Manhattan is an endlessly fascinating city, with so much to see and do, but it is sometimes nice to escape the hustle and bustle, and you are somewhat spoiled for choice as to where to visit away from the city. On this trip I am lucky enough to visit three different spots.
My first outing is due north for about 130 miles, to a country house sitting on the New York Massachusetts border, surrounded by State Parks. Getting out of the city on a Saturday morning takes time, and patience, but finally we escape the urban sprawl and are in the countryside. We pass by quaint weatherboard houses surrounded by blossom trees, and often flying the American flag. It is green everywhere I look, a somewhat unusual sight for an Aussie; the forests are wearing their spring coat, and the grass is verdant. And, everything is so very neat and tidy.
Our first stop is the charming hamlet of Millerton where we make a beeline for the Irving Farm Coffee Roasters cafe, as we are in desperate need of a coffee (me) and a snack (them). Choosing the right cake takes time, and we each select a different one, so the potential for cake envy is high. Luckily, we are all satisfied with our choice – the coffee is so so but hey, they are a local roaster done good, with several outlets in Manhattan, so it must be to someone’s taste. But, it is the wonderful Oakhurst Diner in Millerton that really takes my fancy – don’t you just love these wonderful diner buildings? Never mind the food, just admire the look.
The house is all you could wish for in a country home – spacious (i.e room for me), light filled, surrounded by garden and forest, and cosy couches facing a big fireplace. The fire must however wait as we have to explore. There are many opportunities for walks but we content ourselves with the short hike to Sunset Rock, in the Taconic State Park. From here the Hudson Valley and the Catskill Mountains are spread before us, just beautiful. I try to ignore the mention of ticks and Lyme disease, but find later that night I am inspecting my clothes and skin more closely than I would like. Not to mention the snake we spy lying sluggishly beside the path – waking up from his winter sleep perhaps. They talk about Australia and all its dangerous animals! I’m just grateful it wasn’t a rattle snake.
A visit into nearby Great Barrington allows us to catch the Ruth Bader Ginsberg documentary, excellent, followed by dinner at the now famous (thanks to a glowing New York Times review) Prairie Whale restaurant. The restaurant name comes from a 19th century term for pigs, after it was discovered lard could be used as a substitute for whale oil to light lamps. The owner is an escapee from Brooklyn, so we feel right at home in this cosy tavern. The food is described as New American, and the serves are generous. We leave full of food and warm hospitality.
Now it is time for the couch, the roaring fire and introducing my ignorant American ‘family’ to the joy of Eurovision. The next evening when they burst into a version of Rise Like a Phoenix, complete with hand gestures, I know my work here is done and I have made my mark.
I am disappointed not to see a beaver in one of the many lakes and streams, but do see a mighty eagle perched in a tree. I love the names, like Bash Bish Falls, but Bear Mountain sends a slight shudder down my spine. Of course, all of this area looks completely different in Winter as it is covered in snow – hard to imagine now. All in all, a lovely neck of the woods as they say.
My next foray is to Mystic, Connecticut. You are probably all familiar with the name, thanks to Julia Roberts’ much loved debut film Mystic Pizza. I do in fact eat at Mystic Pizza but Julia, or anyone resembling her, is no where to be seen.
In fact, I do quite a bit of excellent eating during my stay in Mystic, starting with the S&P Oyster Company, where we are lucky to get a table overlooking the Mystic River. The view as the sun sets is lovely, and the food excellent.
Oysters are obviously very popular in this part of the country as the other very good restaurant we visit is The Oyster Club. At neither establishment do I actually eat oysters, as I have been promised the cream of oysters during my Newport, RI visit, so I am delaying that pleasure. But, I do enjoy the yummy local fish – can’t get much fresher than this. We begin our night at The Oyster Club by battling the bright young things in the adjoining, and obviously very trendy, Treehouse Bar – thereby raising the average age significantly. Obviously everyone wants to be standing, or sitting, in a treehouse on a warm Memorial Day weekend night, drinking cocktails. We fit right in, except for the age gap!
