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Scenic Roads of the Connecticut Art Trail

Author: Bob W.
Date of Trip: October 2006

Plans to drive through New England’s fall colors were transformed into a memorable tour of Connecticut art museums by way of scenic country routes. To raise our spirits before the gray of approaching winter, my wife and I enjoy traveling through parts of New England during peak fall colors (if we are lucky enough to time our travels well). This year, we planned a four-day weekend in October, leaving on a Thursday morning and returning Sunday. As our target dates approached, the weatherman began to predict heavy rain on Friday — not exactly an ideal condition for viewing fall colors. Since I wanted to photograph (and later paint) some of the more spectacular fall scenes, the prediction of Friday downpours cast a shadow over our plans. To accommodate the weatherman, we decided we would use the rainy Friday to visit some of the outstanding museums on Connecticut’s art trail. We would travel through scenic, less populated, northwestern Connecticut, then visit major art museums in the Hartford area, finally staying in Bristol to visit with my brother and his family.

Coming from New Jersey, we wanted to minimize time on crowded interstates and spend most time traveling through small towns on scenic routes. The northwest portion of Connecticut is rich in beautiful and sparsely settled towns such as Lakeville, Kent, New Preston and Litchfield. Our challenge would be to connect from this scenic section of the state to the outstanding art museums in Hartford and vicinity, while avoiding heavily trafficked I-84. Because fall colors and college homecoming weekends can make accommodations scarce, we called ahead and reserved rooms in the Hopkins Inn (New Preston), the Centennial Inn (Farmington) and Clarion Inn (Bristol).

Starting in Hopewell, NJ, we traveled north on I-287 and I-87 (NY Thruway) to I-84 east where we soon exited, northbound, on the more scenic and lightly traveled Taconic Parkway, then eastbound on NY state route 44. Colors on I-287 were a bit subdued, but were quite vivid by the time we returned on Sunday. On I-87 and beyond, the world seemed like a giant palette with every shade of red, orange, yellow and green. On route 44, the green of dairy farms and horse farms set off the quilt of bright colors on the hills. If we had stayed on route 44, we would have entered Connecticut near gracious and picturesque Lakeville. We decided, instead, to shorten the drive by picking up NY route 343 east in Amenia. This quiet hamlet was traffic-free and almost deserted. In fact, a small luncheonette where we had once dined now had a “for sale” sign in front and no sign of life within.

At the Connecticut state line, near the Town of Sharon, route 343 became Connecticut route 4. On both sides of the border, we wound through small, peaceful towns and up and down hills, at a leisurely pace that permitted enjoyment of the countryside. In front of town halls and homes were scarecrows, witches, ghosts and other colorful figures signaling the approach of Halloween. After ten miles at a tranquil pace, we turned south on route 7 (one of New England’s most scenic roads). Around every turn were views of distant mountains decorated in festive colors, like giant tapestries. This area of Connecticut would be a pleasure to travel through at any time of year!

The greatest treat was yet to come. We pulled off the road into Kent Falls State Park. A short walk took us to the many levels of cascading falls, now at a rapid flow sustained by plentiful recent rains. A quarter mile trail along the edge of the falls rose 250 feet from ground level, permitting close-up views of the falls and the chance to capture the scene on film. Yes, I use an old fashioned, 35mm camera which gives no hint of how well I’ve captured the scene until the prints are ready. So hard to part with the familiar!

After enjoying the falls, we continued south on route 7 to the town of Kent, home of the Kent preparatory school. A direct route east from there took us to Warren and route 45 south to New Preston where we located signs to the Hopkins Inn and Hopkins Vineyards. We had twice before enjoyed wine tasting at the Hopkins Vineyard and stayed at the Hopkins Inn, a warm and beautiful structure built in 1851 and restored in 1946. We were fortunate that our Thursday night stay was excluded from the Inn’s usual requirement of a two night stay. The Inn sits on a hillside overlooking Lake Waramaug. The name “Waramaug,” or “Wonkkemaug” in the area’s native tongue, means “crooked pond with good fishing.” In the summer, guests at the Inn have use of a lakeside swimming area or can drive a short distance to a public beach and boating area. Rooms at the Inn, furnished in antiques, are located on the second and third floors, above welcoming living and dining areas. Lodgings are reached by means of narrow staircases (no elevators, folks). As I struggled up two flights of narrow stairs with our suitcases, I asked myself whether we really needed even half of their heavy contents for a four-day trip!

The Inn’s rooms are cheerful yet spartan. Our room had a muted floral-patterned wallpaper and what appeared to be original framed art on the walls. Having stayed at the Inn before, we knew there would be no modern appliances such as a telephone, radio or TV. In a modest gesture towards modernity, a small electric alarm clock was provided so we could rise in time for breakfast in one of two attractive dining areas.

On previous trips to New Preston, we had driven to Litchfield for dinner and for a walk past historic homes and the nation’s first law school — basically a one room schoolhouse built at a time when most law students simply apprenticed under the tutelage of an established attorney. This time, a bit tired from our drive, we chose to pass up the drive to Litchfield and, instead, take a walk along Lake Waramaug where I could photograph more fall scenes in the fading light of day. My camera kept beeping to warn me that a flash was needed, but a flash would have done little to light up a lakeside scene, so I steadied the camera and shot away. After our walk, we had plenty of appetite for dinner at the Inn. Seated in the main dining room, we had a brief but glorious view of the lake as the sun settled behind the hills. The Duck a L’Orange was delicious!

