Weekend hideaways in Connecticut
FROST on the pumpkin always adds urgency to the prospect of planning wonderful weekend getaways. Whether you're charmed by walks through the glories of fall foliage, or yearn for a blazing hearth after invigorating forays on cross-country skis, or love poking around dusty antique shops searching for treasures, Connecticut's pocket-size places are perfect. Miles of splayed harbors front on Long Island Sound, while lazy rivers embroider spotless clapboard towns. Almost like an old quilt, patched with a fragment of wool and mended with scraps of chintz, Connecticut's valleys are so diverse that traveling here feels much like exploring the English countryside.
But with all its richness, Connecticut's natural treasures are surprisingly unknown. This, the southernmost state in New England, is often ignored as travelers rush north to find the ``real New England.'' Whether it has been dismissed for being too accessible to major roads or too near the sprawl of New York to feel rural, Connecticut has blossomed alluringly despite the snub.
Overnighting choices are many, in gentle country inns and dignified homes that have turned into bed-and-breakfast establishments. There is even a splendid hostelry that calls itself an inn but feels more like a small deluxe European hotel. All boast different but interesting architecture. All repose in attractive settings, serve (or are near) unusually fine cuisine, and offer a range of things to do when your energy is in high gear.
Take the Farmington Valley. Distinguished by the Colonial towns of Avon, Farmington, and Simsbury, this area nine miles west of Hartford is an engrossing place for history buffs to tarry. It has represented prime real estate since 1636, when a group of settlers bought 165 square miles of ``good farming land'' from the Tunxis Indians. The romance and prosperity of Farmington village, which later became a frequent stop for slaves on the underground railroad route to Canada, thrive in well-bred distinction. Many credit its preservation to Sarah Porter, who founded a school for young ladies on Main Street in 1843. Today the stately academic buildings of Miss Porter's School for Girls fill the heart of the village. They represent every major design trend through the 20th century, as well as some of the most perfectly articulated and well-preserved architecture in America.
Many picturesque secondary boarding schools draw visitors, but the complex of the Avon Old Farms School in Avon is a magnet for the students of architecture. Here, 21 Tudor-style buildings emerge from 900 wooded acres as an authentic English village at the end of a long winding drive. Soft red stone dormitories and cottages replete with leaded glass windows and sharply tilted roofs embrace wide green courtyards. Designed and built by Theodate Riddle, America's first woman architect and one of the few survivors of the sinking of the Lusitania, the school reproduces her memories of the Cotswolds.
Riverdale Farms in Avon offers a change of pace in buildings that were once a part of a 19th-century dairy farm. More than 30 specialty shops feature unusual choices of country clothes, antiques, fishing and wilderness equipment, ceramics, and fine china. There is even a shop devoted entirely to teddy bears. You don't have to stray far for lunch. Chanticleer Caf'e offers light French fare. For more browsing, Brick Walk Lane in the center of Farmington follows the meandering Farmington River to the Grist Mill, where an assortment of more high-quality stores are incorporated into the restoration of one of New England's oldest mills.
Farmington Valley locals have traditionally played host to visitors at neighboring boarding schools in a kind of loosely woven network of bed-and-breakfast accommodations. Now Maxine Kates's Nutmeg Bed and Breakfast ensures a warm welcome (even if you don't have a child at any of the schools) in homes that range from a grand Tudor mansion with swimming pool and paddle tennis court to a sprinkling of historic homes in the village. The Barney House, a peach-colored 1832 mansion on 4 acres of lawns, formal gardens, pool, and tennis court, is a grand-style B&B run by the University of Connecticut Foundation. Even when the seven spacious bedrooms are full, the gracious house feels uncrowded. The Avon Old Farms Inn, a 1757 hotel-turned-restaurant, whose Sunday brunch causes a weekly traffic jam, is directly across the street from the Avon Old Farms Hotel.
In a class by itself is the recently restored Simsbury House in Simsbury. The rambling gray-and-white brick Colonial-style building, with three delicate fanlights spanning the entrance, was completed in 1822. In 1890 its gardens were redesigned by Frederick Law Olmsted, celebrated designer of the Boston Public Garden and New York Central Park. Rescued from years of neglect by Simsbury House Associates, the house and carriage house are now a showplace of 34 luxurious bedrooms, tastefully decorated public rooms, and an elegant candlelit dining room.
