The Connecticut River travels north to south all through New England, spilling into Long Island Sound at Old Saybrook, CT. Towns of the lower river valley -- Essex, Old Saybrook, Lyme, East Haddam, Deep River – look exactly like the postcard image of New England, with Town Greens and steepled churches. There is plenty more to enjoy – maritime and art museums; dining in real Colonial inns -- beyond the main streets. Some highlights:
Gillette Castle. We start this tour in East Haddam, on a tall bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. A delightful day’s exploration is at Gillette State Park, offering hiking, picnicking, river camping and a unique building: Gillette Castle. It was built in 1919 by William Gillette, a renowned stage actor famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. The castle is truly a castle, with loads of cunning features (a hidden mirror system for surveillance), along with displays from Gillette’s stage career and his great hobby, trains.
Connecticut River Museum in Essex. This museum on the river’s bank is filled with exhibits about the natural history of the entire 410-mile river, along with social history about Native Americans, river commerce, and the Revolutionary War.
See the Turtle (pictured at right), the first submarine vessel used by the US military. This one-man vessel was designed and used in 1776 to carry and affix a bomb below the waterline of a British frigate. No kidding.
Essex Steam Train & Riverboat is a two-pronged excursion that revels in old-fashioned, slow-paced travel and the natural beauty of the river. You start with a relaxed trip by steam-driven train along the riverside, where you can lounge in comfortable club chairs and watch the scenery move past large windows. Then you embark on a river boat trip with story-like narration of the river’s history. Catch sight of the elevated Gillette Castle and the Goodspeed Opera House.
Griswold Inn in Essex. This warm dining and lodging house on the main street in Essex hails directly from the Colonial period, and artifacts of that time surround you during a hearty meal or wine tasting. The links to early America are strong: in 1776, Essex shipbuilder Uriah Hayden got the contract to build the Colony of Connecticut’s first warship. The Inn was built to serve the scores of workers and tradesmen who swarmed to the project. Today, the Inn is a perfect stop to dine on a historic tour of the lower Connecticut River Valley.
Florence Griswold Museum, in the heart of Old Lyme, appeals to people who love Impressionist art, architecture and gardens. In the early 20th century, it was a boarding house nd the hub of one of the most important summer art colonies in America, attracting New York painters working in the Tonalist and Impressionist movements. Today, tour the house with many paintings, a nearby gallery building with rotating exhibits and a gift store, and several luscious gardens. Enjoy lunch or a little dessert on patios facing the back lawn and river.
On Lyme Street, the main thoroughfare in Old Lyme, the antique-looking sign for the Old Lyme Inn will catch your eye and instantly convey the flavor of an estate with long history and traditions.
Conversely, the image for the Inn’s restaurant, the Side Door, conveys modernity that carries through in brilliant dishes from local produce, meat, and seafood, farm-roasted coffee, and homemade ice cream.
Acclaimed jazz musicians perform at the Side Door Jazz Club Friday and Saturday evenings. The Inn’s Sunday brunch is turning into a regional must-try.
Shopping Fun and Hepburn History. This very old community at the mouth of the Connecticut River has a charming town center and fun shopping for home goods, furnishings, clothing and accessories at the The Shops at Saybrook Country Barn. If you are up for evening entertainment, watch the schedule for the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, built as a town hall and theater in 1911.
Saybrook Point Inn, aptly named for its location on a peninsula extending into the mouth of the river, is a great place to dine. Its restaurant, Fresh Salt, presents at unique menu, seasonal outdoor dining, the freshest day's catch raw bar, and a farm-to-chef program. Enjoy water views, and full windows opening to a French balcony for open-air dining. Sunday brings the “Best Brunch on the Shoreline."