river, one of the first places in America to be settled.

HOW SIMILAR IS IT TO PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND?

Portsmouth NH still has an old-world charm, with cobbled streets and a number of attractive, restored 18th-century mansions, most of which are only open during the summer. Close to the water's edge is Strawberry Banke (001 603 433 1100, www.strawberrybanke.org), a restoration of Portsmouth's earliest settlement. Many of the reconstructed buildings are open to the public, and although the complex has a rather folksy air about it, with actors in costume attempting to add to the period feel, it is an interesting area. The ticket booth is on Macy Street, and entrance costs $12 (£7.50). Strawberry Banke is closed in January; in winter (November-December, February-April) it is open Thursday-Saturday 10am-2pm, Sunday 12-2pm; in summer it opens Monday-Saturday 10am-5pm, and Sunday 12-5pm.

There are regular cruises from Portsmouth harbour, which depart several times a day between early May and late October from the dock at Ceres Street (001 603 436 8084, www.portsmouthharbor.com), not far from the Sheraton Hotel. In addition to the hour-long harbour trips, there are also daily summer cruises to the Isles of Shoals, a group of nine offshore islands renowned, as their name suggests, for their fish stocks, but also for the pirates that once lurked there.

For more information on Portsmouth, call 001 603 436 3998 or visit the website www.portsmouthchamber.org.

I'D LIKE A SWIM

The best of the beaches is Hampton (001 603 926 8717, www.hamptonbeach.org), a long sandy stretch with a lively family resort attached. During the summer season, which gets into full swing with the Memorial Day weekend (28-31 May), there is plenty of entertainment, including a sand-sculpting competition, free outdoor concerts in the Seashell Stage, and regular firework displays.

BUT I WANT TO ESCAPE THE CROWDS

For anyone who wants to combine water-based activities with a quieter atmosphere, the Lakes region may be a calmer choice. The area to the north-east of Concord contains 273 lakes and ponds, the largest of which is Lake Winnipesaukee. The most celebrated is Squam Lake, otherwise known as Golden Pond - the backdrop for the film that starred Katherine Hepburn and Henry Fonda. No opportunity has been missed to exploit this Hollywood connection, and boat trips around the lake pass the locations used in the film. These operate during the summer season (May-October) and depart from Holderness, Squam's main town.

The real highlight, though, is the opportunity to see some of New Hampshire's wildlife at close quarters, including the loon, a black-and-white water bird often associated with the state. To maximise the number of birds and animals you see, visit the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, a large, wooded area just outside Holderness on Route 113 (001 603 968 7194, www.nhnature.org). There are marked trails through the forest, as well as enclosures of mountain lions, black bears and other native animals, easily visible from the paths. The centre is open daily from 1 May until 1 November, from 9.30am-4.30pm, but during the winter there are weekend events and openings; entrance costs $11 (£6.85).

The larger Lake Winnipesaukee is a lively holiday destination, with several lakeside towns, a long shoreline with rocky inlets to explore, some well-marked walking trails, and nearly 300 islands. There are also opportunities to hire boats of various kinds: look out for Anchor Marine (001 603 366 4311, www.anchormarine.net) at Winnipesaukee Pier in Weirs Beach, on the western shore, or Trexlers Marina (001 603 253 7315, www.trexlers.com) at Center Harbor.

The most popular visitor attraction is a cruise on the MS Mount Washington, which sails the lake daily from mid-May to late October (001 603 366 5531, www.cruiseNH.com). The main departure point is Weirs Beach, but it makes several other stops around the lake to pick up and drop off passengers. Tickets start at $19 (£12); family tickets and special deals are often available.

I CAN'T WAIT UNTIL SUMMER

In winter, you have the added attraction of a magical landscape, clear blue skies and deep, white snow. Popular winter pastimes in the Lakes region include snowshoeing, ice-fishing and sled dog racing. The World Sled Dog Championships (001 603 524 4314) will be held in Laconia from 13-16 February; races start on Main Street, and loop across Lake Opechee. The state championships (001 631 368 7010, www.nesdc.org) take place on 28-29 February, in Meredith, on the edge of Lake Winnipesaukee.

The main winter sport is skiing, both downhill and cross-country. Even the more popular ski areas - Attitash Bear Peak, Loon Mountain, Bretton Woods - are often overlooked by British visitors in favour of the resorts of Vermont, but New Hampshire's White Mountains (001 603 745 9396, www.skinh.com) have some attractive resorts, with varied terrain, facilities for snowboarders as well as skiers, and good accommodation.

