Monday, June 26, 2017

Snapshots: Maine Streets


How could it be that Maine has never made it to The Size of Connecticut's Not Connecticut category before? I don't know! But I'm very happy to finally add it by sharing a few pics I snapped last week as I explored some small towns and cities along Route 1 in the Pine Tree State. I drove south from Ellsworth through Belfast (maybe my favorite if I had to choose, which I definitely can't), Camden (the most touristy), Rockland (another possible contender for favorite), Damariscotta (the most crowded), Wiscasset, and Bath (the only one of these places I'd been to before.)

This is my favorite kind of lazy road trip, because it requires virtually no planning or preparation (except possibly for hotel reservations; this is summer in New England after all.) Just get yourself on Route 1 and drive until you see an adorably old-fashioned downtown retrofitted to accommodate all the dining, shopping, and sightseeing needs of a modern traveler. (You'll encounter one of these something like every 20 to 40 minutes.) You don't need an itinerary or a list of must-sees, because it's all a must-see, and whatever you end up doing will be perfect. Maine is calming that way. In fact, it occurred to me on this trip that Maine is very similar to Connecticut, it's just calmer, and there's more contentment and pride.

There is one downside to this trip, which I should probably warn you about: no matter how much you cram in, you will pass 1,000 other things you'd like to see if you had more time, so as soon as you get home - if not before - you'll want to go back again.


Wednesday, June 7, 2017

5 of Connecticut's Best Rural Ice Cream Stands

When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes take me to the Carvel store near our house for an ice cream cone. I didn't even like ice cream all that much - I remember I would eat a little bit of the cone and then wonder what the heck I was supposed to do with the rest of it before it melted down my arm - but I certainly recognized the appeal of going out for ice cream. And that, I think, is what my dad was going for: that summery, skip work for an hour, sit on a bench and eat a melty, chocolatey, childhood treat feeling. In retrospect, I wish that he, a transplanted New Yorker, had known about the plethora of ice cream outing opportunities that existed just beyond our little corner of the state.

Because while Connecticut lacks many things, it has more than its fair share of farms selling delicious, handmade ice cream in bucolic locations. The following five spots are all ones I've discovered since I began writing this blog. They are by no means the only places to get ice cream in Connecticut, but they're my favorites (so far.) I decided to restrict this list to outdoor stands, in rural settings, that in addition to large, rotating ice cream menus, also offer at least a few flavors of lower-fat, dairy-free, or sugar-free options. (Because I still don't really like ice cream as much as I like going to get ice cream, but I will travel many miles for good frozen yogurt and sorbet.)

Salem Valley Farms, Salem

They started making ice cream in 1988, but something about a trip to Salem Valley Farms takes me back to the 1950s...when I wasn't even close to being alive yet. Still, the simplicity of this little red stand with its unpaved parking lot and picnic tables gathered on a patch of grass is old-fashioned in the best way. And though I can't prove it, I think they use the most, and the biggest, chocolate chips.

Rich Farm, Oxford

The first time I turned up the driveway to Rich Farm Ice Cream, slightly hidden away in the New Haven County countryside, I could tell this place was a local (and beyond local) favorite. It's named for the family who run it, not the richness of the ice cream, but that interpretation works too. There are picnic tables. There are silos. There are cows. There will probably be a line. Get on it.

The Collins Creamery, Enfield

The Collins Creamery, located in what its owners describe as "the quiet side of town," is not fancy. It's just a no-frills New England dairy farm where you can shovel tasty ice cream into your face while enjoying being surrounded by peaceful, wide open fields (on weekdays) and happy families (on weekend afternoons.)

Tulmeadow Farm, Simsbury

You probably wouldn't guess on first sight that there's ice cream for sale at the unassuming Tulmeadow Farm in West Simsbury. Driving past, you'd notice the displays of flowers and the cluster of old red buildings set among rolling hills. But stop and follow the excited children lining up in front of the little farm store, and you'll find a creamery with the best tasting cones ever. Yes, the cones themselves. Does anyone ever just eat cones without ice cream, straight from the package of cones? If so, these would be those cones.

Buttonwood Farms, Griswold

If you've driven past Buttonwood Farms in mid-summer, you've probably noticed the cars stopped along the side of the road and the acres of sunflowers in the fields. But past the sunflowers (sales of which go to Make-A-Wish Connecticut), and the corn maze, and the other fun attractions, there is yummy ice cream that's worth standing on a (sometimes very long) line for. And even if you miss the sunflowers, the eastern Connecticut setting is idyllic.

