Weekender: The Litchfield Hills, Connecticut

Weekender: The Litchfield Hills, Connecticut

Raymond Patrick
Raymond Patrick
Appalachian Trail, climbing hydrangeas, buttery scones, sleigh beds, village greens

The village greens and the white, spired churches are vintage New England. Right nearby, rivers and reservations provide a pristine landscape for hiking, canoeing, and fly-fishing. And with scores of well-heeled urbanites buying country houses in this northwest corner of Connecticut, the dining and shopping are fast becoming as sophisticated as New York's. Whether you're looking for an antiquing retreat, quiet time by a lake, or a weekend of great food and rural vistas, a few days in the Litchfield Hills will satisfy your every fancy.

Where to Stay

Mayflower Inn 118 Woodbury Rd., Washington; 860/868-9466, fax 860/868-1497; doubles from $400. Modeled on an English country-house hotel, this Relais & Châteaux property ranks as one of New England's best. Twenty-five rooms and suites in the main house, as well as two cottages scattered on the grounds, are furnished with fine antiques, four-poster and sleigh beds, and Frette linens. The grounds hold three formal gardens, which invite you to promenade, as well as tennis courts, hiking trails, a fitness center, and an outdoor pool. Despite the obvious elegance and impeccable service, the atmosphere is far from stuffy.

Boulders Inn E. Shore Rd., New Preston; 800/552-6853 or 860/868-0541, fax 860/868-1925; doubles from $260, including breakfast. Country warmth and a prize location overlooking Lake Waramaug characterize this inn, named for its fieldstone exterior. Three of the six upstairs rooms are furnished with antiques and have lake views. But the choicest rooms are in the four guesthouses—with decks, wood-burning fireplaces, and whirlpool tubs—up the hill. A private beach is available for guests.

Manor House 69 Maple Ave., Norfolk; phone and fax 860/542-5690; doubles from $125, including breakfast. The Tudor mansion was built in 1898 for Charles Spofford, the son of Abraham Lincoln's librarian; its stained-glass windows were created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. A six-foot-high stone fireplace dominates the expansive cherrywood living room. Clearly, no detail has been overlooked at this eight-room (and one-suite) guesthouse.

Interlaken Inn 74 Interlaken Rd., Lakeville; 800/222-2909 or 860/435-9878, fax 860/435-2980; doubles from $149. The 30 acres surrounding this low-key 82-room resort provide ample space for guests to get lost. Should you choose to be more social, you can pass the time playing tennis or racquetball, sweating it out in the sauna, or just lounging by the pool. Of course, the two lakes on opposite ends of the property are always an option—and with a beach, paddleboats, and canoes, there's plenty to keep you busy.

Lilac Hedges 40 E. Litchfield Rd., Litchfield; 860/567-8830, fax 860/567-4895; doubles from $150 (two-night minimum), including breakfast. These two well-furnished suites, each with a private entrance, are the closest you'll come to your own place in the country. The downstairs Library Suite has book-lined shelves, original wood floors, and a kitchenette; the upstairs Chestnut Suite, measuring 1,500 square feet, has cathedral ceilings, exposed beams, and a full kitchen. In both, the icebox is stocked with breakfast fixings.

White Hart 15 Undermountain Rd., Salisbury; 800/832-0041 or 860/435-0030, fax 860/435-0040; doubles from $149. If you're looking for a classic 19th-century inn on the green, the White Hart is it. Each of the 26 rooms is done up in flowery chintz, and a wide, wicker-furnished porch provides the ideal spot for a sunset drink.

Where to Eat

West Street Grill 43 West St., Litchfield; 860/567-3885; dinner for two $100. A fashion-conscious crowd communes in the art-filled restaurant, discussing contemporary artists over contemporary (and excellent) dishes: woodfired grilled salmon with garlic spinach, smoked plum tomato, and roasted tomato coulis; pan-seared sea scallops with celery root and chive purée.

