The Sound of Spring on the Connecticut Shoreline
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.
But in Madison, I fall in love. Somewhere in each of us we have a personal checklist of essentials for the idyllic place to live. Mine includes a beautiful beach, a great bookstore, an art-film theater, and an assortment of interesting restaurants.
The pull here includes a terrific, Euro-style place to stay and a certain je ne sais quoi. This translates to a couple of fun French venues, notably the delectable Bar Bouchée, a gourmet hot spot with a handful of hard-to-score tables, and France-Amériques, where Jacqueline Guizol offers Gallic shirts of every stripe.
My room at the Inn at Lafayette, smack in the middle of town, takes me back to every atmospheric little European hotel I’ve ever stayed at, with its French doors and pale, pretty room. It’s over the dining room, so it’s quieter after 11 p.m., but the bonus is having Café Allegre‘s delicious, Italian-style meals just under my feet. Across the street is R. J. Julia Booksellers, the real deal, where Ralph Nader just happens to be in town for a book signing. In the evening, a petite stroll away, is Madison Art Cinemas, playing the latest foreign and independent films.
All of this is less than a five-minute drive from Hammonasset Beach State Park, with nature trails, more than two miles of sandy shoreline, and rustic picnic sites. At its farthest reach, Meig’s Point, ranger Russ Miller tours visitors through his quirky nature center. It’s stocked with turtles, mice, and snakes, including an enormous boa whose name morphed from Thor to Thoretta once certain discoveries were made. “The snake feeding on Fridays is very popular,” says Ranger Russ. “Standing room only.”
Snake feedings aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I realize that I could get into tea in a big way, after a rainy afternoon at Savvy Tea Gourmet, just off Madison’s Main Street. “I could blow your mind with amazing oolongs,” says tea savant Phil Parda, who’s been drinking, thinking, and sharing about tea for more than 40 years. “I could teach you things that would change your life,” and I believe him. He’s savvy and saturated with antioxidants.