If this post inspires you to you go off in search of the best ice cream ever, keep in mind that ice cream stands like these are not the cheapest places to grab a frozen dessert, and many only take cash. Also, they will probably smell like cow and there may be bees, flies, and so on. It's all worth it.

Monday, May 29, 2017

On the Tidal Marsh Trail

I first read about North Haven's Tidal Marsh Trail over a year ago when Peter Marteka visited this humble path on the bank Quinnipiac for his Hartford Courant column. "I'm totally going to go there," I said to myself. And I put it on my list. And then I didn't go. And then I continued to not go. Until last week, when, surprised with a day that wasn't rainy, freezing, or packed with work, I finally got myself in my car and drove myself down 95 and up 91 and around behind the Target in that bland sprawl of commercial suburbia off exit 9.

Connecticut does many things well, and one of them is hiding reminders of the power of nature in places you'd never think to look for them. You can't even really see a trailhead from the parking lot behind the Target, but look carefully and you will see a sign. Walk towards it, and you'll find yourself on a little dirt track - in most places, just big enough to walk single-file - between a subtly lush marshy landscape and a dense tangle of trees busy consuming remnants of human life like old railroad tracks and cement bridges.

As you walk, you start out high on the river bank, peering down at the rippling blue water and muddy little red beaches scattered with fallen trees. And then at some point you notice the tall grasses are at eye level, and you are immersed in green.

You're never far from human habitation here. There are buildings clearly visible across the river, trains whistling in the distance, and, of course, the knowledge that Target is just minutes behind you. (The trail, a relatively straight and mostly flat line, is supposedly half a mile long but feels slightly longer.) Still, this stretch of watery woods seems quite wild. Trees twist themselves around each other and bend at strange angles, and branches braid themselves into ropes. The path is crossed by fallen trees, and more tilted and uprooted trunks can be seen in the distance.

The Tidal Marsh Trail, like many of the other smaller trails I've posted about here (Bethel's Enchanted Trail Boardwalk and Salem's Big Brook Gorge Preserve come to mind) is not the most exciting or visually striking of outdoor activities. Connecticut has dozens - probably hundreds - of spots that are more remote, more physically challenging, and more beautiful. But if you're near North Haven and you want a quick respite from everyday life, then this hidden world where the trees meet  the water is everything you need.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Litchfield Daffodils, and the Truth About Spring

Here's the thing about spring in New England. It's the worst season to live here, and the least enjoyable time to visit. It's cold, damp, unpredictable, and hard impossible to dress for. Plus, it almost always lingers for far too long, dragging winter into summer and casting a grey pall over the landscape with its creeping fog and rain.

People will pretend that spring is wonderful, because about once every three weeks, if you're lucky enough to be outdoors between 3:30 and 4:45, it gets almost warm enough to go without a jacket. These people are delusional, or selling you something. Unless you're five, and enjoy jumping in mud puddles, spring is miserable.

However, every dark cloud that threatens to ruin your plans with a sudden downpour has a silver lining or two. In the spring in Connecticut, one of these is the Litchfield Daffodils, a.k.a. the Laurel Ridge Narcissus Plantings.

This roadside attraction comes alive every year in April and May. Since 1941, when Remy and Virginia Morosani first planted thousands of bulbs in their rocky pasture, the flowers have spread to cover fifteen acres of land. They range from bright yellow and orange to peach and delicate white, and they grow in clusters on the hillsides, in the little valleys, and on an island in the center of a pond. The overall effect is like the backdrop of a fairy tale set in that mythical New England springtime, where everything is warm and bright and new.

There is no fee to see the daffodils, and no parking lot. (Though there are rules.) This year, it seems the low-key attraction is becoming more popular than ever before, due either to increased marketing efforts or simply the undeniable Instagram appeal of this abundant display of nature.

In a month or two, the weather will be livable for human beings again and I won't be shivering and covered in mud. (I hope.) But until then, I can at least be inspired by fleeting bursts of beauty, like these fragile blooms that somehow manage to thrive in this dispiriting season.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Back On the List: the Papermill Trail

Built c. 1865, the Cooper Paper Mill manufactured straw board until 1890. The process involved turning straw from local farms into a type of paper tough enough to be made into boxes, which were used to ship Connecticut-made products far beyond our little state. What remains of the mill now can be seen near one of the trailheads of the Papermill Trail in Madison, a blue-blazed loop through woods maintained by the Madison Land Conservation Trust. Beside the Hammonasset River lie the mill's fieldstone ruins. Water rushes over an abandoned dam, and iron rods protrude from the earth, a spiky reminder that this place, so quiet on a cold spring day, was not always so still.

