Who needs California or Florida? New England offers its own summer delights NEW ENGLAND PRIMER

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ew England is not California and definitely not Florida. But a summer vacation there offers a chance to enjoy New England's scenic coast and countryside, which need offer no apologies to any other region. You might seek out a cool spot on the Maine coast or a Cape Cod beach. If countryside and mountains please you more, head for the greenery of New Hampshire or Vermont.

In my travels around New England, I find I tend to return to a few favorite spots again and again:

Chatham, Mass.

I've got a soft spot for Chatham, even though some people think the town looks like a backdrop for a Ralph Lauren ad. And, as a popular Cape Cod resort, it does get crowded. But Chatham holds on to an appealing small-town character replete with small-town traditions. Take the Friday night summer brass band concerts held in Kate Gould Park. Or the church strawberry festival that follows Chatham's memorable Fourth of July parade.

Main Street is thickly lined with cute shops and art galleries, with a few restaurants mixed in. Besides jewelry, books and clothing, a stroll here turns up lots of vacation-time goodies: homemade cookies and ice cream, handmade chocolates at the Chatham Candy Manor. Diners flock to Christian's and the casual Chatham Squire.

For the very finest dining in town, head for the Chatham Bars Inn, which offers a prix fixe four-course dinner featuring an American and Continental menu. One of the last grand old resorts left on the Cape, Chatham Bars was built in 1914 as a hunting lodge. The inn has superb ocean views, a private beach, tennis courts and golf course.

Another aspect of Chatham that I like is how much diversity it offers for a small town. There are a half-dozen worthwhile historic sights, among them the Old Atwood House, a house museum with some unusual exhibits of Chatham's seafaring history, and the Old Grist Mill, a wind-powered mill built in 1797. Yet another is the Railroad Museum.

Chatham, jutting into the Atlantic on the Cape's "elbow," also offers some of the most smashing views on the entire Cape. To get an eyeful, drive south along Shore Road, past the Fish Pier, where you can watch the fishing fleet unload the catch each afternoon. At Chatham Light and Coast Guard Station, a lookout spot faces the dramatic 1987 breach in Chatham's barrier island. Eventually, the road leads to Morris Island. From here you can see North and South Monomoy Island and its wild, wind-swept terrain.

Chatham has several nice swimming beaches. The most popular is mile-long Harding's Beach, and there's a children's beach at Oyster Pond Beach. My favorite is a small and unspoiled one called Red River Beach.

Falmouth, Mass.

Chatham's Upper Cape neighbor, Falmouth, draws its share of crowds, too. Many come for the miles and miles of magnificent beaches. Long fingers of land reach into the sea from Falmouth's eight villages, and each one ends in an ocean-side beach, some with rolling surf, some shallow or with kiddie pools.

But Falmouth has resisted schlock, and remains an attractive community. Surrounding its well-tended village green are two churches, a handsome bank and the 19th century homes of Yankee sea captains and merchants. Several of these are now bed-and-breakfast inns with all the trimmings: antique furniture, four-poster beds and gourmet breakfasts.

Since I now travel with a 19-month-old daughter, I am persona non grata at most B&Bs.; My family finds a warm welcome at ShoreWay Acres Inn, a large, family-style resort on Shore Street. Innkeeper Dorie Dineen Ketterer, who has her own small children to contend with, is most accommodating with highchairs and cribs and the like. A distinct plus here is that Surf Drive Beach, one of the larger beaches, is within walking distance.

Falmouth is the closest point to Martha's Vineyard. Woods Hole, where the ferry landing is, is actually a village of Falmouth and not a separate town, though few people realize this. If you'd like to make a day trip to the Vineyard, staying in Falmouth lets you skip long lines of traffic. Hop a shuttle bus from downtown to the ferry, or ride your bike on the Shining Sea Bikeway.

Falmouth Harbor, a large harbor at the end of Scranton Avenue, is the scene of much activity. Charter boats for sunset cruises and deep-sea fishing berth here, and there are open-air band concerts on Thursday nights. One of the Cape's finest restaurants is here, too: the Regatta of Falmouth by the Sea, set right on the water for gorgeous ocean views from its large dining room windows.

