All rivers run to the sea, but few do it with such force and majesty as the Connecticut as it bisects its namesake state. No less a connoisseur of great rivers than Mark Twain chose to live out his days not far from its industrious banks. To follow the river is to trace Connecticut from the heart-of-New-England uplands where the Yankee peddler was born to the lush marshlands of Long Island Sound so beloved by the American Impressionists. (Be sure to cross the river on the Chester-Hadlyme ferry, in service since 1769.)
Along Connecticut’s sheltered coast, miles of sandy beach yearn toward the horizon, while deep harbors hold the submarine forces (and museum) of Groton and the salty maritime history museum of Mystic Seaport. Southward, Connecticut cozies up to New York, and somewhere en route you’ll cross the Chowder Line, where properly creamy New England clam chowder suddenly gives way to bowls of tomato-stricken Manhattan clam chowder. Still, it’s easy to forgive this culinary lapse when the folks of coastal Fairfield County break out their local oysters.
Despite the Gotham-hugging tendencies of communities on the commuter rail, upcountry Connecticut is as solidly New England as Currier & Ives depicted it. The Litchfield Hills and southern Berkshires thunder with springtime waterfalls, explode with the June blooms of mountain laurel, and glow scarlet and yellow when frost cracks the palette of autumn color.
History calls you to bear witness. Stand on the green in Litchfield and cast your eye toward a flurry of steeples and a broad crossroads where Beecher family preachers fought against slavery even before
Harriet Beecher Stowe penned “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” (To get the whole story, visit her home next door to Mark Twain’s in Hartford.)
Connecticut is often ahead of the curve. Hartford boasts the nation’s first public art museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, while New Haven (Yale’s art museums are no slouches either) can claim America’s first hamburger, still lovingly served at Louis’ Lunch. Coney Island types might contest Lake Compounce’s claim as America’s first amusement park (the Bristol, CT, park is more than 160 years old), but you won’t care as you scream your appreciation on the 180-foot plunge of the Sky Coaster.
The three-ring circus was born here, and the master of bunkum himself, Phineas T. Barnum, even served as the serious and capable mayor of Bridgeport. The Barnum Museum, open since 1893, chronicles both the city and the colorful career of its namesake. Even P.T. would be awed by the spectacles of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, where glittering fantasy casino complexes have sprouted in the tribal-owned wilderness. You don’t need to be a gambler to check in and catch some concerts.
Live theater fans have a choice of several top-flight professional companies, such as Yale Rep and Long Wharf in New Haven and the Hartford Stage Company. But to stay ahead of the pack, be sure to get tickets to the historic Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, where you just might catch the next big musical in development before it goes to Broadway.