There are two outstanding restaurants in the area. Apricot's terrace is directly above the sweep of the Farmington River. Inside the converted trolley barn, a warren of small antiques-filled rooms encourages diners to linger over Ann Howard's gourmet cooking. Hop Brook, named for the placid brook it straddles, is an authentic 1680 gristmill. The dark red wooden building, accessible by a small pedestrian bridge, is evocative of another time. After dusk, its deep green interior walls seem to vanish into the artfully lighted outdoors. Both subterranean rock formations and gnarled old rafters combine easily with an abundance of brass on four levels of dining. And the menu! Modestly describing their cooking as New American Cuisine, the chefs have created imaginative choices incorporating local specialties and New England fare. Hardwood or mesquite grilling and home-grown herbs transform tastes into memorable cuisine.
About an hour and a half west of the Farmington Valley, the spruce-clad Litchfield Hills seem to appear rather suddenly. Towns bustling with contemporary civilization fade into the distance, replaced by neat farmsteads. Horses play tag in rolling meadows. Graveyards with uneven rows of granite markers testify to the age of this place. Just beyond the village green and well-ordered shops of Litchfield, Connecticut's lakes fill the horizon. Lake Waramaug, which the Indians called ``good fishing place,'' is the second-largest lake in the state. Although its sheltered eight-mile circumference has long been a favorite holiday destination, the area has never succumbed to uncharted growth. It is a place where birds ride the wind and dramatic views guarantee that one's sense of wonder remains very much intact.
``These are our hills and dales,'' says Bobby Coombs, innkeeper at The Inn at Lake Waramaug. We have such strong community spirit, we will never let it change.'' This no-nonsense lady, whose clan has operated the inn since 1952, is equally instinctive about her guests. I arrived late one evening after a cold, wet drive. Gently she urged: ``Why don't you relax for a bit before dinner. I'll light the fire.'' Within moments the glowing hearth dispelled both fatigue and chill. Surrounded by mellow antiques, Hitchcock chairs with faded stencils, polished brass, and abundant arrangements of dried flowers, I felt warm and pampered.
The inn has 25 rooms in three buildings. In fall and winter, 16 fireplaces in guest and dining rooms offer their own special coziness. If you prefer solitude, there's plenty of that, but there are also many other options. After the first snowfall and freeze, bells jingle on horse-drawn sleighs and locals become ice fishermen on the lake's mirror surface. Walking is a regular pastime, but there are antiques shops, fairs, and flea markets for browsing, and many Swiss and Austrian restaurants for delectable sampling.
For a complete change of pace, head directly across the state to Connecticut's ``Quiet Corner.'' Once you're safely on the meandering country roads that link one village to another, it is impossible not to feel part of a Currier and Ives painting. Happily, the buzzing highways that connect certain places and isolate others have bypassed this area, ensuring its peace for posterity. Uneven stone walls surround meadows and orchards on the landscape around Woodstock, Thompson, and Brooklyn. Historic homes, spanning every age since the 17th century, cluster around village commons. Town fairs, craft shows, and art exhibitions are frequent happenings.
This is the place to sample the homey style of real Yankee bed-and-breakfasting. Of the dozens that pepper the area, accommodations with a comfortable Colonial flair can be enjoyed at the pumpkin-colored General Samuel McClellan House in Woodstock. Authentic architectural details like the 1769 central chimney and original cupboards enhance the stamp of antiquity, while dainty chintzes make guests feel right at home. But owner Nancy Simonds is not only an innkeeper; her across-the-road Bald Eagle Restaurant has been a favorite of local gourmands for years.
But Connecticut's inns are not all historic or necessarily draped in chintz. The Inn at Mill River in Stamford, just minutes off the frenzy of I-95, offers quietude, with a more formal but definitely caressing hand. Tiny white lights outline trees and bushes; the flower-filled lobby is paved in Italian marble. Accommodations include small suites filled with fine reproductions of antiques. Chances are you'll get to know some of Connecticut's hidden places as one gently leads to another. Whether your ideal weekend destination implies grandeur or assumes country simplicity, Connecticut's Yankee welcome can become very habit-forming.