Best of Connecticut | 2017 Editors’ Choice Awards

Looking for dining, lodging, and top-notch attractions in Nutmeg State? Here are nearly 40 of our editors’ picks for the best of Connecticut.

By Yankee Magazine

Apr 10 2017

Need a reason to travel this summer? From dining and lodging to attractions that are well worth the drive, here are nearly 40 of our editors’ picks for the best of Connecticut.


ADVENTURE PARK: It Adventure Ropes Course

The world’s largest indoor ropes course has a peculiar name and an even zanier location—inside the New Haven outpost of Jordan’s Furniture. Brave tightropes, rope bridges, climbing walls, and a 50-foot free fall, or zipline high above music-synced liquid fireworks, all while safely harnessed. There are more than 100 challenges, plus a kids version called Little It, and your time on the course is limited only by the fortitude of your internal organs: Once a Blaze Pizza design-your-own pie or the restroom calls, you’re grounded. 40 Sargent Dr., New Haven. 203-812-9981;

ART MUSEUM: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

America’s oldest continuously operating public art museum has been growing its collection since the brushstrokes on Hudson River School landscapes were barely dry. A $33 million renovation completed in 2015 has expanded and revitalized exhibit spaces for holdings that now exceed 50,000 works spanning 5,000 years of human creativity. 600 Main St., Hartford. 860-278-2670;

BIRD-WATCHING SPOT: Connecticut River Expeditions

The area around the lower Connecticut River is teeming with birdlife, and on any given cruise aboard the 65-passenger RiverQuest, bird-watchers can play paparazzi: spying on and photographing raptors and waterfowl in their nests. Connecticut’s most incredible avian spectacle occurs in late summer and early fall, and captain Mark Yuknat will ensure you have a front-row seat on sunset voyages. That’s no tornado: It’s nearly half a million tree swallows swirling in sync. Watch them plummet to earth, as if on cue, to roost on a marshy island for the night. Eagle Landing State Park, Little Meadow Road, Haddam. 860-662-0577;

BOOKSTORE: The Book Barn

Want proof that people still go gaga for the printed word? Head to Niantic, the coastal village at the nucleus of New England’s book trade, where the business that Randi and Maureen White founded in 1988 with three bookshelves and a yard sale couch has exploded to four locations packed with more than 500,000 used volumes. The Main Barn complex, with its cats and free coffee, gardens and picnic tables, dollar deals and fleet of kiddie cars for the picture-book set, is the best place to start—and to linger. 41 W. Main St., Niantic. 860-739-5715;

COLLECTIBLES SHOP: Wild Bill’s Nostalgia

In the 18 years since Bill Ziegler moved his shop to this 45-acre site in Middletown, he’s built a hippie wonderland as renowned for its roadside psychedelia and carnival kitsch as for its quirky treasures, which range from bobbleheads to taxidermy. You can spend hours browsing records and books in the Fun House, or roam among photo ops like a trio of dancing Yugo cars, Boathenge (think Stonehenge with graffiti-splashed motorboats), and the world’s largest Tonka truck. Seasonal flea markets add to the thrill of the hunt for off-the-wall gifts. 1003 Newfield St., Middletown. 860-635-1226;

GENERAL STORE: Old Wethersfield Country Store

This 2-year-old shop in the heart of Wethersfield takes the hit-and-miss out of finding locally made goodies and gifts. More than 60 in-state vendors’ creations—including such temptations as NoRA cupcakes and Divine Treasures truffles—make this the place to build a Connecticut-themed gift basket. A cheese counter and jars filled with penny candy lend nostalgia, while kombucha on tap provides a new-age twist. 221 Main St., Wethersfield. 860-436-3782;

HISTORICAL EXPERIENCE: Thames River Heritage Park

It’s been envisioned since the 1960s. It was legislated into existence in 1987. And last summer, Connecticut’s first state park without boundaries became a reality. The key to linking Fort Trumbull, Fort Griswold, and more than a dozen smaller historic attractions along the Thames River—and to telling a cohesive story of 400 years of maritime activity—was a water taxi service, which relaunches Memorial Day weekend. Friday through Sunday you can park your car, board a restored Navy vessel, and plot your own sightseeing adventure with a stop for lunch or dinner on New London’s historic waterfront. Groton and New London.

