The Connecticut River runs 410 miles from near the Canadian border to Long Island Sound. Were it not for the sandbar across the river’s mouth, the Connecticut River Valley would look very different, says Bill Cook, a retired boat captain in Essex who spent many years plying these waters. During the Industrial Revolution, deep-draft vessels couldn’t enter the river from the sound; as a result, the Connecticut is the only river in the state that isn’t industrialized at its mouth. The Connecticut River Gateway Commission, established by conservationists in 1973 with support from the late Senator Ted Kennedy, still works to protect the area from development.
The result of this geologic fluke and modern-day vigilance is a pristine landscape dotted with small towns that cherish their natural resources and history. The Nature Conservancy has called the Lower Connecticut River Valley, a collection of 17 towns along the river and sound in the south-central part of the state, “one of the last great places on earth.” Where else in the world could visitors dine in a Revolutionary-era tavern, ride an antique steam train through the marshlands, tour a medieval castle, see how a rare swing bridge works and view the origins of an American art colony?
Housed in a warehouse on the former steamboat landing, the Connecticut River Museum in Essex shows how the river shaped the lives of explorers, farmers, shipbuilders and artisans. Displays include a full-scale working reproduction of Bushnell’s Turtle, the world’s first operational combat submarine, built in 1775 in nearby Westbrook, as well as elaborate models of ships from the steamship era.
Bushnell's Turtle at Connecticut River Museum
Photo Courtesy of Ellen Albanese
Walk up Essex’s Main Street to the storied Griswold Inn (better known as “The Gris”), which opened for business in 1776. You can still hoist a pint in its oyster shell-and-horsehair-plastered tap room or dine in one of its cozy dining rooms, surrounded by Antonio Jacobsen steamship oils, all blue-black ocean and puffy-cloud-filled sky. If the mural at one end of the inn’s Wine Bar seems to be moving, it’s not you; the painting of Essex in the late 1880s actually rocks slightly to mimic the view from a steamship.
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Toursim
As design-forward as The Gris is traditional, The Essex is a stylish new eatery with a farm-to-table focus and a big open kitchen. Owner and Essex native Colt Taylor calls the concept “kitchen theater.” After 20 years of working in restaurants all over the country, Taylor says, “You forget the beauty of the area until you come back.”
From May through October, train buffs can board an antique steam train at the 1892 Essex Station for the two-and-a-half-hour Essex Steam Train and Riverboat excursion. The rhythmic nine-mile-an-hour train ride crosses tidal marshes filled with wildlife such as Greenland geese, blue herons and red-winged blackbirds. At Deep River, guests transfer to the Becky Thatcher, a Mississippi-style riverboat, for a leisurely cruise on the Connecticut River, past some of the area’s best-known landmarks, such as Gillette Castle, the Goodspeed Opera House and the East Haddam Swing Bridge.
Essex Stream Train
Photo Courtesy of The Connecticut Office of Tourism
Just north of Essex, in Chester, you can cross the Connecticut River in much the same way locals have been crossing it for nearly 250 years. These days the Chester/Hadlyme Ferry takes cars, drivers and pedestrians across the river in under five minutes—just long enough to watch the river spool away on either side of the little barge, sparkling in the afternoon sun.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen Albanese
From Hadlyme, it’s a short drive to Gillette Castle, a medieval vision set on 184 riverfront acres straddling the towns of East Haddam and Lyme, now a state park. The late William Gillette—an actor, inventor and train buff—built the 24-room stone castle in 1914. Friendly docents will point out Gillette’s clever devices, such as a mirror he used to see who was entering his domain. The castle is open Thursday through Sunday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but the beautiful grounds are open year-round.
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism
Another East Haddam landmark is the Goodspeed Opera House, home to Goodspeed Musicals, which has produced some 250 musicals since 1963 and sent 21 shows to Broadway, including Annie and Man of La Mancha. The organization stages shows here from April through December. The building itself is noteworthy, too. Built in 1876 in the Second Empire style by merchant and banker William Goodspeed, it resembles a lavish wedding cake. Tours are available on the first Saturday of the month, June through October. Have lunch or dinner on the patio of Gelston House Restaurant and Inn next door. If you time it right, you could catch the East Haddam Swing Bridge, just behind the opera house, in action. Opened in 1913, the 881-foot bridge, which carries automobiles between Haddam and East Haddam, swivels on a central vertical support to open and allow marine traffic to pass on either side.
East Haddam Swing Bridge behind the Goodspeed Opera House
Photo Courtesy of Goodspeed Opera House
RiverQuest, operated by Connecticut River Expeditions, runs narrated cruises on the river from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam February through October. On the last cruise of the season, I saw nesting bald eagles, double-crested cormorants, a shack used by shad fishermen and acres of wild rice along the riverbank. I scanned the river eagerly, hoping to see a boat too big to slip beneath the swing bridge. As our cruise boat approached, I heard the telltale siren and watched the odd bridge twist open to allow a tall-masted schooner to glide by.
Don’t leave the valley without visiting the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, a must-see for fans of American Impressionism—and fairy houses. In the late 1800s, Florence Griswold opened her 1817 Georgian home on the banks of the Lieutenant River, a tidal river that joins the Connecticut just above Long Island Sound, to boarders. The picturesque waterfront setting attracted such American artists as Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf, who laid the groundwork for the Lyme Art Colony. Many of the artists painted directly on the walls and door panels of the house, leaving luminous masterpieces that can be seen only here. The museum is also known for its annual “Wee Faerie Village,” an installation of some 30 hand-crafted, fairy-sized homes nestled throughout the 13-acre site. This year’s exhibit, the museum’s 10th, is scheduled for September 29 through October 28.
Florence Griswold Museum
Photo Courtesy of Joe Standart
There’s more than enough to see in the valley to make a weekend of it. Overlooking the mouth of the Connecticut River, the AAA Four Diamond Saybrook Point Inn and Spa offers 81 rooms, guest houses, indoor and outdoor pools, a full-service spa and a marina with access to both the river and the sound. One of the most versatile of the area’s bed-and-breakfasts is the Nehemiah Brainerd House in the Haddam Historic District, which offers not only cozy lodging for couples in a historic home but also family-friendly accommodations in a renovated carriage house, with a distant view of the storied river from the deck.
Saybrook Point Inn, Marina and Spa
Photo Courtesy of Frank Gilroy
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of AAA World.