If I think on my most intense and thrilling memories of my latest New England road trip, the two days spent on the road along the last stretch of the Connecticut River are the most unforgettable.
This is the longest and most scenic river of the entire New England region and after streaming across four states (Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut), it peacefully flows into the Long Island Sound, the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean.
During its final flow, after reaching Connecticut, the river dives into an amazing vegetation, offering its best with breathtaking landscapes and glimpses; the river sweetly runs along country roads, cobblestone paths, historical buildings, castles, farms and charming villages from bygone times.
My journey starts from Hartford, Connecticut’s capital, in a pleasant and colorful early fall day.
The reason why I decided to visit this city is worth itself the whole journey. In fact, two great American writers spent a good part of their lives in Hartford: Mark Twain, author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer (written right in Hartford) and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Both their homes are neighbouring and peculiar (the two authors are tied by true friendship and respect), and today are transformed into well-finished house-museum (click here for more information).
Discovering these homes means plunging into an America that doesn’t exist anymore, that country that went through the Civil War and the struggle for the slaves’ emancipation.
The America of stories that tickle your awareness, of old wooden writing desks with quill feather ink pots, of ink stains of yellowed sheets of paper, of leather bound books and victorian houses with wooden verandas, flowers on the fence and squeeky rocking chairs in the front porch.
Hartford is one of the region’s oldest cities and it stores New England’s historical memory, thanks to its wonderful Old State House. This is the place where the first state Legislative Assembly took place and where one of the most famous trials of American history was conducted, that of Amistad’s prisoners.
Leaving Connecticut’s capital, I continued my New England road trip plunging into colors and
into the luxuriant nature of the Connecticut River Valley.
Just a short distance, passing through the I-91, I got to Dinosaur State Park, near Rocky Hill.
This is a muddy area where you can see hundreds of dinosaur footprints that are still there, dating back to 200 million of years ago. These footprints were discovered at the beginning of the twentieth century and are now preserved underneath a geothermal cupola.
This building is inside a beautiful naturalistic park and combined with a permanent exhibition that tells about history and evolution.
It is difficult to explain in words the emotion of walking in suspended semi-darkness (a transparent bridge all across this muddy depression where the dinosaur footprints are) over 200 million years of history. It is even more incredible if you think that all this is set inside a peaceful clearing in Connecticut.
From Rocky Hill I continued south towards East Haddam, stopping for a coffee in a strange diner at Middle Haddam, the Eggs Up Restaurant (at 1462, Portland Cobalt Rd). This place is a grill restaurant, with a really vintage look (they are fond of Route 66), where every course, abundant and nourishing, are all egg-based.
On the top of one of the most panoramic points of East Haddam’s hills, visitors can admire Gillette Castle, a reknown tourist attraction since the early 1900s.
This is a weird castle, a mixture of stone and little towers, built in 1919 from actor William Gillette, the first to play the part of Sherlock Holmes. The view from the top over Connecticut River is stunning and fully repays the 6$ entrance fee.
Right at the foot of Gillette Castle’s hill, coming down towards the river level, it is possible to get on a barge with your car and cross Connecticut River. This service has been on the go since the eighteenth century, and its name is Chester-Hadlyme Ferry that in more than just 5 minutes connects the two banks and gives passengers another spectacular view of the river and the castle.
Once you get off the barge, in a few minutes you can reach one of the prettiest places I saw along my journey: Chester.
This village seems to have come out from a fairytale: two streets that cross in a square, wooden houses painted by artists and antique dealers, a post office, a store that is also a diner, Simon’s Marketplace (the smoked salmon is delicious) and a series of little shops where you can find your bargain of the year.
Continuing along the right side of the river, towards the mouth, I finally get to enchanting Essex, an unmissable stop of a New England road trip.
Imagine a small peninsula on the river, tree-lined avenues, old wooden houses and sloping roofs, well-kept gardens, lighthouses, sailing boats and a history full of tales about rhum and tobacco trading along the river.
Essex is a postcard, a freeze-frame on what the area must have been in the past centuries; Essex’s inhabitants are really kind and welcoming and they dedicate themselves to keep everything just as it was and unchanged with the passing of time.
My advice is to include Essex with an overnight stay during your New England road trip, so that you can get the most from it, calmly visit the town and the famous Connecticut River Museum and its numerous antiques and novelty shops, typical of this region (do you know that there is also a shop which only sells Christmas items and is open all year round?).
Since there is high demand, I advise you to book in advance an overnight stay in one of the most famous and cherished inns in New England, the Griswold Inn, on the go since 1776.
If you have time, leave your car and enjoy another original experience along the river, from Essex to Deep River (near Chester).
I’m talking about Essex Steam Train & Riverboat Ride, an old steam train that travels along Connecticut River and gives you an atmosphere and views from bygone times.
A return journey lasts more or less an hour and costs 17$. Once you get to Deep River, you can add a sail along the river, lasting more or less 1 hour and 30 minutes, to admire an elegant Victorian concert hall, dating back to 1876, the Goodspeed Opera House.
One of the reasons why I would like to go back and discover more and talk about New England is its harmony.
It is a share of real America.
The first America, the one of the origins, of the founders, of traditions, history, habits and sunsets on your front porch; at the same time, the America of moving landscapes, pure nature, culture and even of innovation.
All of this in a perfect balance of sobriety and charm.
What many define as New England Style.