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The Sound of Spring on the Connecticut Shoreline

The Sound of Spring on the Connecticut Shoreline
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Time stands still in all the best places, but only for so long. As spring melts into Long Island Sound, the villages along the Connecticut shoreline stir and stretch, sloughing off winter’s crust. Midway along the coast, snow lets go of the edges of Hammonasset Beach, and before you know it, town greens up and down the Sound start living up to their name. Migratory birds flock overhead. Crocuses poke; tulips burst.

It’s only a 25-mile meander from Old Saybrook–Kate Hepburn’s well-bred stomping grounds–to Branford, an unexpected dining mecca. Along the way, spring unfurls furiously in towns as diverse as Westbrook, Clinton, Madison, and Guilford. Meanwhile, all the things that make these communities terrific in summer–pretty marinas, salt marshes, tucked-away restaurants, historic inns, bookstores, shops, and cafes–are still here, just less expensive and less crowded.

Speaking of time, here’s what the local voice of authority, Hepburn herself, opined to costar Sam Waterston, when the two were working together on The Glass Menagerie. “Your clock’s not ticking,” the somewhat-abrupt four-time Oscar winner informed Waterston. “And when it’s not ticking, you’re very, very dull. But when your clock is ticking, you’re very, very interesting. So start your clock!”

Our clock’s ticking. Let’s see what we find on a long weekend in Hepburn country.

Like ancient Mycenae, this area along the 110-mile Long Island Sound is a cradle of civilization–American-style. The basin was here before the glaciers, but once the ice came and went 18,000 years ago, it deposited a freshwater lake. Eventually the lake overflowed, carved out a gorge, and met up with the sea.

Native Americans inhabited the area, farming along the Hammonasset River. Poetically, they bequeathed us a word meaning “where we dig holes in the ground,” which children still do today at Hammonasset Beach. Dutchman Adriaen Block first wrote about the Sound in 1614, and European colonists began arriving a decade later. Old buildings and houses from the 1700s hunker close to the water; crisp white Colonials ring town greens like clothes bleaching on the line.

But there’s beauty with the history. Today, workers are dredging the marina in front of the Saybrook Point Inn, where my room overlooks the very spot where the Connecticut River meets the Atlantic. The sun rises over Griswold Point, and the marina is so quiet I can almost hear the panicked splashes of freshwater fish as they careen into the Sound, tasting salt for the very first time. In spring there are few boats bumping against the docks, no masts or yachts obstructing the view. Just me and a priceless panorama. The Rat Pack enjoyed it, too, back in the day; more recently, rumor has it, Beyonce.

There’s a reason why Hepburn lived a stone’s skip from here. Her sprawling home, in an area of Old Saybrook known as Fenwick, had glorious views of the water and a lighthouse, practically in her backyard. Fortunately, I can have all the perks of this lovely slice of the Sound without the property taxes. I can borrow a bike at the inn and pedal across the nearby causeway, and back in time, on the 10-mile Maple Avenue loop, past streets with names like Neptune, Seagull, Osprey, and Great Hammock Road. (Just saying those names probably lowers one’s blood pressure.)

In Old Saybrook itself, Hepburn is everywhere. A multimillion-dollar rehab turned the former town hall into “The Kate,” a cultural center alive with plays, films, and big-name performers. The best part is a mini-shrine of a museum just inside the doorway, with photos (including one of Kate climbing and pruning trees in her backyard), a documentary film, and exhibits that run the gamut from her canoe paddle to an Emmy Award.

I’m less prepared to encounter Hepburn at Tissa’s Le Souk du Maroc on Route 154, near the postage-stamp-size town green. Housed in a 1790 building, with an elegant, turn-of-the-century marble ice-cream counter, it’s the site of the former James Pharmacy. Today, this café/market sells everything from its signature “Moroccan Delight” ice cream to tagines, a sort of earthenware crockpot. Owner Kathleen Benjdid is of partial Moroccan heritage, and her husband, Mohammed, is from Tissa, near Fez. Kathleen puts a touch of ras el hanout–a mix of 21 herbs and spices, including cardamom–into my cappuccino, and it’s instantly exotic.

This was one of Kate’s favorite places to hang out, and, so the story goes, she credited her career to then-owner Anna Louise James, the first female African American pharmacist in Connecticut. Local lore has it that Kate, short on funds and with a New York audition coming up, borrowed bus fare from Miss James, and, of course, got the part. According to the establishment’s previous owner, Kate “loved her egg creams,” Kathleen says. “She would come behind the counter and help herself.”

Route 1 heading out of town, through Westbrook, reminds me of a rummage sale: You never know what you’re going to find. Stately Colonials and farms mingle with sprawling malls and commercial strips, whereas the stretch of road leading past Clinton’s small, triangular town green is lined, coming and going, with antiques stores and art galleries. Hey-Day Antiques grabs me with a streetside display that hints at the jumble of fishing lures, Quimper crockery, vintage circus posters, and Victoriana that sprawls through six rooms, making it a perfect wet-weather refuge.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

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Updated Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

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