Every college town reflects, to some degree, a glimmer of Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford. His city of aquatint, exhaling “the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning,” is the archetype, and while its imitators lack the ancient stones, they share a common climate. More clubby than cloistral, American college towns are generally safe, somewhat overpriced and, above all, young.
One of the original college towns in America is Hanover, New Hampshire, home to Dartmouth College and its orbiting grad schools. A two-hour drive from Boston (surprisingly frequent buses make the haul from South Station), Hanover roosts on the Connecticut River opposite the Vermont border. For a town that’s less populated than Swampscott, it’s thickly cultured, as would be expected with a major research university as its center of gravity. You know you’re in the pull of the Ivy League when a rural highway exit is jammed with Range Rovers.
The best place to ground your explorations is the Hanover Inn Dartmouth. Owned by the college, it sits at the forefront of the Green, a grassy square that anchors the campus’ sprawl of Georgian architecture. The inn dates from an 18th-century tavern owned by one Gen. Ebenezer Brewster, but the current building enjoyed a facelift a couple of years ago. Despite its extensive conference facilities, it has a boutique air: The lobby boasts a profusion of grandfather clocks and a granite table loaded with orchids. Rooms are Yankee simple, although Simon Pearce glass and Pompanoosuc Mills furniture gives them a locally sourced elegance.
Local sourcing is also a theme in the inn’s restaurant, Pine, which is steeped in modern rusticity, from the wooden boards on the menus to the ceiling beams repurposed from a barn. Launched by Boston celebrity chef Michael Schlow, it could be a destination restaurant solely on account of its pastas—light, almost creamy gnocchi and an earthy, exquisite tortellini dish with wild mushrooms and chestnuts. But that would be selling it short. Chef Justin Dain oversees a kitchen that impresses at every mark, from crunchy fries with malt vinegar aioli at the bar to a pan-roasted venison tenderloin that would be a virtuoso cap to a graduation dinner. There are simple pleasures like mushroom polenta gilded with the yolk of a poached egg, surprising ones like a bright hamachi crudo with lotus root, and ones that are entirely expected of a Schlow menu—the “Hanover Burger” is an upstanding iteration of the lamented burger from Radius, down to the crispy onions. Also note: If you’ve never tasted short rib hash with horseradish cream, you must not miss breakfast.
Depending on the vantage of your table, you may see Baker-Berry Library on the opposite side of the Green. Make the effort to walk across, since there’s a National Historic Landmark in the basement. The Epic of American Civilization is a cycle of murals by Mexican artist José Clemente Orozco, and it lives up to the grandiosity of its name. Painted between 1932 and 1934, it has all the subtlety you’d expect of a 3,200-square-foot fresco showing everything from the arrival of the Aztecs in Mexico to the horrors of industrialization. Panel 15’s depiction of Anglo-Americans as soulless pod people is a particularly funny jab, considering the profile of the typical Dartmouth student in the 1930s.
Around the corner from the inn, the Hood Museum of Art has one of the largest university art collections in the country, with a particular emphasis on ethnographic objects like Melanesian masks and ceremonial axes from the Congo. There’s a smattering of European art, too, but the highlight of the collection is a set of six enormous stone reliefs from an Assyrian palace, dating from 900 B.C. A few weeks ago, these reliefs accrued a grim footnote—ISIS just bulldozed the site from which they originated.
Whet your commercial appetite at the gift shop before strolling up the block to South Main Street, which yields a good number of boutiques, gelato shops and cafes. You can grab inexpensive margaritas at Molly’s, a noisy, pizza-oriented spot, or try a pint of local Switchback Pale Ale at Murphy’s, a snug gastropub. Naturally, the wall above the bar is decked with tributes to graduating classes from the Tuck Business School. Hanover is, to its core, a college town.
– The Dartmouth Skiway is only 14 miles away, offering 30 trails. In the summer, the Ledyard Canoe Club rents kayaks and canoes for exploring the Connecticut River.
– Hanover Inn guests receive a discount on spa treatments at the European Face and Body Studio a few blocks down Main Street.
The Hanover Inn Dartmouth 2 East Wheelock St., Hanover, New Hampshire (603-643-4300) hanoverinn.com
PHOTO CREDITS: TOP RIGHT: JAMES IVES; TOP LEFT: JACK ROWELL; BOTTOM OF PAGE: BENJAMIN D. JOHNSON