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The magic is undeniable. Small villages dressed in white clapboards, steeples poking the sky, and buildings clustered around town greens like settlers around a fire. New England is the heart of America, and its small towns are the very heartbeat.
Sometimes there’s an area that captures the essence of it all. The Monadnock Region, in southern New Hampshire, is watered with ponds and lakes, its unspoiled villages scattered like grain around the countryside. Some lie nestled at the foot of the region’s namesake, Mount Monadnock. With its wild stony peak rising from the landscape, it’s a touchstone for travelers and the surrounding communities.
It’s also fun to climb. And one of the most climbed mountains in the world. In an area that is both rural and surprisingly cosmopolitan, Peterborough, Hancock, Dublin, and Harrisville are a few of its villages. The largest city—Keene, with its wide, tree-lined Main Street and college—even features mountain views here and there. Some villages are further flung: lovely Walpole, the hills of Wilton. No matter—Monadnock draws them all close, linked by the beauty of a single mountain.
With Keene as your base, you’re free to make daytrips throughout the region. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
See: Keene’s tree-lined Main Street is an unexpected pleasure. The broad thoroughfare is perfect for strolling or checking out a multitude of shops: home furnishings at In The Company of Flowers, kitchen tools at Your Kitchen Store, and an artful selection of local crafts at Hannah Grimes Marketplace. The vintage 1924 restored stage at The Colonial Theatre hosts art films and well-known performers.
Outside town, on Route 12, you can unearth buried treasure at Fairground Antiques, the Cheshire Fair Grounds collective where 85 dealers provide enough ordered chaos to keep antiques hounds busy on rainy days.
Eat: There’s always a dark roast brewing at Brewbakers, a cozy student café, while Prime Roast Coffee roasts its own (the air is scented with caffeine). Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe serves inventive twists on Old-World dishes, and the upscale ambience at Nicola’s Trattoria doesn’t overshadow the delectable pasta.
NH-12 N (17 miles; 21 min)
See: First, there’s the journey. Route 12 North travels some pretty nice turf, especially as you get closer to Walpole. Cresting the hill as Stuart & John’s Sugar House looms below, there’s a panoramic view toward the Connecticut River, neighboring Vermont, and the valley that enfolds the river between fertile fields. You’ll find heirloom apples at Alyson’s Orchard and artisanal cheese at Boggy Meadow Farm. It’s all a prelude.
If they were handing out prizes for “Most Delectable NH Village,” Walpole would be in the running. Which may be why filmmaker Ken Burns calls this pretty village home, and even helped create a restaurant that could rival any Brooklyn hotspot (see below). Main Street is lined with grand houses, and downtown is ripe for exploring, but don’t miss the Village Green a few streets back. Down Westminster Street, look for another unexpected gem: Ruggles & Hunt specializes in unusual clothes, gifts, and home furnishings.
Eat: The Restaurant at Burdick’s started as L.A. Burdick’s, a gourmet chocolatier (right next door), but today this French-style beauty serves charcuterie alongside the richest hot chocolate on earth, and its gift shop is a minefield of cacao-inflected goodies.
NH-123, NH-10 (34 miles; 50 min)
Instead of doubling back to Keene, loop from Walpole to Alstead, Marlow, and Gilsum, and then back to Keene for a glimpse of “forgotten” New England.
NH-101 (20 miles; 30 min)
See: As you round the curve of Dublin Lake, it’s easy to see why famous artists flocked to the small village of Dublin, creating a vibrant arts colony at the turn of the 19th century. From Dublin center, home of Yankee Magazine and the 222-year-old Old Farmers Almanac, turn left on Dublin Road and take a six-minute (3.5-mile) detour to Harrisville, a postcard-pretty brick mill village whose massive industrial buildings have been converted to artists’ studios. Harrisville Designs, in the center of town, sells gorgeous yarns, and the Harrisville General Store serves abundant sandwiches.
As the Monadnock “hub,” serving its smaller neighbors, Peterborough straddles a fence between old-time village and upscale country. The abundance of pretty shops runs the gamut from country chic (Bowerbird and Twin Elm Farm Antiques) to international (Joseph’s Coat and Mariposa Museum) to fine crafts (Sharon Arts Center). The Toadstool Bookshop offers one of the great browsing experiences, with a substantial “used” section, and there are racks of clothing temptation at Alice Blue.
Eat: The walkable downtown offers everything from riverside dining at Waterhouse to a little slice of France tucked into an alley at C’est La Vie, next door to the 100-year-old Peterborough Community Theatre. The classic Peterboro Diner is a cheeky reminder of days gone by, and friendly Harlow’s Pub appeals to all ages. Just outside town, Pearl Restaurant & Oyster Bar is a chic retreat with Asian flair.