Connecticut a playground for grown-ups

LA Times | Travel

When I planned this trip to Connecticut, I expected to be awash in a sea of blue blazers, pink polo shirts and cream-colored sweaters knotted around the tanned necks of lacrosse players. The upper-crust area I planned to visit, in the picturesque northwestern region of Connecticut, is Preppy Cent...

By Rosemary McClure // 07.17.09

When I planned this trip to Connecticut, I expected to be awash in a sea of blue blazers, pink polo shirts and cream-colored sweaters knotted around the tanned necks of lacrosse players. The upper-crust area I planned to visit, in the picturesque northwestern region of Connecticut, is Preppy Central; it's also a playground and retreat for Oscar de la Renta, Henry Kissinger, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon.

So I was focused on two things when I arrived: ogling celebrities and making polite conversation with people named Muffy or Atherton.

I didn't expect my first encounter to be with the huge black bear that lumbered across the road in front of my car. I careened to a stop and hoped the bear wouldn't want to share my cheeseburger.

It didn't, so I quickly hit the road again, bound for new sights and adventures in the Nutmeg State.

Connecticut, wedged between New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is about 1,000 square miles larger than Los Angeles County. In exploring its scenery and inns in the northwest and beyond, I found a state rich in rolling landscapes, peaceful towns and quaint fishing villages.

I also found that inns are special places here. When a hotel has catered to guests for a couple hundred years -- give or take a few decades -- it has the hospitality thing down cold.

Connecticut and its innkeepers have been making visitors feel welcome for eons. In fact, George Washington often visited the region. Local residents were so eager to make him feel welcome that they renamed their village Washington.

Today, the village looks much as it did a century ago -- a quiet, pretty town full of steepled churches, Colonial-style houses and a village green. The local historic commission asserts that it's one of the most unspoiled towns in the state. That may be why Joan Rivers, Conan O'Brien and a host of old-money families have homes here.

If it was good enough for them, it would make a good base for me. Besides, Washington is surrounded by some of the state's most luxurious inns, not surprising, given its proximity to Manhattan (about 90 miles).

"A lot of stressed-out New Yorkers hop over here for the weekend," said Ben Webster of Mayflower Inn & Spa, an elegant country house in Washington. I looked around at lushly landscaped grounds that segued into verdant woods; the Mayflower, I learned, edges up to the Berkshire Mountains.

"People must love to go hiking here," I said.

"Actually, a walk is about all they want," Webster said. "The biggest hike most of our guests ever take is up Fifth Avenue."

The inn, with 30 rooms, prides itself on its award status: five diamonds from the American Automobile Assn. and five stars from Mobil. The décor has an old-world ambience; beds are plush concoctions. "It takes housekeeping 45 minutes to make each one," Webster said.

There's also the spa, which "Good Morning America" has branded the nation's best. It offers 20,000 square feet of pleasure, including an indoor pool, treatments, fitness classes and cuisine.

With overnight rates that start at $550, the Mayflower isn't for everyone, including me. But its restaurant serves lunch. And the 58-acre grounds are worth seeing, so I tried a crab cake ($20) and then strolled the green-on-green acreage, prepared to act nonchalant if I spotted a celebrity. None appeared, but I did run into Tomako and Nick Edwards of Greenwich, N.Y., who were doing the same thing as I.

"The inn is one of our favorite places," Tomako said. "We can't stay away for long."

When I left, I took the Edwardses to visit the area's galleries and antiques shops. Many of the towns surrounding Washington -- Kent, Litchfield, Woodbury -- draw a steady clientele of antiques buffs. A 20-minute drive took me to Woodbury, nationally known for its antiques row: a six-mile strip packed with dealers and crawling with Muffys and Athertons.

I moved on to Winvian, Connecticut's Inn With a Difference. I'd heard a lot about Winvian, a whimsical fantasy near Washington, but I was unprepared for the surprises on this 113-acre estate.

The inn is made up of 18 cottages designed by 15 architects, each with a separate theme. You'll find a treehouse, a log cabin, a greenhouse, even a helicopter cottage, with a real Coast Guard copter inside.

Big kids never had it so good.

But it's not for little kids. As owner Maggie Smith says, "You can bring your horses or dogs. But you can't bring children." Like most of the inns in this story, Winvian is an adult retreat. So adults can act like kids without any competition.

My favorite of the several I peeked into was the camping cottage, in the middle of seemingly endless woods. Everyone should be lucky enough to find a campsite like this: Floor-to-ceiling windows bring the outdoors in. At night, stars glow on the ceiling; during the day, there's a bright blue sky. If you tire of the great outdoors, you can pop up the flat-screen TV in the compartment at the end of your bed.

