Surrounded on three sides by water, historic Essex Village – the perfect small town – juts into the Connecticut River like a stubby thumb. A few miles south of here, the river empties into Long Island Sound in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.
All roads lead to the Town Dock and the adjacent Connecticut River Museum, which was once a historic 1878 warehouse. Today the museum remains a touchstone for the town, hosting exhibits, eagle tours, and special events that draw young and old to its sprawling lawn at the water’s edge.
On Main Street, village shops and early Colonial and Federal-era homes jostle side by side. A short stroll quickly reveals why Essex was named the “Perfect Small American Town” in 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Another guidebook names Essex #1 on its list of “The 100 Best Small Towns in America.”
Everyone knows the Griswold Inn, fondly known as “The Gris,” which has been welcoming travelers since 1776.
Could there be a more iconic Tap Room? With live music throughout the week, five dining rooms, historical menus, and a trendy Wine Bar, The Gris plays host to a range of appetites. Folks plan weekends around the inn’s famous Hunt Breakfast on Sunday.
The view across the street from the Griswold Inn seems out of another century.
And if you’re looking for somewhere to roost, this beauty on Main Street is currently offered by Sotheby’s. Check out the birdhouse.
Post holiday, these Main Street pups still look pretty jaunty.
Up and down Main Street, you’ll find plenty of places to duck in out of the cold. Like the Black Seal, for seafood; Olive Oyl‘s for creative takeout, and Essex Coffee & Tea for pastries and cappuccino. Shoppers can spend their doubloons at The French Hen, Toys Ahoy, and The Christmas Barn. Still more temptations open up on North Main Street — Truffle Shots and Weekend Kitchen, oh my.
The best way to discover this “Perfect Small Town,” is on foot. Sidewalks wind past historic homes snugged up against each other, leading down to the harbor in one direction, or north, out of the village onto wide, tree-lined avenues that spill into parks and conservation land.
Peaceful views invite frequent detours off Main Street…
…although it hasn’t always been so quiet. In 1814, the British sneaked up the river and burned 27 ships in Essex harbor. This event, historians say, rallied the Americans to eventually defeat the British during the War of 1812. Each May, Essex remembers it all, in a parade led by fife and drum corps dressed in period clothing, who march through the village streets before winding up at the museum, where hundreds gather for a day of festivities.
At other times of the year, the Museum hosts such singular events as the wildly popular Holiday Train Show, a massive, 26-foot model train layout created by Steve Cryan, now in its 20th year.
Is there such a place as the perfect small town? Essex (which also comprises the villages of Ivoryton and Centerbrook) would say ‘yes there is.’
It’s there in the details…
…and in the larger, lovely landscape of a harbor village steeped in history.