Portsmouth, N.H.

Portsmouth is one of the nicest New England towns just to be in. A convergence of handsomely restored brick buildings and a working waterfront, Portsmouth invites you to wander. Wander down Bow Street to the little alley that is Ceres Street, and you'll see three or four stout red tugs riding at anchor. They are apt symbols of Portsmouth's centuries-old history as a thriving seaport and shipbuilding center. The tugs make an irresistibly fine photograph, backed by red brick, bright blue ocean and sky.

Inevitably, your wanderings bring you to Market Square, the lively center of downtown Portsmouth. Everywhere you look here, you'll see a pleasing facade: the white spire of the North Church, a trio of elegant fanlighted windows framing the doorway of the Portsmouth Athenaeum and the entrance to Cafe Brioche, purveyor of wonderful baked things and excellent coffees. The cafe's outdoor tables, shaded by umbrellas, are the perfect vantage point for viewing the goings-on in Market Square. Summer festivals and concerts enliven the square.

From Market Square, small streets radiate in all directions, each one jammed with chic boutiques and restaurants. The dining scene here is not only excellent; it also offers some unusual dining experiences in the city's historic buildings. As an example, the Oar House at 55 Ceres St. quite properly calls itself a "museum restaurant." It was built in 1803 as a grain warehouse, and ships used to unload into what is now its dining room. In the downstairs dining room, you can still see the spring-fed artesian well that supplied the ships with water.

Other well-known gourmet restaurants include the Blue Strawbery (29 Ceres St.), Strawbery Court Restaurant Francais (20 Atkinson St.) and the Dolphin Striker (15 Bow St.). For more middle-of-the-road choices that still serve excellent food, you might try Karen's Restaurant at 105 Daniel St. or the Cafe Mirabelle at 64 Bridge St.

Portsmouth's settlers named it Strawbery Banke when they found wild strawberries growing there in 1630. Four centuries of Portsmouth history are represented in Strawbery Banke Museum, the waterfront neighborhood that was the site of the original settlement. Some 40 buildings, formerly the homes of sea captains and merchants, are in various states of restoration. Costumed craftspeople demonstrate cooperage, pottery and weaving. I think it's most pleasant to visit Strawbery Banke in the summer, when a stroll of the grounds takes you through lovely period gardens in bloom.

Even more impressive gardens are blooming at Prescott Park on the banks of the Piscataqua River, a lovely respite of green lawns and fountains that hosts many free outdoor arts events all

summer long.

Sugar Hill, N.H.

You may have a hard time finding this town on the map. It's just a little dot south of Littleton, on the northwest border of the White Mountain National Forest. You'll miss the town if you blink; all there is for a town center is a one-room post office and a tiny town office.

In winter, Sugar Hill bustles with skiers attracted to its prime location in the heart of ski country. But in the summer, the pace changes to slower going: hiking a cool, forested trail; boating on a clear lake; admiring the tremendous views of the mountains and valleys.

Sugar Hill is very close to Franconia Notch State Park, which has a wealth of attractions. The most familiar is the Old Man in the Mountain, the stone profile that resembles a man. You can walk through an 800-foot granite gorge with steeply rising walls called the Flume. Other natural wonders in the park include a beautiful waterfall and a small clear lake named Profile Lake. A spectacular ride awaits on the aerial tramway at Cannon Mountain Ski Area, where cable cars lift you to the 4,200-foot summit.

My base is always the Hilltop Inn, a large Victorian home comfortably furnished with antiques. Practiced and hospitable innkeepers Mike and Meri Hern have recently opened a dining room that serves gourmet dinners several nights a week. Evening grosbeaks flock to the feeders in the backyard, not far from a large deck. Mike calls them the "football team" for their bright black-and-yellow colors.