MINIATURE GOLF: Matterhorn Mini Golf

Yes, that’s yodeling you’ll hear as you putt—and learn about everything from chocolate to the Hadron Collider—at this 18-hole course in Canton. And that’s owner Autumn Sutherland in an embroidered Swiss dress, greeting guests who travel from near and far to play. Thoughtful details, like a misting station and shade canopies for comfort, enhance the experience. But it’s the Swiss landmark–inspired holes—tricky even for pros, yet fun for kids—that will make you want to golf another round after reenergizing with Swiss-swirl ice cream. 10 Dyer Cemetery Road, Canton. 860-795-0234;

MULTI-USE TRAIL: Larkin State Park Trail

Nearly 80 years have passed since trains last rumbled along this narrow corridor, but outdoor enthusiasts still appreciate the labor of immigrants who steam-drilled rocks, filled Towantic Swamp, and built trestles to provide a solid foundation for the western extension of the New York and New England Railroad in 1881. Today this roughly 10-mile shaded stretch of railbed, with multiple access points in four towns, is strikingly quiet except for the occasional thud of hooves. Horses have the right of way, as they have since this packed-earth bridle path—now shared by mountain bikers, hikers, and dog walkers—was donated to the state in 1943. From Kettletown Road, Southbury, to Whittemore Glen State Park, Naugatuck. 203-938-2285;


Want to kayak to Cockenoe Island for a clambake, sneak up on birds in the Bermuda Lagoon, try SUP yoga or meditation, or learn to paddleboard with your pup (life jackets for both of you included)? One-of-a-kind on-the-water experiences don’t require a trek to northern New England. This year-round surf shop with a “no worries, mate” vibe instilled by its New Zealand–born owner is steps from Westport’s train station, just an hour’s trip from Manhattan. Its backyard is the beginner-friendly Saugatuck River. More challenging island-hopping lies downriver in Long Island Sound. A seasonal satellite location on Five Mile River in Rowayton offers rentals, lessons, and guided tours, too. 575 Riverside Ave., Westport. 203-956-6217;

PUBLIC GARDEN: Garden of Ideas

“What is this place?” quizzes a sign posted near the parking lot. Botanical garden? Sculpture garden? Bird sanctuary? Experiment in French intensive farming? The answer checked is “All of the above,” but the more correct response is “A labor of love.” Landscape designer turned farmer Joseph Keller began tinkering in his boyhood backyard in 1987; his wife, horticulturist Ilsa Svendsen, also joined the endeavor. They’ve cultivated an 8-acre dreamscape—open free year-round—with inviting seating areas for picnicking or pondering amid the rare plants, marshland, whimsical metal figures, and farm stand. 653 N. Salem Road, Ridgefield. 203-431-9914;

SAILING CRUISE: Argia Mystic Cruises

Don’t miss your chance to sail out of the fabled port where more than 600 vessels were built during America’s seafaring age. Aboard the two-masted schooner Argia, you’ll motor down the “Missituck” (“wavy river”), as it was christened by native peoples, then the crew will invite you to help hoist the sails. You’re bound for sheltered Fishers Island Sound on a voyage that showcases islands, lighthouses, and local lore. Sunset trips are the most popular of three daily sails: Pack a picnic and a bottle of wine, and leave every care on shore. 12 Steamboat Wharf, Mystic. 860-536-0416;

STATE PARK: Topsmead State Forest

Your GPS may be befuddled. There are no road signs to guide you. But don’t give up before you find the opening in the stone wall that grants entrance to this English countryside estate in Litchfield. Edith Chase dreamed you’d cherish this gift, so feel free to picnic on the sprawling lawn; photograph the color-saturated garden; peep at birds, deer, and butterflies from the wildlife blind; and walk forested trails and loose-stone pathways. And if you’re visiting on a weekend when Chase’s 1925 Tudor-style mansion is open for tours, learn how this enterprising woman amassed 514 acres that are now forever yours to enjoy. Buell Road, Litchfield. 860-567-5694;

VINEYARD: Gouveia Vineyards

As you sip smooth Seyval Blanc, smoky Cabernet Franc, or Stone House Red (a blend starring the only zinfandel grapes grown on the East Coast north of Virginia), survey the surrounding 140-acre Wallingford estate and give thanks for one man’s hard work, dreams, and generosity. Owner Joe Gouveia shined shoes when he arrived in New Haven from Portugal at age 15, and even today you might see him mowing or pruning the grounds. But you’re more likely to notice lavish picnic spreads, since a bring-your-own-food (but no beverages) policy makes this the gathering spot that Gouveia and wife Lucy conceived: a place to converse, celebrate, and connect, Old World–style. 1339 Whirlwind Hill Road, Wallingford. 203-265-5526; [text_ad]


