The Last Green Valley in northeastern CT (and MA): An oasis of peace old-time nostalgia. Trails to hike, places to stay, meals to eat, gifts to buy, and what to do with the kids.
When You Go —Yankee-recommended places to hike, stay, eat, and shop in Connecticut’s Last Green Valley.
The skies don’t lie. From on high, looking down along the East Coast at night, we’re blazing away like Times Square squared, a crazy quilt of sparks illuminating the darkness. Look at us, everyone–our name in lights! A river of suburban wattage from Boston to Washington, visible from planes and satellites, flowing more or less ceaselessly.
Except … over there. A distinct patch of northeastern Connecticut and a bit of Massachusetts that’s noticeably still, remarkably dark. A break in the unrelenting mass of artificial brilliance that lights the night. So much so that airline pilots use this patch of darkness as a point of reference. And by day, it’s green. Deeply, profoundly green. The Last Green Valley, so they say.
Of course, it’s not really the last. But it is the last good-sized, unspoiled spot on the East Coast city-sprawl continuum: more than 1,000 square miles of peace and old-time nostalgia pressed between the Quinebaug and Shetucket rivers. A wide, quiet corridor of pretty villages and dreamy landscapes hidden within one of the most densely populated parts of the country. With Worcester to the north, Hartford to the west, and Providence to the east, this gorgeous chunk of green and its 35 rural towns are so precious, they’ve been federally recognized since 1994, when Congress conferred its mouthful of a designation: the Quinebaug and Shetucket Rivers Valley National Heritage Corridor. “Green” is more than just a word in this oasis: More than 70 percent of the Last Green Valley remains field, farmland, and forest.
Naturally, that means a superabundance of hiking, biking, and birding. Not so long ago, in fact, this region was known as “The Quiet Corner,” until its more recent incarnation as the romantic and appealing Last Green Valley. It could also just as easily have been called “The Friendly Corner,” once you begin exploring the intimate shops, offbeat cafes, and secret spots sprinkled liberally amidst the greenery.
But 1,000 square miles is a lot to explore in a weekend. Conveniently, Route 169, Connecticut’s second-longest National Scenic Byway, glides smack through the middle of the Last Green Valley. Thirty-two charmed, dotted-green miles running north to south, from Woodstock to Lisbon: a string of lovely little towns hung together like cool New England pearls, and not a mall in sight.
Using 169 as the compass centerline, we set off from Lisbon, heading north and taking detours wherever curiosity or a wandering stone wall called us on. Here are some highlights of what we found, along with some alternatives for exploring on your own.
‘Scenic Road Next 32 Miles’
With a sign like that to point the way, it’s a little like setting out for Oz. Right off, at Canterbury Cones, winner of our “most creative use of a recycled bus” award, latticework conceals the wheels of this sleek tin can on the outskirts of Canterbury, and jaunty shutters flip up to reveal a world of ice cream flavors.
Not long after, we take a quick detour up a winding road into Brooklyn, and feel a sense of anticipation as The Golden Lamb Buttery looms into view. With 1,000 acres spreading around this rehabbed barn, the Buttery has been an institution since 1963, as famous for its celebrity clientele (eager eater Roger Clemens landed his helicopter in the field) as for the four-star meals that emerge from its minuscule farm kitchen. The predinner appetizer is a leisurely hayride over the grounds, and new owner Katie Bogert, granddaughter of the original owners, will greet you personally.
Back on 169, we head past Lapsley Orchard (in early May, an explosion of blossoms) to Pomfret. This crisp, tiny, pre-Revolutionary War town, with its wide, Champs Elysees-like boulevard, is pretty and stately, with two top-notch prep schools spreading through the center. At the southern tip of town, the gallery/gift shop Celebrations, housed in a former Victorian B&B, highlights the work of 36 different artists: gifts on the first floor, fine art on the second, and an entire room devoted to tea. Take a moment to check out the Pomfret School‘s little Gothic gem, too: a stone chapel with lovely stained-glass windows.
Quiet as Pomfret is, it’s also the local hotspot: specifically the confluence of Routes 169, 44, and 97, or even more specifically, where the The Vanilla Bean Cafe meets Martha’s Herbary. One is a jumpin’ java joint/restaurant, a favorite of motorcyclists enjoying the call of 169. (They make zingy lemonade fresh daily, with crushed-up ginger.) The other is a tumble of a garden-and-gift shop, with items ranging from frog door knockers to herbs to colorful clothing.
