Nonstop Adventure: Essex, Connecticut
Where history, traditional pleasures and an easy-going lifestyle abound.
By B.C. Rausch
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV) to Tweed New Haven Airport (HVN)
Duration: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Airline: Avelo (Mondays and Fridays)
Recommended rental: BMW 5 Series (Sixt)
Essex, Connecticut, is a picture-postcard town with an inviting Main Street for strolling and shopping. According to one local, “Essex has become our own Newport in miniature. Main Street is pristine.”
From Savannah Hilton Head Regional Airport, Avelo Airlines offers in-season, twice-a-week nonstop flights to New Haven, Monday and Friday, scheduled perfectly for a New England long weekend.
On the way to Essex from Tweed New Haven Airport, stop at the world-class Hen and Heifer Bakery in Guilford. According to a local foodie, “it is really my favorite bakery — anywhere.”
Covering 10 square miles, Essex is made up of three villages—Essex Village, Centerbook and Ivoryton. Its location along the west bank of the Connecticut River affords natural beauty and brings vitality to the community, which is enhanced by the Falls River watershed that courses through the three villages before flowing into the Connecticut River.
Be sure to bring your walking shoes: Local open-space preserves feature 32 miles and 73 hiking trails, and the best way to explore is by foot. A long-time local suggested starting on North Main Street and walking to the Colonial-era River View Cemetery, which sits on a majestic piece of riverfront property with views of the islands and across from Old Lyme.
Essex’s Main Street offers upscale women’s clothing retail, children’s shops, chocolates, and other specialty boutiques. An amble down Main Street to the Connecticut River will find plenty to satisfy.
The Essex Art Association Gallery, housed in a historic schoolhouse at 10 N. Main St., was founded in 1946 by a group of avant-garde artists. It’s open during the summer, showcasing regional artists with six shows a season.
Continue down Main and over to Riverview Street to Foxboro Point, which offers more stunning views of the river and marshes. Along the route you’ll pass many historic homes and soak up the charm of the town.
The Connecticut River Museum, located at the end of Main Street in a restored steamboat warehouse, is home to numerous river artifacts and maritime history, including the “American Turtle Submarine,” considered America’s first underwater war vessel.
All that walking is sure to work up an appetite. There are two places downtown for coffee: Essex Coffee + Tea and Olive Oyl’s. The latter, located in a former gas station, is ideal for sandwiches, soups and salads. Drive a few minutes north to The Whistle Stop in Deep River for homemade breakfasts.
The Griswold Inn, circa 1776, hosts sea shanty singers in its historic Tap Room bar (named among the top 100 bars in America by Esquire Magazine) and is a great place for a pre- or post-dinner drink. Also in “The Gris” is The Wine Bar, which serves goose mousse pâté on grilled crostini and a signature fondue, with a vast wine selection.
Other good dining choices include the bar at Carlson’s Landing, with its view of the local boatyards, and the pub at The Black Seal seafood restaurant.
While dining options are limited in the Village of Essex proper, the Copper Beech Inn (Ivoryton), The Red House (Deep River), and Liv’s Oyster Bar (Old Saybrook) are minutes away.
The town of Essex celebrates numerous traditions, including its annual Groundhog Day parade. A nine-foot, paper-mache groundhog named “Essex Ed” is carried through town with revelers making noise to rouse him from his slumber and bring an end to winter. The town also sponsors a “Loser’s Day Parade” each spring, which recognizes the 1814 burning of 29 ships in Essex Harbor during a raid by the British.
Tired of walking? Take the popular Essex Steam Train. Its main station is in Centerbrook, with stops in Deep River, Chester and Haddam. The train’s route goes from Essex to Deep River.
Centerbrook also offers some great eats. Savour Café and Bakery is a sweet spot for scones, cupcakes, tarts, pastries and light meals. Surfridge Brewing Company, located in the former Dickenson Witch Hazel factory, is young and a little noisy but makes up for it with unique beers and wood-fired pizza.
Another dining option, in the neighboring town of Old Saybrook, is La Marea, a favorite for pizza. as well as a full Italian menu. Snag a high-top table in the bar for the best view of the open kitchen.
La Cocotte in Old Saybrook is notable for croissants and “egg-centric” meals. Housed in the historic James Pharmacy, it’s right down the road from the village of Fenwick, with its shingled cottages and former home of Katharine Hepburn. Pop into Dagmar’s in Old Saybrook for the best stollen, scones and German-baked items.
Old Saybrook also is the hub for grocery shopping and culture. The 200-seat Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center (“The Kate)” hosts a wide variety of top performances, from plays to music, comedy to films.
The quintessential small New England town, Essex — and its neighbors — fill up fast, so make reservations early if you want to stay. The Griswold Inn has 33 rooms, and the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton only 22. You can find other options further away, but to truly appreciate the traditional pleasures and easy-going lifestyle, try to stay local. It’s worth it.