Carole Peck's Good News Café 694 Main St. S., Woodbury; 203/266-4663; dinner for two $70. The celebrity chef is known for innovative "nouvelle American" fare. By that, Peck can mean anything from the gemelli pasta with asparagus, spiced pecans, Gorgonzola, capers, and sage, all drizzled with six-year-old balsamic vinegar; to fresh lobster chunks and Swiss chard in an "adult" baked macaroni with provolone cheese, sprinkled with truffle oil.

Mayflower Inn 118 Woodbury Rd., Washington; 860/868-9466; dinner for two from $50. The formal dining room, where dinner for two can easily average $100, specializes in simple dishes such as sirloin steak and lamb loin. Dinner in the casual taproom means a juicy burger or chicken breast. Whichever room you choose, expect flawless service and superb meals.

Charlotte 223 Main St., Lakeville; 860/435-3551; dinner for two $100. Love the basket on your table?Co-owner Dana Simpson will gladly sell you the centerpiece and replace it with another antique from her mother's shop, the Hammertown Barn in nearby Pine Plains, New York. When you're done admiring the décor, the sophisticated French menu, with modern takes on classics such as coq au vin and escargots, will satisfy your palate. Be sure to browse the wine list, which offers more than 1,000 bottles.

Oliva 18 E. Shore Rd., New Preston; 860/868-1787; dinner for two $60. Riad Aamar, formerly of the much-loved Doc's up the road, fills his Mediterranean-Italian menu with authentic creations: a Moroccan eggplant appetizer with mint, spices, and pecans; Italian sausage tortelloni; sautéed tilapia with garlic, cumin, roasted peppers, and white wine. In warm weather, go for the flowerpot-rimmed front porch.

Boathouse at Lakeville 349 Main St., Lakeville; 860/435-2111; dinner for two $70. Canoes hanging from the ceiling, oars on the walls, and a smashing boathouse mural behind the bar set a lively mood at Lakeville's most convivial bistro. Popular dishes include baby-back ribs braised in Bass Ale, pan-fried brook trout in toasted almond crumbs, and roast rack of lamb with mint sauce.

G. W. Tavern 20 Bee Brook Rd., Washington Depot; 860/868-6633; dinner for two $70. The rustic mood is enhanced by a grand fireplace, colonial murals, and pictures of George Washington himself. Serious comfort food is served, with fish and chips, meat loaf, honey-glazed shrimp, and "casino-crusted" cod steak as the standouts.

Chaiwalla 1 Main St., Salisbury; 860/435-9758; tiffin for two $20, served all day. The scones melt in your mouth, the fruit-filled French toast is sent directly from heaven. You simply can't go wrong at this favorite spot for a snack, located in a turn-of-the-century carriage house with bay windows facing front and back gardens. Don't overlook the tea menu—it lists more than 20 varieties, from Moroccan Mint to Himalayan Sherpa Climbers' Blend.

The Pantry Titus Rd., Washington Depot; 860/868-0258; lunch for two $40. No other joint in the county makes salads and sandwiches as hearty as the Pantry's. Sit at one of the few tables and sip a glass of wine with your meal, or carry it out for a picnic in the park nearby.

Touring the Towns

The Litchfield Hills possess a seemingly endless array of attractions. Browsing the one-of-a-kind shops is a constant pleasure—chain stores have made little headway here. As a historic region settled in the mid 18th century, the county has dozens of Early American houses and churches on its village greens. And there are more hiking trails than an athletic walker could cover in a year.

Salisbury, Sharon, and Lakeville—all in the northwestern corner—are relatively quiet oases where prestigious prep schools, prime dining, and some of the region's best hiking and biking trails can be found. Locals also love Harney & Sons Tea Tasting Room (11 Brook St., Salisbury; 860/435-5051), purveyors of fine tea. Samplings are served daily and dozens of rare varieties (as well as interesting accessories) are for sale.

To the east is secluded Norfolk, a warm-weather destination for the wealthy since the 1850's. Stanford White designed the fountain on the village green, and residents are equally proud of their three state parks and the Greenwoods Theater, where plays are staged and classic films are shown. Summer brings international chamber musicians to the shingled 1908 shed at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival/Yale Summer School of Music (Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate; 860/542-3000), a space known for its superb acoustics.

