Weekend in Coastal Connecticut
This past weekend Laura and I took a trip up to Connecticut to visit her parents. They live in Westbrook, a sleepy little fishing town along the coast about a half hour away from New Haven. Dining and visiting the beach seem to be the most popular things to do there, but along the Boston Post Road, there are many other little towns within driving distance that offer quite a lot of other things to try out.
Stony Creek Brewery
On Saturday we visited Stony Creek Brewery in Branford. They describe their beer as “aggressively laid-back,” which I think could also apply to the brewery itself. Positioned alongside a tributary that feeds out into the Branford Sound, this is a place of leisure and fun. They have an indoor taproom with an outdoor deck off to the side. And down below, along the banks of the creek, there are Adirondack chairs and fire pits so you can sit and watch the day go by. Or, if you’re a little more active, there’s also corn hole and bocce. Despite being a very gray, chilly day, all of these activities were enjoyed the entire time we were there.
The brewery doesn’t have a kitchen, so on weekends food trucks idle in the parking lot serving up local fare like New England clam chowder and lobster rolls.
But what brings everyone to Stony Creek, of course, is the beer—a wide range of tastes from light Belgian summer ales (Sun Juice) to double IPAs with whopping alcohol percentages (Crimsang). You can buy them by the glass, by the growler, or—as we did—as part of a flight, basically a beer sampler.
Stony Creek is a pretty impressive facility. I couldn’t guess its square footage, but it’s about the size of a big factory—in fact, I suspect this is what it once was. It seems like a place where a lot of locals hang out, especially on weekends. The brewery gives tours, too. We didn’t take one, but if I ever find myself back there again I’m definitely going to.
On the way back from the brewery we stopped in Clinton, a town rich with history—including its status as the birthplace of Yale. There’s a lot to do there, but whenever I pass through on the Post Road the only must-see for me is R. J. Julia Booksellers. It’s one of my favorite independent bookstores, and as a fan I’m in good company. They’ve won numerous awards for being awesome from places like Publishers Weekly, Connecticut Magazine, and The Advocate.
I love the atmosphere in this bookstore: dark wooden stacks, friendly people, and a brilliant café. And they also carry a wider variety of books than many of the bigger shops do—especially when it comes to small presses. Living in that world as I have for the past fifteen years, it’s nice to see some of those books potentially reaching a wider audience because of places like R. J. Julia.
There are other shops along the main street in Clinton that are great, too. We hit up Walker Loden, a somewhat localized and very cute gift shop, and Two Ems,Inc., one of the most colorful stationery stores I’ve been to.
Everything in Clinton has a quaint shoretown feel to it. You could spend a day going from shop to shop, talking to all the proprietors, learning about the history of the area. If you’re nearby and want a fun day trip, this is probably the place to go.
The Florence Griswold Museum
With the weather still kind of icky, we had brunch at Penny Lane, an Irish pub in Old Saybrook, and looked for something to do to keep us out of the rain. Laura’s mother suggested visiting the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, and I am so incredibly thankful she did; it’s one of the most inspiring places I’ve been to in some time.
The history of the museum is fascinating: The grounds consist of the Griswold home, restored to look as it did at the turn of the century, when Florence, the last living member of her immediate family, had it converted into a boardinghouse to keep it afloat. Running a boardinghouse was one of the few acceptable occupations for women at the time. In 1899, artist Henry Ward Ranger came to Old Lyme to paint and became a boarder in the Griswold house. He thought the area would be the perfect place to start a new school of landscape painting in America, and shortly after he arrived, he invited his artist friends. The Lyme Art Colony was formed, later generating the most examples of American Impressionism in the country.
When you arrive at the museum, you’re greeted by a two-room art studio where William Chadwick painted (this was moved to the site in 1992 and was not part of the original homestead). It contains brushes, easels—dust—and a room full of tools for stretching canvas.
After the studio you head to the Krieble Gallery. This was originally a space built by the artists to showcase the works they created in the area and make some money. Florence was the first gallery manager. I didn’t see any photos from when it was first built, but it has a beautiful, sleek interior today. So I’m guessing there were upgrades—namely the gift shop and café. But the works are the same: stunning scenes from around the area from so many different artistic viewpoints.
Many soon-to-be well-known artists stayed at the Griswold house—Frederick Childe Hassam, Arthur Heming, Matilda Browne, and Louis Betts—but its most famous guest was President Woodrow Wilson. Accompanied by his family, Wilson visited several times from 1905 through 1910. There is still a canoe in a barn there that belonged to the president.
The grounds of the museum look like one big impressionist painting with a large, lush garden and beautiful riverbanks. That makes their art programs so ideal. We saw plenty of kids and adults alike walking around in paint-splattered smocks, carrying paintbrushes and easels.
Once I finally got inside the house, it was like nothing I’d ever seen. There are paintings everywhere. First up is an information room that tells the history of the house and shows the only footage ever captured of Florence Griswold on a 90-second loop (discovered at a local yard sale and restored). From that room, you get to peek into the front bedroom, which really sets the tone for the whole tour. It’s beautifully wallpapered and filled with paintings and sculptures—this would have been the room Child Hassam, the group’s de facto leader, stayed in.
It was considered an honor if the artists’ group asked a new boarder to add to their collection of painted panels on the walls and doors. These works are scattered throughout both floors, but it’s the dining room where they really come alive. Virtually every panel of wood—and there are a lot of them—is painted with a beautiful impressionist work. One of them, done by the color-blind Arthur Heming, stands out among the others because it’s done in grayscale.
In the parlor, there are of course more artworks lining the walls. But what I really loved was the scraps of paper on the table; They contained silly drawings of things like bulging women and men with silly hats. These are part of something the artists in the colony called “The Wiggle Game,” which is similar to The Exquisite Corpse in that one person would draw a bunch of wiggly lines, and others would have to connect the lines somehow to make a cohesive drawing. This was one of my favorite things that I saw.
Upstairs, the rooms have been converted to galleries that showcase more of the artists’ works. A few of them belong to Matilda Browne, the only woman allowed into the Lyme Art Colony. Truth be told, I think I’m more partial to her works than most of the others.
After taking in all the house had to offer, we gathered outside to reflect on what we’d seen. And then we got to see even more, as the land that lay before us was usually the subject of the art. Every inch of the Florence Griswold Museum is a beautiful work that you can’t help but absorb.
The Westbrook Town Beach
Despite the cloudy weather, Laura and I wanted to spend a few minutes at the beach before heading back home to New Jersey. So once we said goodbye to Laura’s parents, we went to check it out. The beach is a short one with not a lot of sand, but enough to fit most of the locals’ blankets on a normal day. That wasn’t happening when we were there—the rain kept most people away. But a few folks were there fishing and hanging out in the sand. I think any beach, no matter what the weather, will always have a few people enjoying it.
There’s a lot of history in Connecticut, and something new to see or learn about each time we visit. We don’t go too often, but when we do it’s always fun and it’s always nice to get away from the Manhattan area for a little while. If you’re not too far away, the Saybrook/Westbrook/Clinton area makes for a good day trip, or even a weekend getaway. There are many bed and breakfasts in the area with really nice people. I definitely recommend a visit.