Historic New Castle is New Hampshire’s smallest and easternmost town with a population of about 1,000, squeezed onto a 2-square-mile, horseshoe-shaped island at the mouth of the Piscataqua River.
Above, rush hour on the Piscataqua River as tall ships glide by New Castle, and from left to right, top row below, Welcome to New Castle sign at the Island entrance, the USS New Hampshire escorted past New Castle en route to its commissioning at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, and the U.S. Post Office, the center of gravity on the Great Island, and bottom row, an historic home on Cranfield Street, the Wentworth Marina and lobster boats berthed at an old New Castle lobster shack,
The Great Island, as New Castle has been known by its residents for centuries, is a scenic, two-mile drive past the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and the historic Naval Prison from downtown Portsmouth, and it is one of New Hampshire’s four oldest towns, all settled in 1623, and all celebrating quadricentennials in 2023.
New Castle is connected to the US Mainland by a causeway and two bridges to Portsmouth at one end, and by a bridge to Rye, New Hampshire at the other, and is separated from the State of Maine, as little as a quarter mile away, by the Piscataqua River.
New Castle is a residential community with a small café and general store, a smaller post office, and a small State Park, the Fort Constitution Historic Site, where the American Revolutionary War began in December 1774 (four months before the better-known “shot heard ’round the world” was fired at the Battles of Concord and Lexington), when Paul Revere rode from Boston to Portsmouth to warn the local patriots that British regulars were planning to come to Fort William and Mary (as Fort Constitution was then named) to remove its munitions. A large group of about 400 local patriots then overwhelmed the small garrison at the fort, and moved 100 barrels of gunpowder upriver to Dover, New Hampshire, from which they were eventually sent to Bunker Hill and used in the famous battle there.
What to See in New Castle
The historic Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, at right during a November gale, also known as the Fort Point Lighthouse, originally built in 1774, is located adjacent to the Great Island Common (see below) within Fort Constitution and is open for guided tours from 1:00pm to 5:00pm, on a few Sundays each summer between Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Visitors enter the lighthouse via the New Castle Coast Guard Station, and are invited to climb the spiral stairs to the top for panoramic views of Portsmouth Harbor and historic Fort McClary in Kittery, Maine, across the river, and for a close-up view of the Fresnel lens. A nominal donation redounds to the nonprofit Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation that was formed in 2001 to care for the lighthouse. MAP
The Great Island Common, 301 Wentworth Road, New Castle, NH 03854 (MAP), is a lovely, 30-acre, oceanside park and beach overlooking the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, and the Whaleback Light in Kittery, Maine, with a bathhouse, picnic tables, park benches, about 20 grills for cooking, a very nice playground for young children and three open-air pavilions.
The pavilions are available for weddings and events on a prior reservation basis from the Town of New Castle. Great Island Common visitors can enjoy the quiet quarter-mile of sandy, oceanfront beach (visible in the background behind the lighthouse at left), a procession of sailboats, and an occasional view of large ocean-going oil tankers and bulk carriers, escorted by Portsmouth’s iconic tugboats entering and exiting Portsmouth Harbor there.
The Common is open from 9:00am to 9:00pm, and the entry gate is staffed from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
General Admission (in season) is $15 per vehicle, but $7 per vehicle for seniors and veterans. The Common has a capacity of 200 vehicles and occasionally fills up on busy on summer weekends.
Historic New Castle is well known for its large cluster of centuries-old homes, many dating to the 1600s, including but certainly not limited to the George Walton House, at right, constructed in 1647, one of New Castle’s oldest homes.
Homes just like this line most of the streets of New Castle, and are easy to identify by the placards placed near their front doors.
Six of dozens of such placards, a surprisingly high percentage of New Castle homes, are pictured at right.
New Castle Lodging
Option One: The incomparable Wentworth by the Sea Hotel
The historic Marriott Wentworth by the Sea Hotel (a Marriott Hotel and Spa) in New Castle, pictured at right, long the Grande Dame of New Hampshire Seacoast hotels, had fallen into disrepair in about the 100th year of its life, and closed in the late 1980s.