Pomfret is also a great central location for jumping off the main road and exploring the subtleties of the Last Green Valley … which we do, veering over to Sharpe Hill Vineyard in Hampton, and perhaps the best-spent $5 of the trip. At the foot of a 40-acre rise of grapevines, it’s a refined scene right out of Brideshead Revisited. Five tastes for five dollars (“Ballet of Angels”–don’t miss its grapefruit snap), sitting on wicker chairs under wide old shade trees on a sunny Saturday afternoon. A hike to the top of the vineyard reveals panoramic views to Rhode Island and Massachusetts. That afternoon, on the terrace, diners spontaneously applaud a young couple’s engagement.
Naturally as we meander northeast to make our way back to 169, we sample the homemade selections at We-Li-Kit ice cream in Abington–then stop to admire the majestic Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, a bold, salmon-colored Gothic Revival confection with its own bowling alley and Victorian garden. A leisurely dinner on the patio behind The lnn at Woodstock Hill is the last thing I remember before falling into a plump canopy bed in a cozy corner room.
After all this effortless prettiness, we’re slightly unprepared for a side trip into Putnam. Billed as an antiques mecca, the town is comparatively gritty, but then it’s a fine line between shabby and chic these days, isn’t it? Putnam is well worth poking around in. Check out Antiques Marketplace, right in the town center; it’s got everything, from a samurai hat for $280 to Christmas ornaments from the late 1800s. Granted, a stream of motorcyclists zooms by our outside table at 85 Main (think of it as the noisy section of “The Quiet Corner”), but the place is hopping, the food is good (oysters are delivered fresh three times a week), and it’s the kind of spot where a biker dude will tear into a salmon salad.
Add to that the town’s River Trail, a 1.3-mile walk that hugs the meandering Quinebaug River, with interludes of rapids, kayakers, ducks, and a stone archway. And did I mention Bella’s Gourmet Market, next door to 85 Main? Possibly the best gelato I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve lived in Italy). On the same block, Victoria Station Cafe offers espresso and homemade pastries, and intimate nooks where the local knitting club hangs out.
Off the Beaten Track
But of course it’s the backdrop that makes the Last Green Valley special. And by now we’re itching to experience a few of the 130 miles of trails crisscrossing this corner of Connecticut. Mashamoquet Brook State Park on Route 44 in Pomfret is one of countless green spots; this one offers hiking trails and dozens of picnic areas sprinkled along the water. An initial steep ascent flattens out into John Muir-like woods, ferny glens, old stone walls, and paths crossed with slithering roots. Follow the red dots to Wolf Den, where, according to local legend, Israel Putnam shot the last she-wolf in the area.
Heading farther west to intersect with Route 198, we pass campgrounds galore, but if you’re in the mood for a late-day picnic, keep going to Diana’s Pool in South Chaplin, a hidden spot with more than a hint of drama. Keep a sharp eye out for the small street sign pointing the way. (If you hit Route 6, you’ve gone too far.) Slabs of rock and giant boulders create pools, falls, and natural picnic perches. A perfect place to soak tired feet.
Continuing on to Route 6 and heading back east toward Hampton, we come to one of the most unusual places in the Last Green Valley, the largest alpaca farm in Connecticut. At Safe Haven we meet the youngest of more than 100 residents–a five-day-old cria–and the fabulously eccentric owner, transplanted Texan Edie Roxburgh. “I saw an ad in Martha Stewart,” Edie recalls. “It said, ‘An investment you can hug.'” Plus, the gift shop–yarns and sweaters–is an education in texture and color.
Our final green moment in the Last Green Valley? Still River Cafe in Eastford, north of Natchaug State Forest, has garnered raves from the New York Times, and its Sunday brunch earns every star. Owned and run by two former attorneys, this place treats produce with reverence, and elegance is as effortless as breathing. Husband Robert Brooks works the organic garden; wife Kara cooks and designs the dishes, some of the prettiest food you’ll ever see. Bring your phone so the staff can guide you in. (Some locals may not give you directions, since Eastford was a dry town until the cafe applied for its wine and beer license.)
When we came home, we made plans to go back to the Last Green Valley, a breath of nostalgia mixed with a modern-day sensibility. There are more wildlife preserves to explore; heirloom turkeys, Highland cattle, and bison to enjoy; more villages and first-class dining to savor. I can’t imagine a nicer place to get lost in, or to fall off the map while springtime emerges all around.
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When You Go — Yankee-recommended places to hike, stay, eat, and shop in Connecticut’s Last Green Valley
Have you ever been to the last green valley?