The Papermill Trail had been on my list of local places to visit for ages, but then, at some point, I removed it. I guess I decided for some reason that it wouldn't be all that interesting. But when I happened to be nearby recently, I figured I might as well find the trail* and check it out.

And I discovered, as I have many times before, a surprisingly lovely pocket of natural beauty hidden just off the busy roads I'd unthinkingly driven on for years. A few delicate, papery leaves clung to the bare spring trees. Soft moss spread over the boulders on the hills. The trail was a worn, narrow path that sometimes climbed up or down on tree-root stairs.

I didn't have the time to walk more than a short distance from the road on this trip, but I've added the Papermill Trail to my list again. I'll go back some day when the harsh cold of spring has passed. Next time, I'll walk the rest of the trail to see what other surprises await at the spots on the map marked "stonewall" and "pool" and "stream." (When I do, it will be on my Instagram.)

*About finding this place: like so many of Connecticut's lesser-known attractions, this one seems to have been designed to be as easy to miss as possible. The trailhead where the mill ruins are located is on Fawn Brook Circle, just off Green Hill Road. Look to your right as soon as you turn onto Fawn Brook Circle and you'll (hopefully) spot a tiny wooden sign and a minuscule arrow attached to a tree, just above the height you'd expect to find signage. The small parking area, which has none of the usual identifying features of a parking area, is located just past the tree.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Broad Brook (and Beyond)

If you're a frequent driver of Connecticut back roads, you're probably familiar with the experience of suddenly coming upon an unexpected town or village. There's always something a little bit incredible about "discovering" an entire, fully realized place that's not far from where you live but that somehow has managed to elude you for years. I felt this way when I stumbled over North Stonington Village, and when a detour led me to the center of Chester, and when I first happened to drive through Broad Brook, one of the five villages that make up the town of East Windsor. No matter how many times it happens, I always feel slightly abashed for not knowing about the place earlier. But that feeling of shame is quickly eclipsed by one of "Hey, this should be a blog post!"

Because the building above really deserves to be in a blog post, don't you think? The former Ertel/Geissler Barber Shop, it used to be located on Main Street in Broad Brook until 1967, when it was moved to the grounds of the East Windsor Historical Society in Scantic.

The Historical Society's main museum is housed in this building, once the East Windsor Academy or Scantic Academy. (There's more about it on my Instagram account devoted to historic Connecticut schoolhouses.)

And then there's the wee East Windsor District Probate Court building, moved here from Warehouse Point. It was also apparently a doctor's office at one time. Like the barber shop, it was transported to its current location on the back of a truck.

The Historical Society grounds are also home to this barn, a reconstituted tobacco shed turned farm tool museum. The Grange sign once hung on the Academy building, when it was used as a Grange Hall.

In Broad Brook itself, the roadside curiosities continue. This is the Broad Brook Garage, an old gas station (front building) and auto repair shop (rear building.)

There's also the Broad Brook Library, built in 1919. The library's Facebook page describes the building as "unassuming" and says, "It is easy to pass the Broad Brook Library without even noticing it." I disagree; in fact, I distinctly remember that the first time I drove down Main Street in Broad Brook, I thought the library looked particularly adorable.

And of course there's the village's best-known attraction, the 1892 Opera House. The history of this building reads like a whirlwind tour of the history of business in Connecticut. It was built by the Broad Brook Woolen Company and the first floor was used as their showroom and shipping department until the 1920s, when it was occupied by an ice cream parlor, newsstand, shoe store, and post office. In the 1970s, it housed an insurance company. Meanwhile, the second floor was used for "operettas, stage plays, graduation exercises, minstrels, military balls, dances, card parties, basketball games, town meetings, election voting, and meetings for civil defense during World War II." In 2003, it became a theatre that is now used by the Opera House Players.

Across Depot Street from the Opera House, water from the Broad Brook Mill Pond tumbles over a dam and continues under Main Street. On the other side, it reappears as (you guessed it) Broad Brook, which eventually joins the Scantic River, which then empties into the Connecticut River, which bisects the state, passing other unexpected villages as it flows along.


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