It was very nearly demolished in the 1990s, only to be saved and beautifully restored to Marriott standards, and brought back to life in 2003 by Ocean Properties, a very capable, Portsmouth-based operator of upscale hotels and resorts from Bar Harbor to Key West. Rates and Availability (MAP)
This historic hotel was once inhabited by well-heeled guests who would arrive for the summer with their steamer trunks, on steamships from New York City, and it was the host to both the Russian and Japanese delegations while the Treaty of Portsmouth (for which Theodore Roosevelt was awarded a Nobel Prize) that was negotiated and signed in 1905, ending the Russo-Japanese war.
Today, the hotel is inhabited in the summer by equally well-heeled guests, some of whom arrive from all over the world on yachts that are moored at the adjacent marina (but mostly in their cars from Boston, New York and Philadelphia). The deluxe, 160-room resort, which still has a palpable grand hotel feel, is perched at one end of New Castle (about a five-minute drive to downtown Portsmouth), and features many guestrooms with Atlantic Ocean and Back Cove views, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court, and two exceptional restaurants (see the next section).
The Wentworth by the Sea Hotel remains one of five pre-eminent hotels in New Hampshire’s grand resort hotel tradition.
Option Two: The Small but Stylish Great Island Inn
The Great Island Inn, pictured at left, New Castle’s six-suite, boutique “apart-hotel” opened in a tastefully restored, two-hundred-year-old home on Main Street, about 100 yards from the Piscataqua River, a short walk to the New Castle Common, and next door to the equally stylish Islander Café operated by the same owner.
Our editors enthusiastically recommend this property.
Dining out in New Castle
Option One: SALT Kitchen and Bar
SALT Kitchen and Bar, the Wentworth by the Sea Hotel’s elegant, main dining room, SALT, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year, is a white tablecloth, destination, dining venue (menus) for Seacoast residents and regular visitors who enjoy its interesting mix of historic architecture and rich contemporary ambiance. Dinner guests can sit at the open chef’s bar, beside the fireplace, or at windows overlooking the picturesque back cove. (MAP)
Editors’ Note: the beautiful, historic, domed ceiling above the main dining area (pictured at right) is just like the parabolic ceiling in the Whispering Hall in the United States Capitol, in which a whispered conversation in one place, can be clearly heard in a certain spot in the hall 50 feet away. The same phenomenon exists under certain atmospheric conditions, between certain tables in the restaurant, so make sure you’re not discussing any corporate secrets at one of them.
Visit New Hampshire’s editors consider SALT one of the top five fine restaurants in the State.
Option Two: Latitudes at the Wentworth
Latitudes, at left, a popular, seasonal, waterfront Latitudes Restaurant, with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the Wentworth Marina and Little Harbor, is a popular, casual destination restaurant for seacoast residents and visitors who come for lunch of lobster rolls, burgers and fine chowders while watching the yachts come and go, or for the same fare while watching the sun set and night fall over Little Harbor and the Wentworth Marina on summer evenings from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Our editors are hard-pressed to think of a better waterfront restaurant of this upscale but casual genre anywhere between Boston and Bar Harbor.
Highly recommended in season!
Option Three: The Islander Cafe
The Islander Café. recently reopened at 52 Main Street in “downtown” New Castle by the visionary owner of the adjacent Great Island Inn, see Lodging Option Two, above, serves remarkably good breakfasts and lunches prepared with obvious care.
The Islander is a great place to meet the locals, who are always there, and always happy to chat with out-of-town visitors, and the perfect place to stop for a gourmet (literally) sandwich or wrap while en route from Portsmouth to a picnic at the New Castle Common, or an afternoon with the children at New Castle’s quiet beach (overlooking both the Portsmouth Harbor and Whaleback lighthouses). (MAP)