All photos/art by Lisa Sacco
Time stands still in all the best places, but only for so long. As spring melts into Long Island Sound, the villages along the Connecticut shoreline stir and stretch, sloughing off winter’s crust. Midway along the coast, snow lets go of the edges of Hammonasset Beach, and before you know it, town greens up and down the Sound start living up to their name. Migratory birds flock overhead. Crocuses poke; tulips burst.
It’s only a 25-mile meander from Old Saybrook–Kate Hepburn’s well-bred stomping grounds–to Branford, an unexpected dining mecca. Along the way, spring unfurls furiously in towns as diverse as Westbrook, Clinton, Madison, and Guilford. Meanwhile, all the things that make these communities terrific in summer–pretty marinas, salt marshes, tucked-away restaurants, historic inns, bookstores, shops, and cafes–are still here, just less expensive and less crowded.
Speaking of time, here’s what the local voice of authority, Hepburn herself, opined to costar Sam Waterston, when the two were working together on The Glass Menagerie. “Your clock’s not ticking,” the somewhat-abrupt four-time Oscar winner informed Waterston. “And when it’s not ticking, you’re very, very dull. But when your clock is ticking, you’re very, very interesting. So start your clock!”
Our clock’s ticking. Let’s see what we find on a long weekend in Hepburn country.
Like ancient Mycenae, this area along the 110-mile Long Island Sound is a cradle of civilization–American-style. The basin was here before the glaciers, but once the ice came and went 18,000 years ago, it deposited a freshwater lake. Eventually the lake overflowed, carved out a gorge, and met up with the sea.
Native Americans inhabited the area, farming along the Hammonasset River. Poetically, they bequeathed us a word meaning “where we dig holes in the ground,” which children still do today at Hammonasset Beach. Dutchman Adriaen Block first wrote about the Sound in 1614, and European colonists began arriving a decade later. Old buildings and houses from the 1700s hunker close to the water; crisp white Colonials ring town greens like clothes bleaching on the line.
But there’s beauty with the history. Today, workers are dredging the marina in front of the Saybrook Point Inn, where my room overlooks the very spot where the Connecticut River meets the Atlantic. The sun rises over Griswold Point, and the marina is so quiet I can almost hear the panicked splashes of freshwater fish as they careen into the Sound, tasting salt for the very first time. In spring there are few boats bumping against the docks, no masts or yachts obstructing the view. Just me and a priceless panorama. The Rat Pack enjoyed it, too, back in the day; more recently, rumor has it, Beyonce.
There’s a reason why Hepburn lived a stone’s skip from here. Her sprawling home, in an area of Old Saybrook known as Fenwick, had glorious views of the water and a lighthouse, practically in her backyard. Fortunately, I can have all the perks of this lovely slice of the Sound without the property taxes. I can borrow a bike at the inn and pedal across the nearby causeway, and back in time, on the 10-mile Maple Avenue loop, past streets with names like Neptune, Seagull, Osprey, and Great Hammock Road. (Just saying those names probably lowers one’s blood pressure.)
In Old Saybrook itself, Hepburn is everywhere. A multimillion-dollar rehab turned the former town hall into “The Kate,” a cultural center alive with plays, films, and big-name performers. The best part is a mini-shrine of a museum just inside the doorway, with photos (including one of Kate climbing and pruning trees in her backyard), a documentary film, and exhibits that run the gamut from her canoe paddle to an Emmy Award.
I’m less prepared to encounter Hepburn at Tissa’s Le Souk du Maroc on Route 154, near the postage-stamp-size town green. Housed in a 1790 building, with an elegant, turn-of-the-century marble ice-cream counter, it’s the site of the former James Pharmacy. Today, this café/market sells everything from its signature “Moroccan Delight” ice cream to tagines, a sort of earthenware crockpot. Owner Kathleen Benjdid is of partial Moroccan heritage, and her husband, Mohammed, is from Tissa, near Fez. Kathleen puts a touch of ras el hanout–a mix of 21 herbs and spices, including cardamom–into my cappuccino, and it’s instantly exotic.
This was one of Kate’s favorite places to hang out, and, so the story goes, she credited her career to then-owner Anna Louise James, the first female African American pharmacist in Connecticut. Local lore has it that Kate, short on funds and with a New York audition coming up, borrowed bus fare from Miss James, and, of course, got the part. According to the establishment’s previous owner, Kate “loved her egg creams,” Kathleen says. “She would come behind the counter and help herself.”
Route 1 heading out of town, through Westbrook, reminds me of a rummage sale: You never know what you’re going to find. Stately Colonials and farms mingle with sprawling malls and commercial strips, whereas the stretch of road leading past Clinton’s small, triangular town green is lined, coming and going, with antiques stores and art galleries. Hey-Day Antiques grabs me with a streetside display that hints at the jumble of fishing lures, Quimper crockery, vintage circus posters, and Victoriana that sprawls through six rooms, making it a perfect wet-weather refuge.
