1. Where to Stay
Operating since 1776, the Griswold Inn (from $100) in Essex joined the new millennium last year when it added a mahogany-lined wine bar, a welcome contrast to the neighboring rooms’ collection of Currier & Ives prints and fifteenth-century firearms. After sampling one of 50 wines by the glass, retire to one of the 31 guestrooms with sloping pine floors, claw-foot tubs, and antique beds.
A few miles west, in Ivoryton, the 160-year-old Copper Beech Inn (from $195) is wrapping up five years of renovations. Eleven of the thirteen guestrooms now have Italian-marble bathrooms with heated floors and deep hydro-massage tubs, and all are outfitted with London-imported Penhaligon toiletries. The main dining room will also get a face-lift in May.
The Saybrook Point Inn & Spa (from $219), two exits south of Essex on Route 9, has recently jumped on the green bandwagon. In addition to no-brainer improvements like using energy-efficient lighting, coasters have replaced cocktail napkins in the bar, and two pools are filled with saltwater instead of chlorine. Also helping you sleep easier: pillow-top beds and the sounds of lapping water (half the guestrooms have river views).
2. Where to Eat
Open since last summer, the Brasserie Pip has revved up Ivoryton’s dining scene with its chirpy yellow walls and Parisian sensibilities. Escargot, hanger steak with tarragon butter, and homemade baguettes are menu staples. The bar opens an hour before the kitchen if you’re especially thirsty for a vodka cocktail infused with fresh lemongrass and ginger.
New York restaurateur Jonathan Rapp (Etats-Unis) is at the helm of his Chester restaurant, River Tavern, on Saturdays and Sundays (he’s a part-time resident of neighboring Deep River). Fresh from renovations that left the southern chestnut walls gleaming, the tight quarters are jammed with locals lining up for daily changing dishes, made-to-order guacamole, and date pudding for dessert.
Come May 13, local celebs like Dominick Dunne can be seen slumming it at the Blue Oar in Haddam. More backyard barbecue than blue-blood yacht club, it’s fantastically casual with picnic tables overlooking the river and burgers, hot dogs, steamers, and lobster rolls on the menu. Pets and store-bought beverages permitted.
For a mid-day nosh, pick up a crab-cake sandwich or one of the daily blackboard specials from Olive Oyl’s (79 Main St.; 860-767-4909), a gourmet shop in Essex. The best place for a picnic: the Steamboat Dock at the foot of Main Street. Whatever you don’t eat, the mallards and gulls will gladly snap up.
3. What to Do
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.
4. Insider’s Tip
Though the Ivoryton Playhouse has an impressive history and a devout community following, no one should feel compelled to sit through May’s production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Instead, yuk it up with the cast after the show at the razzy old Ivoryton Tavern & Café (8 Summit St.; 860-767-1449) across the street. Enormous burgers, pints of Bass, and an open mike often lead to spontaneous sing-alongs and theatrics you’re unlikely to catch onstage.
5. An Oddball Day
Southeastern Connecticut is no Napa, but its vintages rival most of what’s coming out of North Fork, New York. Plus, you don’t have to deal with throngs of tourists at the area’s mostly undiscovered wineries. Start 30 miles east of the Connecticut River at Stonington Vineyards with some of the new Triad Rosé, a nice spring refresher. Pass back across the river to Clinton’s Chamard Vineyards, where you can sip and swish some Chardonnay and Cabernet Franc on the winery’s grand deck, overlooking twenty acres of budding grapevines. Fill up your belly with antipasto and Sicilian pastas at NuNu’s Bistro in Colchester before finishing the wine tour at nearby Priam Vineyards. Award-winning wines include the semi-sweet Jeremy River White and the full-bodied Bordeaux blend, Salmon River Red.
6. Related Links
Hit the ground running—or walking, as the case may be—with a detailed map of Essex sights.
Food critiques from all of the local newspapers are conveniently compiled at CTnow.
The city of Chester’s general tourism site regularly updates its events calendar with everything from gallery openings to road races.