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The Sound of Spring on the Connecticut Shoreline

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.

But before I take on anything as drastic as a major life change, I’m headed a few miles west to historic Guilford Green, which unfurls like a flying carpet, a poster child for town commons. I’m unprepared for this spectacle, this Roman Forum of greens, a stupendous expanse of lawn and trees that commands attention and surrender.

Happily, everyone here seems to recognize this, because you’d swear the whole town has turned out to film It’s a Wonderful Life: 2012. On this spring day, teenagers are hanging out, children are screaming and running around on the sprouting grass, clusters of every-age folks are meeting and greeting, and there’s a pickup soccer game in progress. The dogs are smiling.

It’s also a green ringed by an assortment of cafes (Cilantro for freshly roasted coffee), shops (creamy fudge at The Village Chocolatier), and Impressionistic paintings of splashy sunflowers on doorways and fences, courtesy of Brendan Loughlin, the community’s resident Van Gogh.

A short walk from town, I’m at the oldest stone house in New England, the 1639 Henry Whitfield State Museum–a little piece of lovely history dropped among a scattering of apple trees. Still more stone buildings crop up farther along the Guilford Town Marina, with its enclave of edifices that look as though they’ve risen from the ground to cluster around the water, plus a lobster shack that was seemingly dropped in from Maine.

Leaving town on Water Street, I pass marshes waking up with peepers and wide breaks of tall, feathery grass. A quiet stretch of road, it winds under bridges, past handsome Colonials. A discreet sign directs me toward Stony Creek, and I make a quick detour, stopping in front of a magical scattering of houses rising from water.

The Thimble Islands are an archipelago of some 365 islands, depending on the tides and how you define an island. (Does a rock count?) Rest stops for migrating seals and landlubbers of means, they’re mostly private, some barely big enough to hold the houses that sit on them. If you’d like to thread your way through these Thimbles–places like Hen, Potato, and Little Pumpkin islands–past Jane Pauley and Garry Trudeau’s house, or the spot where Captain Kidd supposedly buried his treasure, you can hop a local boat for a 45-minute narrated tour.

But evening is coming, and I push on toward Branford, the last stop on my shoreline sojourn. There’s a decent-size town green here, but what really knocks me out is the veritable United Nations of restaurants surrounding it: French, American, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and Japanese, plus gourmet coffee, ice cream, vegan, and bagel cafés. Once again, I’ve worked up an appetite, and it seems I’ve come to the right place. In fact, my appetite for relaxation has been satisfied over and over in this friendly, off-season haven. An image comes back to me: I’m sitting in Willoughby’s in Madison, having my morning cappuccino. The door opens, and Belle walks in, carrying a tray. She’s 96, a wisp of a woman, and she’s wearing a jaunty faux-fur beret and a bright-red scarf. Her makeup is impeccable. “She does this every morning,” the woman sitting next to me whispers. “Last week we had a birthday party here for her.”

Belle walks over to my table, holding the tray in front of her. “Would you like a cookie?” she asks. “Or a grape? The Kit Kats are all gone.” I pick up a few grapes, and she gifts me with a smile. As I step back onto the street, the last thing I see is Belle, blowing me kisses.

For a slide show and an aerial tour of the Connecticut shoreline, go to:

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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