Packages from the UK to the New Hampshire resorts are hard to find, although White Mountains (0870 050 9300, www.white-mountains.co.uk) offers a number of flexible options. An alternative is to book a fly-drive trip, look for accommodation in the resort or nearest town when you arrive, and start skiing; outside the weekends and holiday periods, the resorts are rarely crowded. Lift passes bought in one resort are often valid in neighbouring ski areas.

Cross-country, or Nordic, ski areas pop up all over the state. Among the most extensive are in Jackson (001 603 383 9355, www.jacksonxc.org) and Bretton Woods (001 603 278 3322, www.brettonwoods.com). If you are in New Hampshire and want to check out the snow conditions, an information line (001 800-88-75464) is updated daily between November and April. Alternatively, visit www.skinh.com.

THIS IS TOO ENERGETIC

A more restful way to see the mountains is to wait until the early summer and take a trip by road or rail up Mount Washington, the highest mountain in New England at 6,288 feet. The Mount Washington Autoroad (001 603 466 3988, www.mt-washington.com/autoroad) is an eight-mile stretch from Pinkham Notch, between Glen and Gorham, up to the summit. It claims the title of America's first man-made attraction, and has been enticing visitors up the mountain since 1861. There is a self-drive option: pay $25 (£15.60) for your car and two adults, and receive a sticker and audio guide as a souvenir of the trip. Or take a trip by stage - now a van (minibus), rather than a horse-drawn vehicle as it would once have been.

The trip costs $24 (£15), and takes an hour and a half, including a 30-minute stop at the top. The road is open May-October from 8am until late afternoon, according to the weather and the time of year. From 8-12 July, there will be a celebration of the centenary of the "Climb to the Clouds", the oldest motorsports event in America. Instead of the race, which has been an irregular event since the 1960s, there will be driving tours and vintage car rallies on the mountain.

Mount Washington must have been a magnet for 19th-century tourists: in 1869, presumably as a rival to the Autoroad, the world's first mountain-climbing cog railway (001 603 278 5404, www.thecog.com) was built. It is the only remaining and functioning steam-driven cog railway in the world. It operates daily between mid-May and late November; this year's ticket prices have not yet been released, but an adult ticket last year cost $49 (£31). Trains depart from Bretton Woods, and the return trip takes three hours, including a 20-minute stop at the top.

Whatever your method of transport, the view from the summit is spectacular, clouds permitting, with a view across the Presidentials, a range of peaks named after American presidents, and all more than 5,000 feet high.

WHY ALL THE FUSS IN NEW HAMPSHIRE RIGHT NOW?

The state steps into the political limelight once every four years when it holds the first of the primaries - elections at state level to nominate party candidates for the presidential election in November. The state used to pride itself on always voting for the candidate who would eventually become president - which is one of the reasons why everyone is so keen to win there - although the voters appear to have lost their touch in recent years, failing to select either Bill Clinton or George W Bush.

New Hampshire's role of beginning the election campaign guarantees the state plenty of publicity as politicians - closely followed by the TV cameras - pour into the state to make themselves known to the electorate.

HOW DO I GET TO NEW HAMPSHIRE?

The nearest international airport is Boston, only 30 miles from the state border and 67 miles from Concord. There are many daily flights from Heathrow with British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com) or American Airlines (0845 778 9789, www.americanairlines.co.uk). Current return fares start at around £216, but most discount agents should be able to beat this. From 16 May until 31 October, American will also fly daily from Manchester.

Depending on your proposed itinerary, the easiest way to get around may be to hire a car at Boston's Logan airport, or to book a fly-drive package from one of a number of operators in this country, including Jetsave (0870 060 1220, www.jetsavetailormade.co.uk), Delta Vacations (0870 900 5001, www.deltavacations.co.uk) and Flydrive USA (01424 224400, www.holiday-america.net).

Buses (001 402 330 8552, www.greyhound.com) connect Boston with the New Hampshire coast, and a number of towns including Concord, Manchester, Nashua, New London, Hanover and Keene. There are also train services (0870 750 0222, www.Amtrak.com) linking the New Hampshire coast with Boston and Portland, Maine.

WHERE CAN I STAY?

