Memories of the Memorial Day Weekend in Connecticut by Saul Schwartz

Connecticut is the third smallest state in size. My wife Fern and I sought to cover many Connecticut highlights over the three-day weekend.  Using Hartford’s central location as our base, we discovered quite a few great experiences in the Constitution state.

Day 1: Hartford

The Mark Twain House and Museum one hour tour provided us with information on the life of Samuel Clemens and this house.   The extensive home was built for Clemens and his family in 1874 in a beautiful West End neighborhood; then an art colony called Nook Farm.  He lived in this 25 room Victorian Gothic home for 17 years until his financial troubles caused him to sell.  The brick mansion features large porches and towering turrets.  Highlights included the billiards room where Clemens penned many of his famous books; the ornate interior with stenciled and carved woodwork designed by Louis Tiffany, and numerous exotic items belonging to Clemens and his family.  Adjoining the house, the museum center contained a series of exhibitions related to Clemens, including photographs and films, as well as some of the most humorous Mark Twain quotes inscribed on the walls.  The museum docents were extremely knowledgeable about Twain’s life and times.  We found it both ironic and tragic that although Twain became an international celebrity, he faced financial ruin and outlived all but one of his daughters.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe house sits directly across from the Twain House. Although more modest than the Twain House, the gothic style Stowe house built in 1871 (which is currently in the middle of restoration) contains 14 rooms and many items from Stowe and her family.  Because of the restoration, the center’s docents tell part of the life of Stowe in the adjoining Katharine Seymour Day House.  Day was Stowe’s grandniece.  The one hour tour was very interactive.  We learned that Stowe was one generation older than Clemens and that they had limited social interaction.  Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin before she moved in this house in Nook Farm.  First published in serial installments in an anti-slavery newspaper, the book became known all over the world.  By the time she retired to the Hartford home, she also had achieved international celebrity status, but none of her later books replicated her success.

Also in West Hartford, the Elizabeth Park Gardens are a pleasant oasis of over 100 acres where we felt far away from the surrounding urban environment. Although only a few varieties of roses were in bloom, we enjoyed strolling along the paths, meandering by formal gardens, green houses and ponds.  The historic gardens (first opened in 1897) are free to the public and maintained by a conservancy.  We particularly enjoyed seeing adults taking pictures sitting on a huge wooden chair, where you feel like a character in an Alice in Wonderland scene.  White we were there, quite a few brides and their wedding parties used the park as a backdrop for their wedding photos.

Day 2: Castles, an Ivy League university and cats that wrestle

About one hour south of Hartford, Gillette Castle State Park is a gem worth seeing in East Haddam.  The park overlooks and provides beautiful scenic views high above the Connecticut River.  We thoroughly enjoyed touring the fieldstone Gillette Castle, the focal point of the park.  We began to tour by viewing a short film which explained how William Gillette became a leading actor, playwright and director of his day (in the late 19th century into the early 20th century), most notably for his portrayals of Sherlock Holmes on stage and screen.  The 24 room mansion was designed by Gillette and built in 1919 to look like a medieval European castle.  Inside the castle, the state employee docents regaled us with their extensive knowledge of the castle itself which contains many whimsical design elements (including  secret doors, hidden mirrors for surveillance of the public rooms, unusual door knobs and locks).  Without descendants, Gillette’s career might have been lost to obscurity if the state of Connecticut had not purchased the property and its furnishings.

Close by the castle, we lunched at the Two Wrasslin’ Cats coffee house and café. We were drawn in by the catchy name and the cat decor, as well as a large sign welcoming minority groups to come in and eat.  After a discussion with the owner (biologist Mark Thiede), Fern and I learned that the café has become a focal point for solidarity promoting various vigils in support of minority groups at the café’s parking lot.  The food was tasty but it was the inspiration for the owner’s good works that made us happy we stopped by.

Almost one hour further south, we ended the day in New Haven, walking through the ivy-covered buildings of Yale University.  Starting out at the Mead visitor center, we wandered by the gothic-style dormitories with towers and turrets, courts and iron gates and two cathedral towers.  The visitor center featured traditions and many firsts from Yale’s 300-year old history (such as first Ph.D. awarded).  Some historic Yale buildings are scattered throughout New Haven and its public greens, which were too edgy for us to comfortably enjoy.

Day 3: Above, along and under the sea

Approximately one hour south of Hartford, Groton is the home of the electrical boat division of General Dynamics and the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum.  The Museum features a free self-guided audio tour of the U.S.S. Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, commissioned in 1954 and decommissioned in 1980.  The Nautilus was built by General Dynamics, the nation’s largest submarine producer, and completed the first undersea voyage to the North Pole in 1958.  We were fascinated to see how small the quarters were for the crew of 100 as we walked through the sub.  The museum is relatively small, but is full of displays featuring a complete history of submarines.

Two friends recommended we eat the famous lobster roll at Abbots Lobster in the Rough in Noank, nearby Groton, along the Mystic River. I am not a fan as I found the lobster roll to be tiny, overpriced and not particularly tasty.  Our other dish, the pasta in the rough (with shrimp and marina sauce) was much better.  The views are vintage New England, as we ate on the screened deck, watching boats along the water.

We ended the day in the picturesque coastal town of Mystic, along the Mystic River.  Fern and I first watched a superb Memorial Day parade, featuring farm animals, school bands, fire engines from nearby towns and military vehicles.  After crossing the quaint draw bridge over the river, we wandered in and out of the specialty shops, particularly enjoying a very large and well-stocked independent book store.  We concluded our trip with a stop at Mystic Pizza, made famous by the 1988 movie with Julia Roberts.  The movie shows continuously on several screens inside the restaurant.  The plain pizza was very tasty, with especially good sauce and seasonings.                As the weekend ended, we concluded that Central Connecticut offered plenty of attractions to fill a holiday weekend with fun-filled and educational experiences.