Winvian, named for Winthrop and Vivian Smith, who once owned the property, also has a 5,000-square-foot spa and an award-winning restaurant. All-inclusive rates start at $1,250 a night per couple; the accommodations-only rate is $750 per night.

My first two Washington-area inns, the Mayflower and Winvian, were over-the-top, but in unique ways. Now the third, the Boulders, whispered a different siren song: biking, hiking, canoeing, paddling.

The Boulders, an imposing Dutch Colonial mansion built in 1890, sits on a hill above tree-lined Lake Waramaug. The inn's activities revolve around outdoor fun.

I sat on a lodge patio overlooking the deep blue water of the lake and watched feathery white cirrus clouds. I pictured myself paddling across the lake or returning in the fall, when the trees would be ablaze with color.

Guests don't go hungry here: The rate (starting at $365 per night) includes a country breakfast and afternoon tea and pastries. The Boulders has lodge and carriage house rooms and informal private cottages. And lakeside fun is part of the package.

I still had more to see in this small state, so I headed for the capital, Hartford, which once nurtured the fertile minds of authors Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Both had homes in the area that are now open to the public.

In nearby Simsbury, I stopped to check out the Simsbury 1820 House, a country manor on the National Register of Historic Places.

The house was built in 1820 and expanded in 1890 and now has 32 guest rooms. Breakfast is included in the rate, which starts at $139 a night. And guests can sip a complimentary glass of sherry in the parlor.

As much as I enjoyed the view from the hilltop veranda, it was time to move on to the coast, where the seafaring village of Mystic exemplifies the state's rich maritime history.

Much of my driving so far had been on winding, two-lane roads; now I zipped southeast on divided highways, finally reaching the brawny Interstate 95 coastal corridor and crossing the Connecticut River.

Four well-known inns had drawn me to this region: the Inn at Stonington, practically a stone's throw from the Rhode Island line, the Bee and Thistle in Old Lyme, the Copper Beech Inn in Ivoryton and the Griswold Inn in Essex.

At Stonington, the inn is as charming as the village. This seaside town is near Mystic but untouched by the commercialism and hurly-burly atmosphere of its neighbor. Streets are quiet, tree-lined and full of Colonial, Greek Revival and Federal architecture.

The inn is known for its understated elegance and the good manners of its staff; earlier this month, Travel & Leisure magazine named it one of the nation's top seaside inns.

From the patio, I watched seabirds sail overhead; directly in front, yachtsmen maneuvered on the waters of Stonington Harbor. Guests often catch sight of Connecticut's last surviving fishing fleet, which also plies the waters here.

Rates start at $190 and include breakfast.

I headed west to visit the last three inns, each of which is better known for its food than its rooms. In Old Lyme, I stopped at the Bee and Thistle, which prides itself on romantic dinners; a prix fixe menu costs $65. The pale yellow inn, built in 1756 as a private home, sits on the Lieutenant River, has a sunken garden and two parlors stuffed with period antiques. Local art adorns the walls. There are nine rooms. I felt as if I'd walked into a time warp when I explored the rooms, which had four-poster beds and were filled with antiques and period reproductions. Some had fireplaces; rates start at $150 per night.

My next stop was in the Ivoryton neighborhood of Essex, where I parked in front of the rambling white Copper Beech Inn, named for the enormous tree that was now shading my car. The Copper Beech is a darling of gourmets; its restaurant holds a AAA four-diamond award. And the nearly 120-year-old inn, with 22 rooms -- some newly constructed -- offers guests warmth and hospitality. Some of the rooms have antiques, but décor in the newer section is modern and the rooms have small decks. Rates start at $195.

I saved the Griswold in Essex for last. The Gris, one of the oldest continuously operated inns in the country, was born the same year as the U.S. It's been catering to Connecticut River yachtsmen and overland travelers since 1776. Rooms are small but inexpensive (from $100 per night) and charming, with beds so high I needed a stool to get on top of the mattress. I enjoyed meeting the Colonial gentlemen and ladies who kept an eye on me from framed portraits on the walls.

The Gris is also known for its Tap Room, which has been serving ale for more than 200 years. It has an atmosphere and ambience that speak of history. I loved it; I wouldn't have been surprised to see Nathan Hale in a tricornered hat at the bar.

Who needs celebrities or preppies when you can belly up to a bar with a Revolutionary War hero, even if he's only in your mind's eye?