Ask just about anyone who grew up in New Hampshire and they wax nostalgic about spending holidays at Wentworth By the Sea, a grand resort hotel that has graced the shore, perched on a promontory on tiny New Castle, an island just off of Portsmouth, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Piscataqua River.
The Wentworth is not just historic (it's a member of Historic Hotels of America), this grand hotel played a role in history, hosting the Russian and Japanese delegates to the Treaty of Portsmouth congress that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 (President Theodore Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize for accomplishing the reconciliation).
Wentworth By the Sea is in that rare company of historic resorts that are so much more than a building, a structure. It has personality, character, stories of its own. It has been a part of this community for generations, with ties to families who were married here, celebrated holidays here and milestone events.
When you arrive, you get that "ahhh" moment that these Grand Dame resort hotels evoke: stunning Victorian architecture - turrets, gingerbread and porches with wicker chairs setting a mood. So inviting.
Wentworth has changed over time - what grand dame hasn't? - to stay current with mores and guests preferences, but also to meet the realities of changing economics.
Modern guests will find a brilliant use of its landscape - not a large area - the hotel is perched on an overlook and lawns that flow to a separate pool area, marina-view lodges and restaurant, and along the water - a lovely marina with a pleasant walkway and eatery. There is now a complex of condos close to the water. Altogether, it gives the sense of a small village within a village, on the tiny island of New Castle, one of New Hampshire's oldest settlements, separated by a narrow spit from Portsmouth. The resort is perched where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Piscataqua River.
Wentworth's interior decoration is fresh, modern in a 1920s Art Deco/Art Nouveau sort of way, so it seems to straddle the ages. It s classy and casual at the same time.
This is all the more appreciated when you realize how close this magnificent historic resort was to being demolished.
Wentworth By the Sea went through hard times. Built in 1888, the resort deteriorated and finally was closed in 1983, the land subdivided for condominiums. Locals banded together and the plight of the Wentworth came to the attention of a Portsmouth family that owns Ocean Properties, a hotel company which is one of the largest Marriott franchisees in the country with more than 140 properties. Ocean Properties stepped in and bought the Wentworth, saving it in dramatic fashion from the wrecking ball, Indeed, out of something like 400 grand resorts that once lined the New Hampshire seacoast, the Wentworth is the only one left.
Ocean Properties promptly revitalized the resort, which reopened in June 2003, 20 years after it first closed, and a $27 million restoration that added an 8,500 sq. ft. spa wing with a fabulous indoor pool and Jacuzzi, fireplaces in 18 of the guest suites, and the waterfront hideaway Little Harbor Marina Suites. In its heyday, the Wentworth had 300 rooms in its heyday, but now offers 161 rooms (the rooms are larger and the building is smaller but includes three fabulous Flag Officer Suites, one in each of the turrets).
Dining at Salt
The latest improvement is a new restaurant, Salt (which opened in May 2013), which preserves the charm and elegance of the original dining room, capped by a gorgeous 19th century painted dome above a central banquette, while adding a contemporary twist of open kitchen where you can see the chef tossing flatbread dough for these amazing gourmet pizzas, adding theatricality and playfulness to the experience.
Moving further into the dining room, there are quieter, more intimate spaces and finally, a stunning private dining room lined with glass walls.
The ambiance is perfection - both elegant and fun, romantic and casual so that it manages to set just the right mood for any occasion.
This is largely due to the eclectic menu which has casual items as well as more sophisticated selections satisfy any taste or culinary mood, and the open kitchen where the chef seems to relish his performance.
The wood-fired flatbreads (like personal pizzas) are imaginative and delectable, using seasonings to striking effect. Our favorites: "Umbria" made with wild mushrooms, Asiago cream, Tartufo Oil, and Arugula; and Margherita made with marinated San Marzano tomatoes, pesto, house-pulled mozzarella.
If you want more ambitious entree, The dinner selections are actually quite complete and emphasize locally sourced ingredients: Creek Stone Farms Strip Steak; Grilled Petite veal chop; beef tenderloin; East Coast Halibut with hand-spun pasta; Vanilla and Anise poached lobster and organic Farro Island salmon; a selection of rustic handmade pasta.
