The Romance of the Lower Connecticut River Valley
Of all the New England states, I’ve probably spent the least amount of time in Connecticut. I suppose I’ve always unfairly imagined the entire state to be an extension of the traffic backups and urban sprawl that plague the stretch of I-95 near New York City. It’s never seemed like the kind of place anyone would want to visit for fun, but rather a sort of motorists’ gantlet where only those with NASCAR-level driving skills and the strategic aptitude of a professional chess player are guaranteed to make it to the border of the next state.
A recent trip to the Lower Connecticut River Valley changed my thinking.
The first great and unexpected treat was the drive. From the Merrimack Valley, it’s a simple matter of getting onto I-290 from I-495, following it to I-395 and then traveling a handful of scenic back roads. The whole trip, virtually traffic-free once you get through Worcester, takes about two hours.
Our destination was the Boardman House Inn in East Haddam. The town itself, a picturesque village perched on the banks of the Connecticut River, appears at first glance to be something out of a European fairy tale, with its gingerbread Victorian homes, old-fashioned swing bridge and stately Goodspeed Opera House.
About a five-minute walk from the center of town, the Boardman House is a five-room bed and breakfast in the former mansion of Norman Boardman, a member of a family of local silversmiths whose wealth and influence helped shape East Haddam’s character and charm. Built in 1860, the house was purchased by husband and wife Andre and Mia Hymander about 13 years ago. The couple, who emigrated from Sweden to East Haddam with their young son with the objective of opening a B & B, have fully renovated the property which had been vacant and neglected for some time. They have been quite successful at incorporating modern touches into the home’s design while staying true to its original form.
My husband, Rob, and I stayed in the Garden Suite. Located at the back of the house, this accommodation has a private entrance and covered porch — an ideal spot to relax in nice weather and take in the view of the garden and surrounding wooded hills. Along with the rest of the house, it was furnished almost entirely with antiques. We enjoyed them, the original oil paintings on the walls, the plush king-size bed, the separate sitting room and the spacious and quite modern bathroom.
Included in the room rate, breakfast at the Boardman House is a pleasure. We very much enjoyed Mia’s Swedish-style French toast and the lively conversation we had with her and Andre over several cups of coffee.
We walked to dinner at the Gelston House Restaurant and Inn. This gastropub, which occupies another grand old mansion, features upscale American dishes with some Eastern European specialties, including beef stroganoff and stuffed cabbage. The view of the river from the dining room is stunning, but it was cold and rainy the night we visited, so we opted for the coziness of the wood-paneled bar.
The next day, we went sightseeing. Our first visit was to the small town of Chester, about a 10-minute drive from East Haddam on the other side of the river. This diminutive collection of boutiques, restaurants and historic sites — surrounded by forest, gurgling brooks and outcroppings of bedrock — reminded me of towns I’ve visited in the Adirondacks. We also made a stop at Gillette Castle State Park, near the border of East Haddam and Lyme. Set high on a hill overlooking the river, the castle was built in 1919 by American actor William Gillette, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes on stage and in a 1916 silent film. Guided tours of the mansion, which is surrounded by acres of woodlands and hiking trails, are available Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Other things to check out in the area include the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat in Essex, a good place to visit with kids; the Connecticut River Museum, also in Essex; and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, home to a large collection of American impressionist paintings.
Among all its charms, perhaps my favorite thing about the Lower Connecticut River Valley is just how surprised I was by its natural beauty and serene charm. I’d return in a heartbeat.
Boardman House Inn
East Haddam, Conn.
Town of Chester
Gelston House Restaurant & Inn
East Haddam, Conn.
Gillette Castle State Park
East Haddam, Conn.