Various attractions and activities lie in and around Essex, including the Essex Steam Train, which putters north along the Connecticut River to the historic village of Deep River. Listen to the clank and whuff of the 1926 locomotive as you plunk yourself in a plush seat in the parlor car. "This car used to be part of the Yankee Clipper train," says the conductor. Nearby Ivoryton is home to one-of-a-kind shops and the Museum of Fife and Drum, which exhibits such military artifacts as flags, swords, and uniforms as well as an array of fifes and drums.
Across the Connecticut River from Essex sit scenic Old Lyme and the Florence Griswold Museum, which recalls this little town's unlikely run as home of a major arts colony, begun when artist and Barbizon-school acolyte Henry Ward Ranger spent summers here—and other painters came to visit. The colony, which included Impressionist Childe Hassam, soon made a dorm of the Griswold mansion, leaving its mark in 43 painted panels. Today the house is the center of a museum devoted to local Tonalist and Impressionist canvases. Not that the "Lyme Art Colony" exists solely in the past. "Really, the whole town paints," a museum docent notes with pride.
As for dining, visitors should enjoy atleast one meal at the Gris, known for its clam chowder and Yankee pot roast. But another experience altogether awaits at Ivoryton's Copper Beech Inn. A country estate built by an ivory merchant in 1890 and now boasting 22 guest rooms, it also offers an award-winning restaurant that serves up locally sourced fare—guinea hen, cod—in contemporary colonial splendor.
You may want to save Essex Village's one notable attraction, the Connecticut River Museum, for last. Housed in an old wharfside building at the end of Main Street, it chronicles the wharf's 350-year history. But it's the working model of the 18th-century American Turtle, a wooden one-man submarine, that draws visitors. "They took the copy out in the water in 1976 when they built it," a staffer explains," so they know it really does work."
As the sun sets, walk out onto Steamship Dock, where the museum keeps a collection of small craft. You'll notice that the town behind you is so quiet you can hear gin splash on ice cubes in a bar three blocks away. That kind of sweet statis can go a long way toward bringing a town to the top of a hundred-best list.
•Logistics: Connecticut River Valley & Shoreline Visitors Council, www.essexct.com. Griswold Inn, 36 Main St., Essex; www.griswoldinn.com. Essex Steam Train, www.essexsteam train.com. Museum of Fife & Drum, www.companyoffifeanddrum.org. Florence Griswold Museum, 96 Lyme St., Old Lyme; www.flogris.org. Copper Beech Inn, 46 Main St., Ivoryton; www.copperbeechinn.com. Connecticut River Museum, 67 Main St., Essex; www.ctrivermuseum.org.
Published in the May/June 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler.