The best thing about the newly renovated Connecticut River Museum isn't the nautical relics on display—it's the prime riverside location. Head out back to the museum’s dockside benches, where you can gaze on the parade of yachts and sailboats sliding by. To really experience the life aquatic, rent a kayak from Pier 76 in Westbrook and take a four-hour cruise up and down nearby Patchogue River. It has weaker tides and less boat traffic than the Connecticut River.
After a morning paddle, explore the boutiques of Essex, once filled with dowdy shoe stores and Lilly Pulitzer outposts, now lined with spots like Fenwick Cottage (2 Essex Sq.; 860-767-1251) and its fashionable home accessories. The culinary shop Weekend Kitchen recently booted out a crusty antique store, while a newly renovated J. Alden offers modern prepwear from Burberry and others. Just down Main Street, River features plush housewares and, starting this May, gorgeous flower arrangements.
Also new to town: the Spa of Essex, housed in a former nursing home. Alternate between an oxygen facial, hot-stone massage, and enzyme peel, and import meals from the Griswold when hunger strikes.