First, a warning: if you visit these towns, in the lower Connecticut River Valley, you might not want to leave. Their combination of nautical, industrial, and beautiful is enticing. If you manage to pull yourself away, you’ll almost surely want to return.
Essex Village, one of three villages comprising the town of Essex, is located above where the Connecticut River meets the Sound. The town is as crisp and bright as the bunting that hangs from the windows of its freshly-painted buildings. People here are friendly, and the atmosphere is calm.
At the end of Main Street (literally; drive any further and you’ll go down a boat ramp) is the Connecticut River Museum, a good place to get a sense of the area you’re about to explore. Inside you can find the first submarine (Connecticut-made), a dramatic painting of the disastrous 1814 British raid on Essex (“They burned our ships and stole our rum!”), and life-sized historical figures who “speak” (Lion Gardiner has a teddibly proper English accent) through “phones.” But the best exhibit may be the simplest: a two story mural, winding up the staircase walls, of the Connecticut from Long Island Sound to its Canadian origins.
Stop for a beverage and a gooey confection at Essex Coffee & Tea Company, located (of course) in an adorable house, and then stroll about admiring historic buildings and browsing in tourist-friendly yet original shops.
You don’t have to stay at the 1776 Griswold Inn to visit its Goods & Curiosities store across the street, which somehow packs everything you never knew you wanted into a few rooms. The unpretentious Partners Antiques has glass bottles, huge wooden spools, and surprising deals in the small sale room. Weekend Kitchen sells both practical and adorable implements for cooking and eating, and French Hen and A Pocketful of Posies stock sweet-smelling luxuries and thoughtful gifts.
Deep River, just up Route 154, is not as shiny as Essex or as posh as Chester. But is has a wonderful, sleepy authenticity all its own. The distinctive flat-iron Town Hall, at Main and Elm, is all-American Main Street with a little twist. (The elephant statue outside refers to the town’s history producing ivory objects like piano keys and buttons.) Many shops (like Chaos, which sells jewelry and unusual knick-knacks in an 1830 house) are so tiny that careful maneuvering is required while checking out their eclectic wares.
At the Whistle Stop Cafe, a small, bright greasy spoon known for delicious breakfasts, you can eat indoors or sit outside, watching bikers zoom past.
A short drive from Main Street is Deep River’s Town Landing, where you can watch the boats on the lazy Connecticut River from a gazebo or a viewing platform. The historic Freight Station nearby is a reminder of the town’s busier days.
Chester is often described as having a European feel. And something about its crooked, hilly streets, its bright colors, and its meticulously curated shops and restaurants does set this place apart from other 17th century Connecticut towns.
Many storefronts here are occupied by artists’ studios and galleries like Hammered Edge, which sells fanciful masks as well as beads, jewelry, and enticing finds from around the world. The other shops feel almost gallery-like too. The hand-painted Italian dinnerware at Ceramica is stunning, and a different kind of beauty can be found amidst the plants, feathers, and spices at the tranquil R.J. Vickers Herbary. If you need a snack or a Chester souvenir, stop at Simon’s Marketplace for gourmet foods on one side and a something-for-everyone gift shop on the other.
Chances are you’ll come across something special going on: a parade, festival, fair, or weekly market. Chester, like Deep River and Essex, seems to respond to outsiders passing through by developing an even stronger sense of itself.
If you go:
Connecticut River Museum, 67 Main Street, 860-767-8269, Tues - Sun 10 am - 5 pm, www.ctrivermuseum.org, Members, free, Adults, $8.00, Seniors, $7.00, Children age 6-12, $5.00, Children under age 6, free
Essex Coffee & Tea Company, 51 Main Street, 860-767-7804, Mon - Sat, 7 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sun, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m., www.essexcoffee.com
The Griswold Inn Store - Goods & Curiosities, 47 Main Street, 860-767-0210, Open Daily, http://www.griswoldinn.com/the_store/index.html,
Partners Antiques, 7 North Main Street, 860-767-1877, www.facebook.com/pages/Partners-Antiques/161412643882919
Weekend Kitchen, 6 North Main Street, 860-767-1010, Mon - Fri 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sat 10:30 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sun Noon - 5 p.m., www.weekendkitchenct.com
French Hen, 16 Main Street, 860-767-778, Mon – Sat, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sun, Noon - 5 p.m., www.thefrenchhen.blogspot.com/
A Pocketful of Posies, 12 North Main Street, 860-767-1959, Wed - Fri, 11:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Sat, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sun 12 p.m. - 4 p.m. www.apocketfulofposies.com
Whistle Stop Café, 108 Main Street, 860-526-4122, Mon - Sun, 7:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m., www.facebook.com/pages/Whistle-Stop-Cafe/85667054824
Chaos, 114 Main Street, 860-526-6878, Wed - Sat 10:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m., www.chaos-boutique.com/
Hammered Edge Studio & Gallery, 4 Water Street, 860-526-1654, Wed - Sat 11 a.m. - 6 p.m., Sun, Noon -5 p.m. or by chance or appointment, www.hammerededge.com
Ceramica, 36 Main Street, 800-270-0900, Mon - Sat 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sun Noon -5 p.m., www.ceramicadirect.com
R.J. Vickers Herbary, 26 Water Street, 860-526-4061, Wed - Sun 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. www.rjvickersherbary.com,
Simon’s Marketplace, 17 Main Street, 860-526-8984, Open Daily, www.simonsmarketplacechester.com