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Old Saybrook and the Connecticut River

The Connecticut River flowing under the East Haddam Bridge.

By Cindy Murphy-Tofig

History is everywhere in Connecticut. The southern New England state is home to the nation’s oldest public art museum – the Wadsworth Atheneum, in Hartford – as well as a university that’s a good bit older than the nation – Yale, founded in 1701.

But to get your history mixed with a little nature – plus a smidgen of Captain Kidd – it’s fun to go to where the Connecticut River meets the Long Island Sound.

Old Saybrook sits at the mouth of the Connecticut River, where it blends with waters from the Sound. The oldest town along the shoreline, Old Saybrook started out as an independent colony in the 1630s and was incorporated as a town in 1854. It’s also the founding place of the Collegiate School, now called Yale University.

The fun thing about visiting Old Saybrook and the surrounding area is that you get the New England feel while still being close to the major metropolis of New York and are a beautiful boat ride away from the shores of Long Island. Strolling down part of Main Street will take you past the town hall, the fire department (which is all volunteer) and the town green. Be sure to check for upcoming events in town. Depending on the time of year, you can catch a concert on the green, or go to an apple festival. Either way, you’ll have a chance to mingle with residents and get a real feel for the community.

One of the best times to visit, though, is in the summer. Pack up the little ones and head to Harvey’s Beach, a former private beach that the town bought in the 1980s. The town’s population explodes during the summer, so time your beach visits well.  If you can, stop by Walt’s Food Mart on Main Street and pick up some sandwich fixings and salad for your day out.

Not a sunbather, but you still like the water? Combine a little history with that on a visit to Fort Saybrook Monument Park and Saybrook Point. Fort Saybrook itself doesn’t exist anymore (the original one burned down in the 1640s, and what remained of its replacement was leveled in the 1870s), but the park is a great place to have a picnic and explore nature. From there you can head over to Saybrook Point for a little miniature golf and amazing views of Long Island Sound.

The Yale Sailing Club out on Long Island Sound. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea - Branford Chamber of CommerceThe Yale Sailing Club out on Long Island Sound. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea – Branford Chamber of Commerce

For old movie buffs and theatre lovers, Old Saybrook will be welcoming a new attraction in August 2009. The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center is scheduled to open then in the old town hall and will include a 250-seat theatre and a museum. “The Kate” as it is also known plans on a gala opening sometime in October.

Ms. Hepburn’s family home is located in the borough of Fenwick. Just drive down the causeway across the South Cove to see great views of Long Island Sound. The Oscar-winning actress spent virtually every summer in Fenwick and was a beloved figure in the area.

Still, the best way to experience the water is to be on it. For a nice day trip, and a chance to see how the other half lives, head up I-95 to the Stony Creek section of Branford to see the Thimble Islands.

One of the tiny islands that are part of the Thimbles. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea Branford Chamber of CommerceOne of the tiny islands that are part of the Thimbles. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea -  Branford Chamber of Commerce

A group of islands in Long Island Sound, the Thimbles are composed of as many as 365 islands (the number varies depending on the tide). About twenty-five are inhabited. Most of the houses are summer homes, but some of the Thimbles have year-round residents. The islands are privately held, with the largest — the seventeen-acre Horse Island — owned by the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale. Outer Island is part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge, and is accessible by the water taxi that takes island residents to and from Stony Creek’s dock. Kayak tours of the Thimbles stop at Outer Island as well.

Home sweet home in the Thimble Islands. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea Branford Chamber of CommerceHome sweet home in the Thimble Islands. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea – Branford Chamber of Commerce

Cruises around the Thimbles leave from Stony Creek, just up I-95 from Old Saybrook. Feeling a tad more adventurous? Sign up for a kayak tour, and wend your way around the small granite islands. And who knows? Maybe, as local lore has it, you’ll find some of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure.

To see more of the Connecticut River, take a sunset cruise from Eagle Landing State Park in nearby Haddam. Bring a picnic basket and some friends — but no little ones (children are welcome on the daytime cruises, though). If you’re lucky you’ll get to see some ospreys or other wildlife.

A boat’s also the best way to see the lighthouses that sit on the west side of the mouth of the Connecticut River in Old Saybrook (the lighthouses are closed to the public).