At the center of the county is the town of Litchfield, an Early American enclave that has been called the finest unrestored Colonial town in America. A prominent commercial center and the site of the nation's first law school (its first class, in 1773, included Aaron Burr), Litchfield has always been the realm of the upper crust. The grandest of the many lovely houses in the historic district are on strollable North and South Streets, just off the green. The Litchfield Congregational Church on the Green is one of the most photographed churches in New England.

Old money also settled farther south, in Washington, a town with two prep schools, a green that dates from 1741, and three historic districts. In preservation-minded Washington, even the drugstore is in a historic building. Tucked away in the hills outside town is the Institute for American Indian Studies, a museum with a re-created 17th-century Algonquin village.

The township of Washington also comprises tiny New Preston, known for its cluster of antiques shops, and part of scenic Lake Waramaug, eight miles around, ringed with wooded hills.

At the southern end of the county is Woodbury, Connecticut's antiques capital. More than 40 shops line its Main Street, as well as four Early American churches with photogenic cupolas and weather vanes. Woodbury also lays claim to the historic Glebe House—credited as the birthplace of the Episcopal Church in America—and its Gertrude Jekyll-designed garden.

Antiques Alley

Every town in the Litchfield Hills has its share of antiques shops, but Woodbury is the undisputed queen. Many of the stores are unusually attractive—local zoning allows houses to be used for commercial purposes, inspiring dealers to set up shop in their fine 17th- 18th-century abodes on Main Street.

The prize for setting goes to Mill House Antiques (1068 Main St. N.; 203/263-3446), a 17th-century former gristmill on the Nonnewaug River. Its vast selection of English and French furniture from the 1700's and 1800's, both formal and country, is rounded out by custom-made dining tables and chairs.

G. Sergeant Antiques (88 Main St. N.; 203/266-4177) sells distinctive furniture and accessories from fine estates. Its customers include interior designers and museum curators as well as private collectors, who come here to browse for everything from Continental sconces to Early American sideboards.

At Grass Roots Antiques (12 Main St. N.; 203/263-3983), a multi-dealer shop, you'll find Continental items, most of them dating from the 1800's. On a recent visit, the space overflowed with outdoor furniture, estate jewelry, books, bamboo shelves, and decoys. Across a courtyard is their consignment warehouse, Rerun, with an ever-changing array of well-priced bric-a-brac.

Wayne Pratt Antiques (346 Main St. S.; 203/263-5676) is nationally known as an authority on New England high-style furniture. The recent gallery addition to his house could easily be a small museum of rare 18th- and early-19th-century American pieces. The shop also carries Windsor chairs, Colonial portraits, painted country furniture, folk art, and a few tasteful reproductions.

The offerings are stylish at Eleish-Van Breems Antiques (487 Main St. S.; 203/263-7030), which specializes in Scandinavian and northern European furniture and accessories from the 18th and 19th centuries. Displays are organized thematically to mimic the rooms of a house: there's an inviting kitchen with crockery, and a sunroom overflowing with rugs and pieces in the Gustavian mode, an early Swedish style characterized by naturalistic carvings.

Country Loft Antiques (557 Main St. S.; 203/266-4500) will please lovers of French antiques. The multi-level converted barn and silo—situated on 19 acres of rolling green—is filled to bursting with 200-year-old tables and chairs, faïence, kitchenware, and decorative accessories.

A couple of notable dealers can be found in other towns. Joseph Stannard Antiques (Station Place, Norfolk; 860/542-5212) is an outstanding source for French antiques and beautifully woven Oriental rugs. And Michael D. Trapp Antiques (7 River Rd., West Cornwall; 860/672-6098) is respected for his great taste and his stock of 17th- and 18th-century European furnishings, with a special emphasis on architectural artifacts and garden furniture.

The Great Outdoors

The leafy Litchfield Hills, which cover nearly one-quarter of the state, are home to 20 parks, forests, and recreation areas. Also in the region are Bear Mountain, Connecticut's highest peak at 2,316 feet, and miles of the challenging Appalachian Trail, which runs near the western border from Kent to Salisbury. If you're aiming to stretch your legs and breathe some country air, you can surely do it here.