The whole state is geared up for tourism, so there is no shortage of rooms covering the full range from bed and breakfast in private homes or dorms in budget hostels, to luxury resorts and inns. Lists of accommodation are available through the state tourist office, which has an office in the UK (01892 545 990 ext 303, www.visitnh.gov).

Among the places to look out for are the Manor on Golden Pond, on Route 3 in Holderness (001 603 968 3348, www.manorongoldenpond.com), set right on Squam Lake, with an excellent restaurant, private beach, and its own dock, with a flotilla of boats for the use of residents. For something even grander, try the old-world elegance of the Mount Washington Hotel on US302 in Bretton Woods (001 603 278 1000, www.mtwashington.com), an extensive resort with activities suitable for both winter and summer visits. This is the place where, in 1944, the Bretton Woods conference was held, which resulted in the setting up of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

I WANT TO GO SHOPPING

New Hampshire is an ideal place to look for bargains, since there is no sales tax: unlike most states in the US, the price you see on the label is the price you will actually pay. This policy attracts customers from all over New England, which explains the disproportionate number of shopping malls. Most of these open approximately 10am-9.30pm, except on Sunday (11am-6pm).

The best of the outlet centres - where clothes are sold off at discount prices - is Lakes Region Factory Stores, at 120 Laconia Road in Tilton (001 603 286 7880, www.shoplakesregion.com). With almost as good a choice of stores, Settlers' Green Outlet Village on Route 16 in North Conway (00 1 603 356 7031, www.settlersgreen.com) often has discounts of up to 70 per cent on recommended prices.

The Mall of New Hampshire is a large, indoor shopping centre in Manchester, at 1500 South Willow Street and the junction of I-293 (001 603 669 0433, www.simon.com). The main department stores in the Mall include Filene's and JC Penney, and there are plenty of smaller shops too.

Local craftsmanship is kept alive through the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (001 603 224 3375, www.nhcrafts.org), which runs a number of galleries and shops where examples of these traditional folk arts are on sale. There is a branch in the state capital, Concord, at 36 Main Street, as well as others in tourist centres such as Wolfeboro and Meredith. An annual fair is held every year; this year it will be taking place at Mount Sunapee Resort in Newbury from 7-15 August, and will be open daily from 10am-5pm. There will be demonstrations, workshops, and plenty of stalls selling a good selection of clothing, jewellery and decorative artefacts.

CAN I SEE SOMETHING HISTORICAL?

New Hampshire is proud of its relatively ancient heritage, and there are a number of museums and historic houses worth visiting.

The best outline of the state's history comes from Heritage New Hampshire on Route 16 in Glen (001 603 383 4186, www.heritagenh.com), an animated settler experience in which visitors set off from an English village, cross the Atlantic by ship, and end up in the streets of old Portsmouth. It is open weekends 9am-6pm from early May to October, and daily between 17 June and early September, entrance $10 (£6.25).

The Museum of New Hampshire History, at 6 Eagle Square, Concord (001 603 228 6688, www.nhhistory.org), offers a more conventional look at the state's origins, with photos and other memorabilia (open Tuesday-Saturday 9.30am-5pm - and Monday in summer - and Sunday from 12-5pm, entrance $5.50, £3.50).

The Canterbury Shaker Village is a 200-year-old community established in several hundred acres of farmland at 288 Shaker Road, Canterbury (001 603 783 9511, www.shakers.org). The Shakers were originally a Quaker group whose religious dances earned them the name "Shaking Quakers"; they established communities in America to avoid persecution at home. Many of the original buildings have been restored, and the remaining members of the community give regular demonstrations of their traditional Shaker crafts.

The village is open daily from May to October 10am-5pm, and weekends in November and December, 10am-4pm. Entrance costs $12 (£7.50).

Other attractions

Quaint bridges and autumn foliage

Throughout the state are some fine examples of covered bridges, similar to the Iowan examples featured in the book and film, The Bridges of Madison County. There are some 50 such bridges in New Hampshire, most of them built during the 19th century using the local timber, and covered to protect the structure and minimise maintenance costs.

The small town of Cornish, in the centre of the state, boasts four, including the magnificent Cornish-Windsor bridge, the longest covered bridge in the country, linking New Hampshire and Vermont across the Connecticut river.

Like all the New England states, New Hampshire, with its combination of lakes and forest, is an ideal place to enjoy the spectacular colours of the autumn foliage. The leaves change colour earlier the further north you go. To find out where the best colours are to be found at any time during the season (mid-September and October), call the Fall Foliage line on 001 800 258 3608.

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