The Chef's Bar is a popular space, especially if you are dining solo, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can watch the whole preparation process as the items emerge from the bar, wood-burning oven and prep space.
“We’ve created SALT to be approachable, intimate and engaging with a lively theatrical chef’s bar at center stage to provide a social hub for friends and family to gather round a selection of small plate offerings, handcrafted cocktails and sommelier-selected wines,” said Michael O’Shaughnessy, Wentworth General Manager. “SALT gives guests a venture-forward experience, with bright new flavors, seasonally fresh from the sea, farm and garden along with grace notes of 19th century charm and a hint of elegance. SALT the place is like salt the flavor, a dash of daring, a hint of preservation and a knowledgeable nod to its source, ‘by the sea.’ Salt serves until 10 pm.
The Roosevelt lounge area is just one step removed and characterized by furnishings that capture the elegance of the hotel's history and a contemporary, casually-luxurious vibe of 21st century trends, convivial tables, private corners and conversational flow within sight of the active Chef's Bar (a light menu is served until 11 pm).
The porch that surrounds SALT will offer additional outdoor seating on the raised terrace, accented by a fresh cocktail herb garden and the fresh sea air that is part of SALT’s inspiration.
You can also order while idling away the afternoon on the front porch, sitting in wicker chairs.
The Wentworth offers several other dining options that diversity the dining experience.
Latitudes, a seasonal waterfront restaurant at the Marina (open until 10 pm), where we enjoyed a succulent burger, fresh bread served warm with oil with fennel seed; clam chowder; a seafood crock pot, fresh salmon. The room is beautiful - with deep wood paneling, etched glass, a decided nautical ambiance - indeed, it was an Officers' Club.
On the boardwalk at the marina is Green Bean, a delightful cafe serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, with tables on the boardwalk (salads, wraps, bagels, muffins).
A Great Island Dining package (starting at $299) includes overnight accommodations, breakfast for two and dinner for two.
(Nearby Portsmouth is a foodie mecca with about 250 restaurants and more seats in restaurants than there are city residents, so you will definitely want to explore).
Wentworth By the Sea Spa
Another major improvement that resulted from the multi-million dollar modernization is the 8,500 sq. ft. Spa, an oasis of grand traditions and 21st century comforts.
The Spa occupies the entirely new East wing of the Wentworth and offers a full menu of the latest spa services. Therapies and treatments include:
- Touch Therapies such as Relaxation Massage, Deep Tissue Therapy, Aromatherapy, Warm Stones, Sports Massage, Foot Reflexology, Pregnancy Massage, and Reiki.
- Facial treatments, such as "Facial Radiance," the Wentworth "Customized Care" classic European facial, Gentleman's Facial and the "Good Start" facial for the spa guest aged 12-18.
- Advanced Facial Therapies, including Micro-dermabrasion, an Alpha/Beta Quick Peel and Glycolic Peel.
- Body Renewals, drawing from two rich histories: the 5,000 year old Ayurvedic tradition of healing the body by quieting the mind and soothing the spirit; and the classic spa therapies of Europe, used since Roman times to nurture and mend the body.
Renewal Treatments include the Botanical Body Masque, Shirodhara (the ideal first treatment for those having traveled, and may feel scattered and in need of concentrated therapy for the face, neck and shoulders), Full Body Rejuvenation, Thalassotherapy and the Romans' favorite Moor Mud Therapy.
The Spa at Wentworth By the Sea also offers many special services, whether a wedding party chooses "Bridal Bliss" to prepare for the wedding celebration or a guest seeks the privacy and restorative effect of an in-room massage, complete with the ultimate indulgence, a hand-drawn bath.
Conference guests can take advantage of a complete menu of options: treatments and classes that can be offered right in the meeting spaces and are designed to be short revitalization sessions such as Seated Massage, Warm Hand Treatment, a Stretch Break, or Yoga. Spa services for men are increasingly popular, too, from the after-golf therapeutic massage to the Royal Gentleman's Facial to counter the effects of sun and salt.