ADVENTURE LODGING: Sticks and Stones Farm

With an emerald moss mountain, a labyrinth, a stone barn, an open-air kitchen, and a spring-fed swimming hole, Sticks and Stones Farm is like an enchanted kingdom. It even has its own nature-attuned princess—though Celine Currier prefers the title of steward when it comes to this wooded 60-acre property in Newtown that her dad purchased in the ’70s. She’s determined to save it from development by expanding farm and commercial moss sales, hosting workshops, welcoming hikers and school kids, and renting out tent platforms and nine rustic yet magical cabins. The Solar Cabin, with a wood stove and sun-powered electricity, is the least primitive; Summit Cabin has majestic views; Mount Laurel Cabin is a vine-entwined love nest. 201 Huntingtown Road, Newtown. 203-270-8820;

CITY STAY: Even Hotel

It’s OK if you’re too shy to hit the state-of-the-art cardio and weight-training equipment in the fitness studio at this Norwalk establishment, the first outpost in the Even Hotels chain. Inspirational messages in your suite will motivate you to strengthen your core behind closed doors—which is a cinch, since in-room amenities include a stability ball, yoga mat, and resistance bands. Bed linens are all-natural eucalyptus fiber, EO toiletries are botanically based, and the Cork & Kale market and bar offers healthy dine-in or grab-and-go selections. Even the cocktails are handcrafted with fresh herbs, juices, and organic spirits. 426 Main Ave., Norwalk. 203-846-9355;

COUNTRY B&B: Abbey’s Lantern Hill Inn

Just a mile from the nonstop whirl of Foxwoods, grown-ups find blissful tranquility at this six-room, one-cottage inn in Ledyard. The casino and this country-lane hideaway do share one thing in common: Both have enticed travelers for 25 years. Seventh-year innkeeper Erika Hall is determined to show guests there’s more to this region. Breakfasts feature local, organic ingredients, and the “Groovy Stuff to Do” chalkboard in her kitchen encourages visiting craft breweries and farmers’ markets and venturing beyond the hammocks and fire pit in the yard. Miles of serene woodland trails begin behind the inn. 780 Lantern Hill Road, Ledyard. 860-572-0483;

DOG-FRIENDLY HOTEL: Madison Beach Hotel

A snuggly bed and a toy to take home are just the start at this plush waterside hotel, where dog-friendly ground-floor rooms have verandas for easy access to the outdoors. Although the beach is closed to canine vacationers Memorial Day through October, you’ll find a map of suggested dog-walking routes in your room. And while you savor locally inspired cuisine on the porch, your best friend can join you … and be a locavore too: The hotel treats dogs to Vista Vittles made in Connecticut by young adults with disabilities. 94 W. Wharf Road, Madison. 203-245-1404;

INN FOR FOODIES: The Copper Beech Inn

It’s natural to mourn the centuries-old, roadside copper beech tree that symbolized this 1889 mansion turned inn until the fall of 2016. But consider its demise your reminder that life’s too short not to indulge. Chef Carlos Cassar helms the kitchen at this Ivoryton classic, where you can design the ideal gourmet getaway, whether you’re the dress-up type or casual to the core. With 22 spacious, distinctly different rooms in three buildings; four indoor and garden-view outdoor dining spaces; seasonally and locally influenced menus; and an exceptional beverage list, no two stays are identical. 46 Main St., Ivoryton. 860-767-0330;

INN WITH A VIEW: Steamboat Inn

Downtown Mystic’s only waterfront inn overlooks the Mystic River and its famed bascule bridge, a work of mechanical genius that has fascinated observers for 95 years. Dockage is available, while rooms with water views and subdued nautical decor enhance the illusion of waking up on a yacht even for guests who only dream of boat ownership. Complimentary bikes make it easy to explore the local byways. Just be back by 5 p.m. for sherry and cookies and a seat on the dock, as late-day light glitters on river ripples. 73 Steamboat Wharf, Mystic. 860-536-8300;

LEARNING ESCAPE: The Spa at Norwich Inn

More than a destination for pampering, this Norwich country retreat offers learning opportunities for lasting wellness. Day spa and overnight guests can try beginner-friendly fitness classes like belly dancing and yoga, and discover new techniques for everything from meditation to makeup application. Register for a cooking class with chef Lee Masten, and you’ll take away healthy recipes and a new attitude toward mindful eating. 607 W. Thames St., Norwich. 860-425-3500;

OCEANSIDE B&B: Thimble Islands Bed & Breakfast

As the day winds down, innkeepers Julie and Tony Broom serve their guests wine and cheese on the porch, then trust nature for cinematographic action. It’s almost Disney-perfect, as egrets swoop, placid waters mirror animated clouds, and the sun sinks behind the storied Thimble Islands, turning skies pale violet and fiery peach. While eight of these tiny isles are for sale—for $78 million—the inn’s two water-view rooms (one with a jetted tub) offer privacy for a more down-to-earth price. 28 West Point Road, Branford. 203-927-5167;