We awoke to a light but steady rain on Friday. Breakfast was in the informal wood-paneled dining area whose fireplace was decorated with colorful tiles (manufactured in Doylestown, PA) depicting the adventures of Rip Van Winkle. We shared the breakfast area with two German businessmen and a British couple. Having calculated a rather contorted route to our next destination, Hartford, I decided to ask at the desk what route would be most pleasant and direct. As advised, we picked up route 202 east from New Preston to Litchfield, then route 118 to Harwinton where the route became route 4 east. This pleasant two-lane road connected with I-84 east about 7 miles west of Hartford. Our first destination was the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in the center of Hartford, near the capital. By the time we arrived, the rain had stopped.

The Wadsworth Atheneum, which is America’s oldest continuously operated public art museum, has a large, varied and outstanding collection of paintings, sculptures, ceramics and glassware, in addition to Asian art and classical antiquities — even a well-preserved Egyptian mummy. In size, excellence and variety, the Wadsworth qualifies as a must-see site for serious art lovers.

American art, spanning the 18th through 20th centuries, was well represented from the Hudson River School to abstract artworks. European Impressionist masterpieces, 16th and 17th century European art and galleries of African-American artists are all displayed. We were told that art stored in the basement, for which there is not sufficient display space, would fill another museum of the same size! A major expansion could be in the works in the future.

After a tasty lunch in the Wadsworth’s cafe, we picked up I-84 west for a 20-minute drive to the New Britain Museum of American Art. In two previous visits to this museum, we marveled at how many great paintings were crowded into the small area of a three-story house located in a quiet residential neighborhood, next to a park. This time we wanted to see the new addition that now houses the museum. The old site, whose renovation is now nearly complete, will soon hold still more exhibits. The new exhibit area and collection of great paintings blew us away! There are just too many great paintings and artists to list. One that must be noted is the huge, 76 x 210 inch, “Cycle of Terror and Tragedy: September 11, 2001” by Graydon Parrish — four years in the making. It takes time to fully comprehend and absorb this powerful, allegorical painting representing the 9-11 tragedy. Once you’ve seen it, you are not likely to forget it.

A very small sampling of other notable paintings of the New Britain museum would include “A Caress” by Mary Cassatt, “Le Jour du Grand Prix,” by Frederick Childe Hassam, “Seal Rock,” by Albert Bierstadt, “McVey’s Barn” by Andrew Wyeth, “Butterflies” (the Butterfly Girl) by Winslow Homer, “Miss Cara Burch” by John Singer Sargent and “Spanish Girl of Segovia” by Robert Henri. These take their place next to many paintings by Frederick Edwin Church and others of the Hudson River School. A particular favorite of mine was “The Bird Cage” by Impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke. The New Britain museum’s large, varied and impressive collection should be on every art lover’s list of places to visit!

A bit weary from our visit to two of Connecticut’s major art museums, we traveled to Farmington to check into our comfortable and nicely furnished “efficiency suite” at the Centennial Inn in Farmington. Having tasted fine cuisine a night earlier, this time we opted for a nearby Ruby Tuesday, attracted by its appetizing salad bar. Saturday, after an okay but crowded breakfast at the motel, we traveled a short distance to the Hill-Stead Museum, situated on 152 acres near the center of historic Farmington. Once the retirement home of industrialist Alfred Atmore Pope and his wife, this Colonial Revival House was designed by their daughter, Theodate Pope. Theodate was one of the nation’s first female architects. Built in 1901, the house has its original furnishings and art works. The Popes were friends and patrons of Impressionists Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Eduard Manet, Claude Monet, James McNeil Whistler and other artists whose paintings and etchings are on display. Also displayed are Japanese and Indian paintings and classical art objects dating from as early as 600 B.C. Visitors are guided through the property on an informative one-hour tour, then are invited to walk through the grounds and visit the beautiful sunken garden which is the site of poetry readings in the summer months. Other historic homes are located within a short distance of the Hill-Stead museum.

Happy with our tour of three museums on the Connecticut art trail, we now headed to Bristol to visit with my brother and his family. Two of my brother’s friends and their children joined us for scrumptious pizza at the First and Last Tavern in Avon. Then off to a farm in neighboring Simsbury to experience a bonfire and haunted hay ride! Happily we survived multiple chainsaw attacks, huge spiders, ghosts, ghouls, witches, goblins and cannibals under a clear, starlit night. We did have visions of having to slog back to the farm on foot, through mud and woods, when the tractor pulling our wooden sleigh began to bog down in mud. But all ended well. Great fun!

Sunday morning, we debated whether to return to New Jersey by way of the NY Thruway or via I-684 and the Tappen Zee Bridge (which sometimes seems more direct). Our unfortunate choice of the latter route put us in 45 minutes of stop-and-go-traffic while a multi-car accident on the bridge was cleared. Oh well. We were soon dazzled by the colors along I-287 as we returned home. I suppose we could have visited our choice of art museums over a weekend alone; but how enjoyable it was to be able to take a leisurely drive through the small towns and splendor of nature in beautiful northwestern Connecticut!

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