Everything's Better in
Story and Photos by Tom Long and Stacy Milbouer | Fiddlehead Contributing Editors
A central bandstand. Check. A riverside park. Check. A walkable downtown with boutiques, restaurants and book shops. Check. A rich slice of American history. Check.
Exeter checks all the boxes.
“It is the quintessential New England town, not only in appearance, but in community; it’s multi-generational and everybody gets along.” said Kath Gallant, owner of Blue Moon Evolution, a fully organic, farm-to-table restaurant in Exeter. “You can’t walk down the street without being greeted by friends and participating in several conversations.”
Exeter is situated where the fresh water Exeter River merges with the tidal Squamscott River, which stretches six miles to Great Bay. It is the home of Phillips Exeter Academy, the venerable prep school with a picturesque 672-acre, 372-building downtown campus adding to the city’s artsy and sophisticated vibe.
Swasey Parkway, along the Squamscott, is a downtown public space with picnic areas, a half-mile strand and the venue for town events like the farmers market and Chilifest.
As Gallant spoke during lunchtime at her eatery, throngs of window shoppers strolled and dawdled at the shops along Water Street, the appropriately-named main thoroughfare in the shopping district.
You can always go downtown
Mall schmall. Gift hunting in Exeter’s downtown is as much fun for the shopper as it is for the recipient. It’s a wonderful retail life of independent galleries, bistros, book stores and boutiques.
If Santa opened his own store it would look exactly like Whirlygigs Toy Shop (107 Water St.) with its whimsical train set, running around a track suspended from the ceiling, its classical toys and the latest in the world of kiddie must-haves. By the way, it’s as much fun to visit for an adult as it is for a toddler.
And speaking of toys, doll up the wee ones in awesome apparel at Puddlejumpers Children’s Shop (31 Water St.), a family-owned kiddie boutique that’s been in business for nearly 30 years and sells kids’ frocks and ensembles that you won’t find anywhere else.
And no, we haven’t forgotten the grownups. The only thing more fun than window shopping at Serendipity Boutique (24 Water St.) and Ganesh Imports (42 Water St.) is buying the unique clothing, accessories and home décor within. The Willow gift shop (183 Water St.) also has artsy home décor.
For 40 years, Serendipity has been a one-stop shop for unique women’s wares, including shoes, American- and Canadian-made clothes you’ll never find online or in a big-box store, body-care products, hand-crafted jewelry, handbags and one-of-a-kind gifts, many of which are made in New England.
Nearby at Ganesh Imports, there’s plenty for those on your list who have a flair for the bohemian. It’s all about world products including imported textiles, clothing, jewelry, accessories, essential oils, incense, Indian tapestries, wall hangings, soapstone Buddhas and dream catchers, to name a few.
LunaChics (131 Water St.) is best known for its selection of denim clothes for women of all ages and sizes. Denimrack (113 Water St.) has jean wear for men and women.
And what lies underneath? Find that out at Top Drawer (147 Water St.), specializing in lingerie.
For the outdoor adventurer on your list there’s everything you need for the next fresh-air adventure in terms of clothes, books and equipment at Travel & Nature (45 Water St.). The store opened on Earth Day 28 years ago and has a loyal following of wanderers who share photos and stories of their travels on the store’s website.
No one likes to visit during the holidays emptyhanded. You have to bring a host a gift or at least a stocking stuffer or two. Why not make it sweet as it can be?
At The Chocolatier (27 Water St.) there are goodies for every occasion, like Thanksgiving-themed peppermint patties and chocolate turkeys. Have a vinyl lover on your holiday list? What about a chocolate record? Chanukah gelt? The Chocolatier has that, too. And who wouldn’t love a bag of chocolate-covered potato chips or a chocolate toy soldier in their stocking?
There is no shortage of oldies, but goodies at Cynthia’s Attic Vintage Clothing (187 Water St.), and Antiques Etc. (186 Water St.) next door.