Although Meri is a great cook, if you decide to skip breakfast one day, you can sample the homemade pancakes at Polly's Pancake Parlor down the hill from the inn. This rustic, country-style spot serves up pancakes, waffles and french toast made of stone-ground flours, with blueberries, coconut and the like.

Down the hill the other way is Harman's Cheese and Country Store, which advertises the "world's greatest" Cheddar cheese. The cheese is always sold wrapped in newsprint. This old-fashioned store also sells maple products and local

handicrafts.

Portland, Maine

What is unusual about Portland is the way it manages to combine the pluses of a big city with the friendliness and feeling of a much smaller town. Portland claims a vital cultural scene, with its own ballet, symphony orchestra and world-class art museum, among other riches. And Portland offers fine dining and shopping the equal of cities several times its size.

Yet the pace is slow and relaxed here. It's a most walkable city, particularly through Old Port Exchange -- old waterfront warehouses metamorphosed not that long ago into brightly refurbished restaurants, boutiques, sidewalk cafes and art galleries.

VTC Old Port is a riot of color and rich architectural detail. Vibrantly painted greens, blues and purples highlight doorways and arched windows of grand old Victorian buildings, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Striped canvas awnings and whimsical signs delight, like the one of a giant oyster swallowing a life-sized man, with only his arms and legs sticking out.

No matter where you are in Old Port, you can smell the sea and see the blue waters of Casco Bay peeking at you from between the shops. The waterfront pulls you irresistibly down to wharves crowded as closely as a comb's teeth. Here is a city of ships, both working and pleasure craft, from agile fishing boats and sailing yachts to the Casco Bay Lines ferries and the ocean liner Scotia Prince, which sails daily for Nova Scotia.

Casco Bay is still very much an important deep-water port, and the harbor traffic is constant. One evening, I was sailing on a charter cruise when the Scotia Prince appeared on the horizon in our wake. In rapid order, she loomed up right behind us. Close up, she looked about 15 stories high. She blasted at us to get out of the way and believe me, we did.

Hundreds of islands, many uninhabited, dot Casco Bay. Many are reachable on sightseeing cruises, sunset cruises and moonlight cruises -- cruises too many to number. Bayview Cruises takes a leisurely evening tour of Casco Bay, serving a lobster dinner on board the Lady Joan. Natural history cruises take you to see seals and other wildlife. A scenic cruise of the harbor sweeps by the red-roofed Portland Headlight close enough so you can photograph it.

One of the more intriguing cruise destinations is Eagle Island, where polar explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary built a fortress-like summer home that looks out to sea. On a half-day cruise, you can see Peary's rustic, wood-paneled retreat, filled with polar memorabilia and some of the many birds he stuffed as a youth. Bring a lunch and walk the island's nature trails.

Although I am tempted to spend all my time in Portland on the water, I make sure to visit the paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Edward Hopper in the Portland Museum of Art. Another spot not to miss is the brick home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who grew up in the city and used it as a setting in much of his work.

If you go . . .

Chatham, Mass: For a guide to Chatham and a complete list of accommodations, write or call the Chatham Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 793, Chatham, Mass. 02633-0793; (508) 945-0342. North and South Monomoy Island are accessible only by private boat. Birding and hiking trips are led by the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, (508) 349-2615, and the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, (508) 896-3867.

Falmouth, Mass.: For a list of accommodations and a guide to Falmouth, contact the Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 582, Falmouth, Mass. 02541; (508) 548-8500. Reservations at ShoreWay Acres Inn may be made by calling (800) 352-7100 or (508) 540-3000.

Portsmouth, N.H.: More information: Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 239, Portsmouth, N.H. 03802; (603) 436-1118.

Sugar Hill, N.H.: More information: Franconia-Easton-Sugar Hill Chamber of Commerce, Franconia, N.H. 03580; (603) 823-5661. Hilltop Inn, Main Street, state Route 117, Sugar Hill, N.H. 03585; (603) 823-5695.

Portland, Maine: More information: Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland, 305 Commercial St., Portland, Maine 04101; (207) 772-4994.

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