The Spa Facilities incorporate The Exercise Studio and indoor pool with two co-ed whirlpools and an attached outdoor patio The men's and women's locker rooms each feature a steam room, and personal amenities, robes and slippers for patrons. The Spa's "relaxation room" serves complimentary beverages to guests preparing for treatments and even provides nap facilities for those between appointments. The five treatment rooms, including a wet-room, are staffed by 32 professional therapists.
A Complete Destination
The Wentworth's outdoor pool complex is stunning - lushly landscaped that takes advantage of the gorgeous view of the resort, a beautiful bar and café, table area overlooking the marina. The pool– large rectangle, great for laps and family play - is heated to a perfect 80 degrees and purified with a process that gives it a velvety texture, slightly salty taste instead of chlorine.
There is one tennis court just on the side of the hotel, outside the indoor pool.
The Wentworth By the Sea Marina has its own aura - it's like a separate destination... You walk down the hill down a set of stairs to a boardwalk that extends perhaps a quarter-mile. There is a pleasant outdoor cafe, The Green Bean, where you can pick up a casual breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack, and sit at tables overlooking the boats.
Guests also have golf privileges at the nearby Wentworth By the Sea Country Club (tee-times through hotel concierge: $125 for 18 holes w/cart; $65 for 9 holes w/cart) as well as guest privileges at the Wentworth By the Sea Marina.
New Castle is a pleasant island to explore - particularly the Portsmouth Harbor Light and Fort Constitution (lighthouse visits open Sundays 1-5, Memorial Day through Columbus Day, see story). The island offers a five-mile loop from the Wentworth into Portsmouth and back around again - you can rent bikes (and kayaks) at Portsmouth Kayaks (they will deliver the bikes to the hotel). And the historic city of Portsmouth is utterly fabulous to explore, with a fantastic historic district and Strawbery Banke, a phenomenal living history museum (see story).
The setting, elegance, romance, size, amenities, gardens and function rooms make Wentworth By the Sea ideal for destination wedding - there is a “Marriott certified wedding event planner” onsite to design and assist with a broad range of weddings, including cultural, religious, ethnic and military weddings.
The resort is also ideal for conferences and retreats.
New Online Concierge Service
Want chocolates and roses waiting in your room with a note that says “Happy Anniversary, Darling”? Want to schedule your Spa appointments as soon as you make your room reservation, instead of waiting until you arrive? Need special arrangements -- a crib or a laptop printer, for example?
Thanks to the efficiency of the Online Concierge, these “special” requests are just part of the “normal” service provided by the staff at Wentworth By the Sea Hotel & Spa.
To access this service, guests go to the hotel website, www.wentworth.com and click on the “Online Concierge” button on the homepage. Using their confirmation number to ensure that their request matches the right person, guests can arrange Dining reservations, Spa appointments (with a full selection of Spa treatment options), Golf tee times (in season, with a choice of three different local courses including the guest-access only private Wentworth By the Sea Country Club), and a variety of amenities that can be delivered to the room, including hand-crafted chocolates with or without champagne, wine and flowers from the hotel's florist, Jardiniere. There is also space at the Online Concierge for guest comments and additional requests.
Wentworth Makes History
Originally constructed by the Campbell family in 1874, the splendid Victorian “wedding cake” of a building we see today was created by local ale tycoon Frank Jones starting in 1888. The central portion of today’s hotel, beneath the three mansard-roofed towers, is what remains of the original hotel, including the main entrance and lobby fireplace. After painting the building a mossy green (it is white today), Jones and his professional management team modernized the hotel with bathrooms, steam-powered elevators and large elegant rooms that attracted guests from around the world.
After being closed for two decades, The Wentworth reopened just in time to be a focal point in 2005 for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Portsmouth Peace Treaty and the negotiations that ended the Russo-Japanese War in 1905. In 1905, Judge Calvin Page, executor of Frank Jones’ estate, had agreed to the New Hampshire Governor’s request to host the 25 Russian and Japanese peace conference delegates at no charge for as long as their deliberations lasted. For 30 days in August, the delegates shuttled back and forth to the nearby Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for the formal negotiations; meanwhile much of the back channel diplomacy for which President Theodore Roosevelt earned the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize took place through the telephones and telegraph wires of the hotel.
