The late afternoon sunlight gave the salt marshes a golden glow and we took a deep breath of the briny air coming in through the open car window. We pulled into the parking lot behind City Hall and jumped out to catch the sunset from the floating dock. A fishing boat slowly glided up the channel with the day’s catch and the gulls followed closely, hoping for a sample or two.
It’s a common view among the small coastal towns that dot the Connecticut shoreline and yet each of these New England gems offers its own unique charm. An afternoon drive along US 1 will be the highlight of your summer.
For your mind, visit RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison’s picture-perfect downtown. Step through the door and back in time. In a technological age where e-readers are everywhere, there’s just something magical about stepping into a real live bookshop with shopkeepers who are friendly and passionate about words. Offering over 300 events per year, RJ Julia connects authors and readers and inspiration abounds.
For your body, Willoughby’s Coffee & Tea is a few steps down Main Street’s sidewalk. Inside, you can find delicious treats and a great selection of coffee drinks to enjoy in the café. Better yet, Willoughby’s offers an unbelievable variety of serious coffees and teas from around the world to buy by the pound and brew at home whenever you like. On a beautiful day, sit at one of the sidewalk tables and soak in the sunshine and small town life.
For your soul, drive across town to Hammonasset Beach State Park. Stay for a weekend in the campground or stay for the day on the two-mile stretch of beach. Visit the nature center to learn about the history and ecosystem of the area. Hike some of the bluffs for beautiful views of the rocky coastline. Watch the Ospreys swooping and soaring across the wetlands. Walk the sand hunting sea glass. Just pick a spot and let the surf soothe your soul.
For your mind, stop in at Cindy Stevens Fine Art. Browse the gorgeous paintings and be swept away by local New England scenery. Chat with the artist and get the behind-the-scenes story of some of her paintings. Feeling inspired? Get back in touch with your own creative side and attend an art class or a paint night. The gallery offers a variety of events for grown-ups and for the kids in your lives.
For your body, there is no more iconic spot than the practically-world-famous Lobster Landing. Open seasonally for lunch and dinner, Lobster Landing is perched on the harbor and offers outdoor seating and a BYOB policy. A sunset, a cold glass of Sauvignon Blanc, and a steaming lobster roll at a harborside picnic table is all you need for the perfect dinner on the shoreline.
For your soul, head back over to Main Street and don’t you dare leave town before you find yourself climbing up on a bar stool at Scottish Dave’s Pub. There are no strangers at the only Scottish pub in Connecticut. Well, not for long anyway. On any given evening, you can chat with a group of 20-somethings with an impressive appreciation for classic rock or a couple in their 80s who can tell you stories that are impossible to tell whether it’s fact or fiction and that makes it all the better. If you’ve timed it right, you can catch traditional Celtic music or maybe even a ballad from Dave himself. Either way, you’ll leave feeling like you’ve been a part of something pretty special.
For your mind, head just a bit inland and catch a ride on the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat. Get whisked away into the past as you chug along old tracks through the scenic woods and across picturesque wetlands. Sit on the right side of the car for the best river views. Then board a riverboat and float away down the Connecticut River. See eagles nesting and get a good look at Gillette Castle high on the cliff. The narrators tell you stories that will both educate and entertain.
For your body, take a walk down Main Street and just soak in the beauty of stately historical homes and beautiful gardens lined with picket fences. Be sure to look for the plaques fastened to the home fronts that reveal the year in which the house was built. You’ll find homes approaching 300 years old! Walk through the park and enjoy the peaceful shade of the enormous trees. Maybe you’ll catch a film crew taking advantage of the quintessential New England charm of Essex.
For your soul, spend a night at America’s oldest continuously operated inn. The Griswold Inn, affectionately known as The Gris to its faithful patrons, is a living piece of history that opened its doors in 1776. Have dinner in one of the dining rooms where you can almost see the sailors and soldiers sharing dreams of independence. After an incredibly delicious meal, make your way into the Tap Room for a rollicking night of singing along to all the classics. Be sure to say hi to Bobby, my favorite regular. You’ll find this older gentleman standing by the fireplace, holding his beer, and dancing with the young ladies. When the last song is sung, head upstairs to one of the beautifully appointed guest rooms. Don’t pass up a chance to immerse yourself in history and luxury.
Connecticut may not have the reputation of a popular tourist destination, but that’s just what makes it one of the best choices. Plan a trip to explore and get away from it all. Connecticut may be small but it has so much to offer for your body, mind, and soul.