Two helpful brochures, The Litchfield Hills: Touring by Car, Foot, Boat & Bike, and Unwind, a comprehensive guide to outdoor activities in the area, are available free from the Litchfield Hills Visitors Bureau (860/567-4506; www.litchfieldhills.com).

Hiking and Biking
For a good day's trek on the Appalachian Trail, start at the Lion's Head Trailhead, just north of Salisbury off Route 41 (for information, go to www.appalachiantrail.org). When you reach Bear Mountain, 5.6 miles north, unpack some sandwiches and soak up the views.

In Cornwall, the short Cathedral Pines Trail meanders through pine and hemlock forests. If you keep going, you'll reach Mohawk Mountain, which provides another stunning vista from its 1,683-foot summit. Norfolk's Dennis Hill State Park rewards a one-mile-uphill jaunt with a 360-degree panorama that's spectacular in early fall. (There's a paved road for those who can't take the climb on foot.)

In the town of Litchfield, White Memorial Conservation Center (80 Whitehall Rd., Rte. 202 W.; 860/567-0857) counts 35 miles of trails on its 4,000 acres, and often has guided walks and educational programs. Cycle Loft (The Yard, 174 West St.; 860/567-1713; $8 an hour) has bike rentals for back-roads explorers.

Steep Rock Reservation (River Rd., Washington, 860/868-9131), a peaceful 750-acre preserve with wonderful hiking trails along the Shepaug River, is a treasure.

Water Sports
East of Dennis Hill State Park are the wooded groves and paths of the Peoples and the American Legion state forests, both bordering the western branch of the Farmington River. In New Hartford, Main Stream Canoe Corp. (152 Main St., Rte. 44; 860/693-6791; rentals $48 per hour, guided trips from $35) offers canoe and kayak rentals and excursions, while Farmington River Tubing (92 Main St.; 860/693-6465; $12 per ride) leases specially made inner tubes for a 21/2-mile ride through three sets of rapids.

West Cornwall, known for its much-photographed covered bridge, is also headquarters for activities on the tree-lined Housatonic River, a waterway popular with canoers and fly fishermen. Housatonic River Outfitters (24 Kent Rd., Rte. 7; 860/672-1010; half-day guided trip for two $200) offers fly-fishing equipment, guides, and instruction. Canoers, kayakers, and rafters can rent gear at Clarke Outdoors (163 Rte. 7; 860/672-6365; rentals from $24 per person).

The Garden Path

Unlike formal gardens, the enchanting displays created by Litchfield Hills' nurseries are on a scale one might fantasize about for a country house. Actual homeowners can reap ideas galore and acquire, as well as admire, these landscapes. Visits are often all the more enlightening when the owners are on hand and eager to chat.

Fred McGourty, co-owner of Hillside Gardens (515 Litchfield Rd., Norfolk; 860/542-5345; open Fridays 9-5), is rightly proud of his rolling lawns interspersed with colorful vignettes: yellow French fleurs-de-lis mix with blue comfrey and pink honeysuckle in one direction; climbing hydrangeas turn a tree trunk into a mass of white blossoms in another. McGourty's are by far the most artistic of the region's displays—a testament to his almost 20 years at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

At Sweethaven Farm (Weatogue Rd., Salisbury; 860/435-6064; open weekends 10-4 and by appointment), small exhibits include a kitchen herb garden, a "fairy garden," and the whimsical Peter Rabbit garden—planted with chamomile, foxglove, and other herbs and flowers mentioned in Beatrix Potter's stories.

You'll need a whole day for the town of Litchfield's three prize gardens. White Flower Farm (Rte. 63 S.; 860/496-9624; open daily 9-6) is known nationwide for both its catalogue and its unusual perennials. The Litchfield Horticultural Center (258 Beach St.; 860/567-3707; open Monday-Saturday 9-5) is less formal, but no less impressive. Dan and Joyce Lake's 32 acres include wetland, ornamental grass, and shade gardens. Nearby Walnut Hill Greenhouse (219 Wheeler Rd.; 860/482-5832; open daily 8-5), a 35,000-square-foot property, has a greenhouse festooned with colorful plants in pots hanging from the rafters.

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