Though the Treaty was signed at the Shipyard on September 5th and New Hampshire now commemorates that date as Portsmouth Peace Treaty Day, many of the pivotal meetings and receptions took place at the hotel and the armistice that ended the actual fighting was negotiated and signed at the hotel. The hotel's Roosevelt's Lounge is named in honor of that history.
Wentworth By the Sea maintained its international reputation as a grand resort for much of the 20th century, hosting government and entertainment celebrities such as Annie Oakley, Gloria Swanson, Harry Truman and Prince Charles. But in the early 1980s, grand hotels had fallen out of fashion just as the Wentworth's owners at the time, the Smiths, were ready to retire. At its lowest point, the hotel was a backdrop for the thriller, “In Dreams” starring Robert Downey, Jr., Aiden Quinn and Annette Benning.
The six-year, $30 million reconstruction of Wentworth By the Sea Hotel & Spa that preserved 161-rooms, the three distinctive original Victorian towers and as many architectural details as could be salvaged, has won The Wentworth the American Institute of Architects' “Award of Excellence,” AAA's Four Diamond award, and National Trust for Historic Preservation recognition, Travel + Leisure “Top 50 Resorts in US” and Conde Nast Traveler 2012, “#4 Best hotel in the northeast”.
Once again part of the fabric of Portsmouth/New Castle, Wentworth is “the place” for weddings and other social events, for visiting celebrities including the Presidential Primary campaign candidates and Japanese dignitaries following the Portsmouth Peace Treaty Trail of the iconic sites of the Nobel Peace Prize story.
Spa, Golf, Dining, Holiday Packages
Check the website (www.wentworth.com) for special packages including Romance, Golf, Dining, and Spa, and holiday programs like Historic Thanksgiving Celebration with Dinner at Wentworth By the Sea & Historic House Tours at Strawbery Banke; Wentworth’s “Winter Wonderland Brunch”.
Strawbery Banke Museum offers weekend tours of four historic houses on weekend days in November (plus Friday after Thanksgiving 11/22). Then the first three weekends in Dec 7-8, 14-15 and 21-22 it's the 34th Annual Candlelight Stroll at Strawbery Banke, depicting holidays over 300 years including Hannukah in the 1919 Shapiro House.
Throughout December, Vintage Portsmouth holiday festival combines Strawbery Banke Museum and the historic Music Hall. Now in its ninth year, Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth will once again offer the irresistible Candlelight Stroll that Strawbery Banke Museum has offered for 34 years, and the live holiday shows, opera broadcasts and films in The Music Hall’s landmark Historic Theater and the intimate Music Hall Loft on Congress Street, in this elegant and delightful holiday downtown. The city of Portsmouth sponsors the free trolley, coordinates the illuminated parade and ceremonial tree lighting, decorates the Welcome to Portsmouth signs and period streetlights with large wreaths, and collaborates with ProPortsmouth on making First Night (New Year’s Eve) a spectacular evening in the city (ice sculpture, fireworks, live music). Finally, the library and recreation department have holiday programs.” Visit www.vintagechristmasnh.org.
Ocean Properties, which owns and manages Wentworth By the Sea, a Marriott resort, is one of the biggest Marriott franchisees in North America - with 140 hotels including Residence Inns, Courtyard, and Extended Stay, is owned by Portsmouth family who couldn't bear to see the Wentworth demolished, so they acquired it, and went on to acquire several other grand resorts (some of my favorites, in fact): The Sagamore on Lake George, in New York's Adirondacks, another Historic Hotels of America member (www.thesagamore.com); Harborside, in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine (theharborsidehotel.com) and The Samoset, in Rockland, Maine (www.samosetresort.com).
Portsmouth is easily reached by car, train and air. Just an hour north of Boston, travelers can fly to Logan International and head up I-95 in a rental car, or fly to Manchester (NH) International Airport, one of the fastest growing airports in the nation and just 45 miles west of the Seacoast. Some scheduled air even flies directly to the former Air Force base, Pease International. Amtrak passengers can take the “Downeaster” from Boston, stop in Exeter or Durham NH and be enjoying ocean views at the hotel’s dockside restaurant by lunch. It's only about a 5-hour drive from NYC.
Next: Wentworth By the Sea In the Midst of History
Karen Rubin, National Eclectic Travel Examiner
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