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Keene, N.H.: Lively college town with a river of charms

Main Street in Keene, N.H., may be the widest in the country, and stretches from the town center outward past the college and its playing fields. The Ashuelot River meanders through town, crosses the Ashuelot Rail Trail, and Ashuelot River Park. Main Street in Keene, N.H., may be the widest in the country, and stretches from the town center outward past the college and its playing fields. The Ashuelot River meanders through town, crosses the Ashuelot Rail Trail, and Ashuelot River Park. (Bouffard Photography
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By Marty Basch
Globe Correspondent / November 4, 2009

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Here in the Granite State’s pastoral southwest corner is this lively small town infused with the collegiate energies of Keene State, a liberal arts school in its centennial year. Red brick abounds, a testament to Keene’s textile roots. Stroll its broad, leafy Main Street - billed as the country’s widest - lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, and, of course, students.

Stay
The Carriage Barn (358 Main St., www.carriagebarn.com, 603-357-3812; off-season rates from $79 for a double) exudes basic country comfort. Built in 1810 across from the college, the bed-and-breakfast is run by area natives Dave and Marilee Rouillard. Breakfast is served in a cozy nook by a post-and-beam-constructed guest lounge. The E.F. Lane Hotel (30 Main St., www.eflane.com, 888-300-5056; $139-$304), a circa 1890 former department store which operated for a century, has an urban touch. There’s unique decor in each of the 40 rooms, from floral wallpaper and sitting rooms to high-ceilinged, brick-walled, two-level suites with whirlpool tubs. The street-level restaurant windows look out upon vibrant Central Square.

Dine
There’s more than the usual melange of college town pizza and burgers here. Try the Blue Trout Grill (176 Main St., www.bluetroutgrill.com, 603-357-0087; lunch from $7.50, dinner from $17). The Trout’s furnishings range from colorful glass fishing lures to angling-oriented artwork. Try the Idaho pecan-crusted trout or the hickory-smoked, dry-rubbed pork ribs with a tantalizing sweet-hot sauce. Luca’s Mediterranean Cafe (10 Central Square, www.lucascafe.com, 603-358-3335; lunch from $8, dinner from $17) has an intimate ambience with its white tablecloths and light hues. Dishes include pasta galore (like a rich rigatoni alla segreta), and beef, chicken, and fish dishes reflecting influences from North Africa, Italy, Spain, and beyond. For comfort food and local brew, try Elm City Restaurant and Brewery (222 West St., www.elmcitybrewing.com, 603-355-3335; lunch from $6, dinner from $18), with its bright atrium and mahogany booths in the historic Colony Mill Marketplace.

During the day
Shop the square. It’s hit or miss for fashion at the snazzily named Saks Thrift Avenue (9 Main St., 603-357-8070). Buy local in the Hannah Grimes Marketplace (42 Main St., 603-252-6862, www.hannahgrimesmarketplace.com), with its regional gifts and foods. The Colony Mill Marketplace (222 West St., www.colonymill.com), a former woolen mill with towering brick smokestacks, is a few blocks west with lovely shops, displayed art, and a food court. Across the street is Ashuelot River Park’s handsome bridge, gardens, and riverwalk. Keene’s paved Industrial Heritage Trail bike path provides a look at factories dating to the 1800s. There’s history downstairs among the cast iron toys and early Keene glassware, pottery, and silverware at the Historical Society of Cheshire County (246 Main St., www.hsccnh.org, 603-352-1895; Tuesday-Friday 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday 9-noon). Walk through the door of the yellow Federal-style Horatio Colony Museum (199 Main St., 603-352-0460, www.horatiocolonymuseum.org, winter by appointment) for a glimpse of the life of one of the city’s mill families. Keene State’s Thorne-Sagendorph Art Gallery (Wyman Way, www.keene.edu/tsag, 603-358-2720; Saturday-Wednesday, noon-4, Thursday-Friday noon-7) features revolving exhibits from various media. Got bikes? Pedal a few miles to a covered bridge in Swanzey along the Ashuelot Rail Trail.

After dark
Leave the foam parties to the student bodies. McCue’s (12 Emerald St., www.mccues.com, 603-352-2110; Sunday-Wednesday 3 p.m.-midnight, Thursday-Saturday till 1 a.m., happy hour, bands or DJs Thursday-Saturday 9 p.m.) is a cavernous two-room sports bar and billiard lounge with zesty wings (nearly 450,000 sold) and live bands. The nonprofit Starving Artist (10 West St., www.thestarvingartistcollective.com, 603-352-6900; gallery open Tuesday-Saturday noon-9, live music various nights till 10, cover charge varies) looks like your first apartment with mismatched couches and overhead pipes. It’s a groovy combination art gallery, work space, and intimate listening room. E.F. Lane’s lobby-side Chase Tavern is also a downtown spot for Thursday night jams (8:30-midnight) and a mix of blues, rock, soul, and folk on Fridays and Saturdays (covers from $5). The splendid Colonial Theater (95 Main St., www.thecolonial.org, 603-357-1233) is Keene’s classic performing arts center with fringe movies, community-based productions, and national acts.

Marty Basch can be reached at www.onetankaway.com.

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