The Old Breakwater Lighthouse on Saybrook Point. Photo by Julie E. MacNaughtThe Old Breakwater Lighthouse on Saybrook Point. Photo by Julie E. MacNaught CC

The 65-foot Lynde Point Lighthouse was built in 1838, replacing a smaller one that was constructed in 1803. And at 49 feet, the Breakwater Lighthouse is a good bit smaller. But it also has one big claim to fame — it’s the lighthouse featured on Connecticut’s Preserve the Sound license plates.

Of course, there’s plenty to see in the area off the water. From Old Saybrook, take Route 154 (Main Street in Old Saybrook) 5 miles north to Essex and board the Essex Steam Train. The one-hour ride will take you into the Connecticut River Valley, with its green forests and breezes from the river. It might be a little nippy for an open-air car in the fall, but a trip through the valley during leaf-peeping season can be amazing.

The Essex Steam Train offers tours as well as romantic dining and a riverboat cruise. The Essex Steam Train offers tours as well as romantic dining and a riverboat cruise.  Photo by Prof Bop CC

While you’re in Essex, check out what’s playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse.  A former recreation hall, the playhouse opened in 1930. Stars who have performed at the summer theater over the years include Katharine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Hans Conried and Tallulah Bankhead, among many others.

The next day, finish off your theatrical turn with a visit to Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, about twenty miles from Old Saybrook.

Built in 1919, Gillette Castle is legendary for its unusual facade.Built in 1919, Gillette Castle is legendary for its unusual façade.

You can’t miss Gillette Castle, designed by actor/playwright William Gillette of “Sherlock Holmes” fame. It’s a big, quirky mansion that from a distance looks like volcanic ash had been fashioned into a giant sand castle. As you get closer, you can see the definition of all of the fieldstones used to build the twenty-four-room home, which was completed in 1919.

Inside, you’ll find intricate woodwork and Gillette-created touches such as built-in couches and specially placed mirrors so Gillette could see his house guests without them seeing him. Wear good shoes, so you can wander the grounds and take in sweeping views of the Connecticut River. And bring lunch so you can enjoy one of the picnic areas.

Once you’re back in Old Saybrook, dive into a hot lobster roll (served with clarified butter, of course) at The Back Porch as you watch boats from the nearby marina traverse the Connecticut River. It is New England in the summertime, after all. Not eating a lobster roll is practically a crime.

If You Go

What2Do

Harvey’s Beach
Route 154
Old Saybrook, CT
860.395.3152

Parking at the beach costs $10 per car. If you’re planning to go multiple times during the summer, stop by the parks and recreation department’s office in town hall and get a season pass ($95 for a non-resident). Old Saybrook’s town hall: 302 Main St., 06475.

Essex Steam Train
1 Railroad Ave.
Essex, CT 06426
860.767.0103
www.essexsteamtrain.com

Ivoryton Playhouse (Ivoryton’s a section of Essex)
103 Main Street
Ivoryton, CT 06442
860.767.7318
www.ivorytonplayhouse.org

Gillette Castle State Park
67 River Road
East Haddam, CT 06423
860.526.2336
The park opens at 8 a.m. every day and closes at sunset. Parking and visiting the grounds are free. The castle’s open Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Touring the castle costs $5 for adults, and $2 for children ages 6-12 (ages 5 and younger are free).
http://www.ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?A=2716&Q=325204

WATER TOURS

Thimble Islands Cruise
203.481.3345
www.thimbleislands.com

Thimble Island Cruise and Charters
203.488.8905
www.thimbleislandcruise.com

Connecticut River Expeditions
860.662.0577
www.ctriverexpeditions.org

Connecticut Coastal Kayaking
860.391.3837
www.ctcoastalkayaking.com

Thimble Islands Cruise. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea - Branford Chamber of CommerceThe Sea Mist, one of the Thimble Islands Cruise boats. Photo courtesy of Diane Shea – Branford Chamber of Commerce

Where2Eat

The Back Porch
142 Ferry Road
Old Saybrook, CT
860.510.0282

Outdoor waterfront dining in Old Saybrook. Open daily.
www.backporcholdsaybrook.com

Walt’s Food Market
178 Main St.
Old Saybrook
860.388.3308

Not a place for eat-in but a great local place to pick up stuff for sandwiches for a picnic.
Open Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday 8 a.m.-1 p.m.

Top photo: The Connecticut River flowing under the East Haddam Bridge. CC

Cindy Murphy-Tofig, an Atlanta-based editor and writer, thinks lobster rolls are among the most deliciously evil things on the planet.

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