But in Madison, I fall in love. Somewhere in each of us we have a personal checklist of essentials for the idyllic place to live. Mine includes a beautiful beach, a great bookstore, an art-film theater, and an assortment of interesting restaurants.
The pull here includes a terrific, Euro-style place to stay and a certain je ne sais quoi. This translates to a couple of fun French venues, notably the delectable Bar Bouchée, a gourmet hot spot with a handful of hard-to-score tables, and France-Amériques, where Jacqueline Guizol offers Gallic shirts of every stripe.
My room at the Inn at Lafayette, smack in the middle of town, takes me back to every atmospheric little European hotel I’ve ever stayed at, with its French doors and pale, pretty room. It’s over the dining room, so it’s quieter after 11 p.m., but the bonus is having Café Allegre‘s delicious, Italian-style meals just under my feet. Across the street is R. J. Julia Booksellers, the real deal, where Ralph Nader just happens to be in town for a book signing. In the evening, a petite stroll away, is Madison Art Cinemas, playing the latest foreign and independent films.
All of this is less than a five-minute drive from Hammonasset Beach State Park, with nature trails, more than two miles of sandy shoreline, and rustic picnic sites. At its farthest reach, Meig’s Point, ranger Russ Miller tours visitors through his quirky nature center. It’s stocked with turtles, mice, and snakes, including an enormous boa whose name morphed from Thor to Thoretta once certain discoveries were made. “The snake feeding on Fridays is very popular,” says Ranger Russ. “Standing room only.”
Snake feedings aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I realize that I could get into tea in a big way, after a rainy afternoon at Savvy Tea Gourmet, just off Madison’s Main Street. “I could blow your mind with amazing oolongs,” says tea savant Phil Parda, who’s been drinking, thinking, and sharing about tea for more than 40 years. “I could teach you things that would change your life,” and I believe him. He’s savvy and saturated with antioxidants.
But before I take on anything as drastic as a major life change, I’m headed a few miles west to historic Guilford Green, which unfurls like a flying carpet, a poster child for town commons. I’m unprepared for this spectacle, this Roman Forum of greens, a stupendous expanse of lawn and trees that commands attention and surrender.
Happily, everyone here seems to recognize this, because you’d swear the whole town has turned out to film It’s a Wonderful Life: 2012. On this spring day, teenagers are hanging out, children are screaming and running around on the sprouting grass, clusters of every-age folks are meeting and greeting, and there’s a pickup soccer game in progress. The dogs are smiling.
It’s also a green ringed by an assortment of cafes (Cilantro for freshly roasted coffee), shops (creamy fudge at The Village Chocolatier), and Impressionistic paintings of splashy sunflowers on doorways and fences, courtesy of Brendan Loughlin, the community’s resident Van Gogh.
A short walk from town, I’m at the oldest stone house in New England, the 1639 Henry Whitfield State Museum–a little piece of lovely history dropped among a scattering of apple trees. Still more stone buildings crop up farther along the Guilford Town Marina, with its enclave of edifices that look as though they’ve risen from the ground to cluster around the water, plus a lobster shack that was seemingly dropped in from Maine.
Leaving town on Water Street, I pass marshes waking up with peepers and wide breaks of tall, feathery grass. A quiet stretch of road, it winds under bridges, past handsome Colonials. A discreet sign directs me toward Stony Creek, and I make a quick detour, stopping in front of a magical scattering of houses rising from water.
The Thimble Islands are an archipelago of some 365 islands, depending on the tides and how you define an island. (Does a rock count?) Rest stops for migrating seals and landlubbers of means, they’re mostly private, some barely big enough to hold the houses that sit on them. If you’d like to thread your way through these Thimbles–places like Hen, Potato, and Little Pumpkin islands–past Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau’s house, or the spot where Captain Kidd supposedly buried his treasure, you can hop a local boat for a 45-minute narrated tour.
But evening is coming, and I push on toward Branford, the last stop on my shoreline sojourn. There’s a decent-size town green here, but what really knocks me out is the veritable United Nations of restaurants surrounding it: French, American, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Japanese, plus gourmet coffee, ice cream, vegan, and bagel cafés. Once again, I’ve worked up an appetite, and it seems I’ve come to the right place. In fact, my appetite for relaxation has been satisfied over and over in this friendly, off-season haven. An image comes back to me: I’m sitting in Willoughby’s in Madison, having my morning cappuccino. The door opens, and Belle walks in, carrying a tray. She’s 96, a wisp of a woman, and she’s wearing a jaunty faux-fur beret and a bright-red scarf. Her makeup is impeccable. “She does this every morning,” the woman sitting next to me whispers. “Last week we had a birthday party here for her.”
Belle walks over to my table, holding the tray in front of her. “Would you like a cookie?” she asks. “Or a grape? The Kit Kats are all gone.” I pick up a few grapes, and she gifts me with a smile. As I step back onto the street, the last thing I see is Belle, blowing me kisses.
For a slide show and an aerial tour of the Connecticut shoreline, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more