A mile or so from downtown is Mill Street, a must-stop for antique hunters. It’s a short road, only a block or so long, but it has plenty of interest.
First stop is Architectural Salvage Inc., a weather- worn warehouse beside the railroad tracks crammed with old doors, barn boards, mantels, sinks and other unique items too good to send to the landfill when their former residences were renovated, or removed.
Right next door is Cam’s Antique and Vintage Lighting where chandeliers and other lighting fixtures are available for the most discerning interior designers interested in antique furniture and artwork. Squirreled away in the back of the shop is My Girlfriends Unique Boutique, a chick paradise with vintage jewelry, couture, shoes and so much more and a portion of all sales go to breast cancer charities.
Just around the corner on Front Street is Fresh Fish Daley, a fish monger with a strong local following. Pack a cooler and bring home some fresh seafood to cook for dinner.
And no, we haven’t forgotten the avid reader on your list. Exeter, the hometown of literary wunderkind Dan Brown, is a bibliophile’s heaven. The Water Street Bookstore (125 Water St.) proudly proclaims “indie books for indie minds.” Colophon Book Shop (101 Water St.) features more than 3,000 books on World War II alone, as well as tomes on marine history and trade fiction and has a large collection of die-cast toy airplanes and tanks in its basement location.
And if comics and graphic novels are your cup of literature, there’s family-owned Krypton Comics and Pop Culture (177 Water St.).
Where art thou?
And if your book fan also happens to appreciate art. You’re in luck. A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words (65 Water St.) is not only a vintage and rare book and map store, it’s also a frame shop and art gallery.
Support local culture by visiting the Seacoast Art Association (130 Water St.), a community-active group of local artists. The gallery highlights paintings, sculpture and prints in a variety of media – all for sale and all to support the community.
The nonprofit Exeter Fine Crafts (61 Water St.) has been promoting, supporting and educating on local fine crafts for more than 50 years. Currently more than 200 juried artisans are part of the collaborative. The store is jammed with astounding art, jewelry, home décor and so much more. You can even sign up for one of the many classes or workshops like floral pastel drawing, fabric block printing, one-day jewelry making, stained glass making and needle felting to name a few.
Refresh and refuel
Whether you crave a caffeine fix, a snack or a full-course meal, there is no shortage of dining destinations in Exeter.
Me and Ollie’s Bakery and Café (64 Water St.) is a local third place in a historical setting. Sandwiches are made on the homemade bread the café is known for and the coffee and cool vibe make for a great break from shopping and schlepping.
Carb cravings can also be sated with an apple pie or loaf of bread at St. Anthony’s Bakery (231 Water St.), which is locally famous for its breakfast sandwiches.
At D2 Java (155 Water St.) a cup of coffee is more than just a cup of Joe. Baristas brew single-origin coffees by the cup. Need something a little stronger? Drop by the Sea Dog Brewing Company (9 Water St.) for a beer brewed in the traditional English style. Oh yes, and there’s a huge menu for food as good as the brew.
Blue Moon Evolution (8 Clifford St.) is a true farm-to-table restaurant using as many true organic and local ingredients as possible. The Tavern at River’s Edge (163 Water St.) features light fare and more elaborate entrees in a casual waterfront setting. Station 19 (37 Water St.) offers casual fare in a former fire station.
At Inn by the Bandstand (6 Front St.), Chef Lee Frank works wonders in a restaurant named Otis that overlooks downtown. A mile or so up Front Street is The Exeter Inn, a boutique hotel, where the food is a homonym for its restaurant’s name – Epoch.
Hemingway’s Café and Restaurant (69 Water St.) has a café upstairs and dining below including tapas and entrees. There’s also live entertainment.
The Green Bean (33 Water St.) serves salads and sandwiches and has a beautiful little garden for eating out on warmer days. Nourish your body and soul with a sweet green smoothie, chakra salad or other healthful nosh at Laney and Lu café (26 Water St.)