VICTORIAN INN: Coastal Cottage Inn

From studying Running a Bed & Breakfast for Dummies to authoring The Innkeeper’s Diary, former model Pam Collins-Fisk has embraced the challenge of creating evocative settings where guests can write their own stories. Her eye for styling this turreted Victorian and its four guest rooms is enviable, as is her creativity: For breakfast, guests receive a gift certificate for Sweetie’s Bakery & Café, and this year—with the assistance of her husband, retired Navy captain Marcus Fisk—she’s debuting an option for romantic overnights afloat a 45-foot classic yacht. 302 Montauk Ave., New London. 339-788-0521



The brainchild of executive chef and co-owner Adam Young, along with wife Ebbie, this French-inspired bakery and exhibition kitchen is dominated by a long white marble counter, where row upon row of edibles are presented like fine works of art. We’re talking pastries, artisanal breads, flaky croissants, and crispy-chewy cookies and macarons, not to mention sandwiches and prepackaged snacks. Then there are the eye-catching desserts, such as the glossy, colorful fruit tarts (go for the Chardonnay-poached pear with baked almond filling), that are arguably the pièce de résistance of the pastry chef’s craft. 5 Water St., Mystic. 860-245-0541;

BARBECUE: Bear’s Smokehouse

Serving up Kansas City–style wood-smoked meats and signature house sauces at three locations, Bear’s is the go-to for serious ’cue. While it’s best known for hickory-smoked brisket and burnt ends, the kielbasa, pulled pork, and slow-smoked chicken are crowd-pleasers as well. Get a combo or family deal to supplement your meat of choice with authentic comfort-food sides: smoked barbecue beans, mac and cheese, collards, and cornbread, to name just a few. 25 Front St., Hartford; 2152 Poquonock Ave., Windsor; 454 Ellington Road, South Windsor. 860-785-8772;

BREWERY: Beer’d Brewing Co.

A key player in Connecticut’s burgeoning craft beer scene, Stonington-based Beer’d is one of the most popular microbrewers around. Its small size allows for maximum creativity and experimentation, yielding a constantly rotating lineup of brews that range from light and crisp to heavy and hoppy. Beer’d often collaborates locally, sourcing smoked hops from the Engine Room in Mystic and wine barrels (for beer aging) from Jonathan Edwards Winery in Stonington. The tasting room is open to the public Thursday through Sunday for samples and pints, but come prepared to bring home your own growler. 22 Bayview Ave. 15, Stonington. 860-857-1014;

BRUNCH: Bella’s Café

This cozy Westville neighborhood spot serves breakfast, lunch, and one of the most sought-after brunches in New Haven County. On weekends, lines begin forming early for a menu stuffed with such goodies as omelets and eggs Benedict made from farm-fresh eggs, Italian-style French toast, and stick-to-your-ribs shrimp and grits. 896 Whalley Ave., New Haven. 203-387-7107;

BURGERS: Engine Room

The burger choices at this Mystic eatery bring together a delicious mix of Connecticut and Rhode Island products. Exhibit A: The Mushroom Mae, a beef burger piled high with Rhode Island crimini mushrooms and Melinda Mae, a robiola-style cheese from the Mystic Cheese Co.; the finishing touch is an aioli flavored with roasted shallot and Worcestershire. The restaurant itself is a lively destination whose decor hints at the space’s previous life as the Lathrop Marine Engine building. 14 Holmes St., Mystic. 860-415-8117;


A Darien-based coffee bar and roaster with obsessive attention to detail, Neat has upped the ante for Connecticut’s coffee culture. Its carefully sourced single-origin beans are expertly roasted and brewed, ensuring your doppio, cold brew, or latte is a well-balanced work of art. 20 Grove St., Darien. 203-202-7215;


Smack-dab in the rural Litchfield County town of Washington, Community Table is home to the most forward-thinking Nordic-inspired cuisine in the state. But while many dishes and the elegant modern decor summon up Scandinavia, the ingredients are proudly New England. The frequently changing menu reflects collaborations with nearby farms and fishermen, as well as foraged wild ingredients and house-made honey and bread. Choose from à la carte offerings (a recent mouthwatering option: juicy lamb loin with roasted eggplant, apples, and licorice) or explore a tasting menu of 10-plus courses with wine pairings. 223 Litchfield Tpk. (Rte. 202), Washington. 860-868-9354;