Next up on the eat your way round the area tour (my kinda tour I have to tell you) is lunch at the quaintly called Dogwatch Cafe in Stonington. Here my table with a view karma holds good and we are seated beside the dock, where we can admire the $$$ tied up at the moorings. We are comforted, not, by the table of burly coastguard officers sitting at the adjoining table, complete with bullet proof vests and guns on their hips.
This is followed another day by the famous Lobster Roll at Abbott’s at Noank. I’m sure this was part of the inspiration for our own Andrew McConnell’s now legendary lobster roll at his various establishments in Melbourne. For $18US you get a 1/4 pound of lobster, including juicy claw flesh, in a brioche bun with a minuscule cup of coleslaw, dill pickle and a bag of crisps. What’s not to like about that? And again, look at the view it comes with.
Sticking with the roll theme, I also enjoy a delicious soft shell crab roll at the Old Lyme Country Club. As you can tell, seafood is both popular and excellent along this coastline, and I’m in heaven.
Now, it wasn’t all about eating. I did get to see some sights too, starting with a leisurely walk around the charming village of Stonington. The town is famous for withstanding a 3 day British bombardment in 1775. Now it is famous for being very pretty, surrounded as it is by water, with lovingly restored homes lining its quiet, treelined streets.
Another outing was to yet another charming village, this time Old Lyme. After admiring the real estate (and the before mentioned soft shell crab roll), we visited the wonderful Florence Griswold museum. I can’t stop thinking of another Griswold family, that of National Lampoon Vacation fame – but this is a very different kettle of fish. The museum consists of the restored Florence Griswold House, and a modern gallery space, housing an impressive collection of American Impressionist paintings, that sits behind the original house on the banks of the Lieutenant River.
Whilst it is interesting to see the paintings, it is the house that particularly takes my fancy. Florence was the youngest daughter of a ship captain. For a time, Florence, her mother and sisters ran a School for Girls but after the death of her father, mother and sister times became difficult so from the late 1800s to make ends meet Florence took in boarders. One of her boarders was the artist Henry Ward Ranger. He loved his time in Lyme and in the boarding house so much that he promised to bring other painters to stay. Thus, the house became the epicentre of the American Impressionist movement, with a number of artists staying over the years. As a thank you to Florence and her generosity to this motley crew, who often paid her in paintings, a variety of artists decorated the interior of several of the rooms. The result being some 41 beautiful painted panels in the downstairs rooms. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993, and an extension restoration project was undertaken in 2006/7.
We finish off a perfect the day with a ferry ride across the Connecticut river, and a drive through the lovely forests of beech, birch, maple and oak trees.
Newport, Rhode Island
The visit to Newport is distinguished mainly by the women I meet there – all well into their 70s and early 80s, and all funny, intelligent and interesting. I have been lucky enough to have visited Newport previously; this visit is driven largely by practicalities. But, we still find time to see some of the sights, starting with a wander around the old part of town, where history sits on every corner. As well as admiring the architecture, we stop in at the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, which dates back to 1747, and boasts an amazing collection of books and artworks.
The sun beckons, as does lunch, so we treat ourselves to lunch on the terrace at the beautiful Castle Hill hotel, admiring the way the other 10% live.
Continuing with imagining how the minority live, we tackle the famous Cliff Walk, skirting behind the mansions of the rich and famous and looking out to the North Atlantic Ocean. Apart from the America’s Cup, Newport is famous for being the town where New York’s wealthiest built their summer cottages. The opulence of these so called cottages – mansions to anyone else – is quite staggering. Thanks to the efforts of such organisations as the Preservation Society of Newport County these buildings have been protected and preserved, and many are open to the public during the summer months. Oh, the stories that are told.
I have barely scratched the surface on what Newport has to offer but time has run out and we must leave. But, on the plus side, I am finally rewarded for my oyster patience on our drive back to Mystic, when we stop at the Matunuck Oyster Bar – and rewarded I am indeed. The three different local oysters I try are sweet and succulent, well worth the wait. The place is pumping, even late on a Thursday afternoon. Apparently, in summer there are queues out the door.