FINE DINING: Le Petit Café

“Simple, fresh, and pure” is chef-owner Roy Ip’s culinary ethos, and it’s worked: His intimate French-inspired bistro in Branford has earned praise from the likes of The New York Times and is a perennial high scorer in the Zagat restaurant guide. You’ll need to plan ahead to enjoy Ip’s much-touted fare, as seating for the four-course prix fixe dinner is by reservation only. But whether you’re tucking into savory duck cassoulet, hearty steak au poivre, or any of the other options on the menu du jour, every bite will tell you it’s worth it. 225 Montowese St., Branford. 203-483-9791;

GOURMET FOODS: 109 Cheese & Wine

Founded in 2009 by the wife-husband team of Monica and Todd Brown, 109 Cheese & Wine is on a mission to help people understand and enjoy its namesake offerings through a wide-ranging list of classes, tastings, and dinners. More immediately, it purveys the best of cheese caves from around the world, both at its Ridgefield flagship—which has a companion shop selling wine and craft beer—and its newer Kent outpost, 109 Cheese. The shelves are filled with foodie staples such as charcuterie and artisanal crackers, while gourmets on the go will appreciate the elevated sandwiches (the standout: seasonal grilled cheese on buttery thin-sliced baguette). 109 Danbury Road, Ridgefield. 203-438-5757;

ICE CREAM: Ferris Acres Creamery

Standing in line for a scoop at this venerable dairy farm, you may well spot the herd of cows in the nearby rolling hills that call Ferris Acres home. The bucolic Newtown creamery boasts enough playful signature flavors to tempt anyone’s taste buds; we’re partial to Cow Trax (peanut butter ice cream with caramel swirls and mini chocolate chips) and Elvis’s Dream (vanilla ice cream with chunks of bananas, peanut butter swirls, and chocolate chips). 144 Sugar St. (Rte. 302), Newtown. 203-426-8803;

ITALIAN: Fortina

Specializing in Italian comfort food cooked simply in wood-fired ovens, Fortina proves that “fancy” isn’t an essential ingredient in a memorable meal. The menu at this Stamford standout comprises several of Italy’s greatest hits—antipasti, amazing pizzas, chicken parmigiana, pork braciole with “Sunday sauce”—while the energetic vibe draws both families and young city dwellers who keep Fortina crowded well into the evening. 120 Washington Blvd., Stamford. 203-703-9080;

LOBSTER ROLL: Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough

Pairing local seafood with Mystic River views, Abbott’s is a 70-year-old Noank institution. Open seasonally, the casual BYOB restaurant has just about anything a shellfish lover could desire but is best known for its signature hot lobster roll: a quarter pound of warm, succulent lobster drizzled with butter and served on a toasted hamburger bun. Those with heartier appetites are welcome to upsize to the 7-ounce “OMG” version or the full-pound “LOL.” 117 Pearl St., Noank. 860-536-7719; SEE MORE: Abbot’s Lobster in the Rough | Local Flavor

PIZZA: Krust

It’s true that an ample list of bourbon- and whisky-based cocktails has helped make Krust one of downtown Middletown’s most popular dining spots. And it’s true that Krust’s close proximity to NoRA Cupcakes doesn’t hurt either. But there’s little doubt that it’s the top-notch wood-fired pizzas that keep ’em coming back. Alongside standards like pepperoni, veggie, and sausage are a few intriguing combos, like the Brussels (cheese, garlic, Brussels sprouts, onions) and the Sunny Side (cheese, garlic, bacon, egg). 686 Main St., Middletown. 860-358-9816;

SEAFOOD:  The Whelk

Situated along the Saugatuck River, this chic Westport restaurant-bar starts things off right with unexpected but crave-worthy apps, like deviled eggs with fried oysters and pickled onions, and smoked trout dip with roe and crispy skin. From there, the menu transitions from small plates and raw bar (local oysters are a specialty) to seasonal specials and larger plates—an approach that encourages and rewards sharing. The overall theme of comfort seafood is embodied in such dishes as squid ink cavatelli and striped bass with artichoke barigoule. 575 Westport Ave., Westport. 203-557-0902;


No surprise that oysters and clams are the big draw here, with the restaurant’s daily selections pulled from the waters off Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. The raw bar menu may be simple, but it’s one of the shoreline’s best. Local favoritism runs through the turf side as well, with pasture-raised beef, artisanal cheeses, and other contributions from producers in the Mystic region. If a more informal vibe is your thing, head upstairs to the Treehouse (open seasonally) for clam shack–style offerings and stunning water views. 13 Water St., Mystic. 860-415-9266;

SEE MORE: Best New England Summer Events in 2017Best of New England | 2017 Editors’ Choice Awards