Summer Breeze

L ate summer might be the perfect time for a day trip with a friend—especially this summer, when being together means being outdoors. I picked up my friend Heather on a breezy Wednesday afternoon with car windows rolled down, masks on, and we headed out to small-town Oxford, Connecticut.

Our first stop, a little more than 30 minutes from downtown New Haven, was the Oxford Baking Company on Route 67, a family business located in a blue house with a charming front porch. Formerly the historic Sanford & Pope store, Oxford Baking Company bakes everything “fresh and from scratch on location,” according to its website. I ordered a Bacon Cheddar Chive croissant sandwich ($3.75) as well as some plain Old Fashioned Kettle Donuts ($1.88 each) to take home for later. Heather got a scoop of Chicken Salad on a bed of lettuce ($3.50) and a gluten-free Cinnamon Swirl Muffin ($3.85). Several gluten-free selections were offered, including gluten-free coffee cake that was also unexpectedly vegan.

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We took our lunches outside, where a narrow strip of back yard slopes toward the Little River, which is literally so little that you could easily walk across it. The spot was shady and pleasant, despite a few sugar-seeking bees, and we relaxed in wicker chairs near the water. Although Heather’s chicken salad wasn’t a hit, all of the baked goods were excellent, from the cheesy, crispy croissant to the cinnamon muffin, which Heather proclaimed “delicious, airy” and “amazing.” We each drank a cup of black iced tea ($2.60) as well, which was flavorful without being oversteeped.

Fortified, we headed farther up Route 67 for a hike at Southford Falls State Park, which straddles the Oxford-Southford town line. A short distance off the highway on Quaker Farms Road, this park packs a lot of charming features into 169 wooded acres.

The Southford Falls trail is a great choice for kids. (We couldn’t find a map posted near the parking lot; though the trail makes a relatively simple loop, you might want to pull up the digital map for added hiking confidence.) Logging in at just 1.32 miles, with an option to cut the loop shorter and a side trail that adds a tenth of a mile, the distance is easily managed. Along the way, there’s a small waterfall you can scramble down, a covered bridge built in 1972 (from an intriguing circa 1804 design with arched support beams) and a little fire tower, which is more fun to climb than it is for the view from the top: trees and more trees.

The hike begins and ends at Papermill Pond, where we spotted a turtle sunning on a rock among a swathe of heart-shaped lily pads. The water wanders under a small footbridge and ripples at the top of a stone dam before pouring from rock to rock into a shady glen, paralleled by the trail. Farther into the woods, trees felled by a recent storm made following the path tricky, but a short boardwalk was intact. From there, the wide gravel trail narrows and becomes more challenging as it climbs over roots and rocks toward an eventual unmarked fork, where a left turn will take you up to the fire tower. Eventually, we found ourselves back at the far end of the pond, where an expansive, grassy lawn and a small pavilion would make a great place for a picnic.

Our appetite, however, was for ice cream, so we headed back down Route 67 to Rich Farm. I’ve lived in Connecticut for 18 years, and in that time I’ve tried a lot of ice cream. Rich Farm has, sticky hands down, the best. Fellow Nutmeggers seem to agree; the place was crowded even on a weekday afternoon at 4:30. Standing in line may take some patience, but while you wait, you can admire the big American flag painted on the side of the barn or the cows grazing in the front pasture. Rich Farm offers 25 “everyday” flavors, from vanilla and chocolate to Razzmanian Devil (vanilla ice cream with dark chocolate chunks and red raspberry sauce) and Cookie Monster (blue vanilla ice cream with chocolate chip cookies), plus additional “special flavors” depending on the day. I ordered a generous “single scoop” (more like a double) of Black Raspberry Brownie with big, gooey chunks of brownie, and Heather enjoyed a cup of Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl (both $4.05).

Our final stop of the afternoon was Olde Sawmill Grill and Miniature Golf, also on Route 67 and easily spotted by the big red caboose parked out front. The grill is closed this season due to COVID, but the golf course is open and fun as ever. Launched in 1995 by the Turcott family on the site of a former greenhouse, the terraced greens, also located right on the Little River, don’t rely on fancy embellishments as some mini-golf venues do—although Hole 16 takes players through a replica of an old sawmill, a nod to Oxford’s lumber past, using a cast iron stove as an obstacle between tee and hole. Most of the obstacles are simple posts and rocks, but each hole offers a unique challenge that makes for exciting play.

For example, hole 14 has two cups, one on a tricky ridge and the other—the one your ball will gravitate toward—on the downslope, which imposes a two-stroke penalty. Both of us watched our balls roll down the grade, stopping short of the lower hole, then managed to tap them back up just far enough that they clung to the edge of the upper grade, saving us from misfortune. A bonus, extra-challenging 19th hole with the chance of earning a prize is closed for the season to avoid problems with social distancing. Nevertheless, we had a great time and came in only slightly over par. (Heather beat me by two strokes.) By the time we left, around 6:15, an evening crowd was arriving.

Everywhere we went on our little journey, most people were masked and attentive to distancing, but there were some gaps in protocol. The bakery was clean—we saw an employee come out and swab down some chairs—and its tables were well-spaced, but one patron who should have been masked wasn’t. At the golf course, the cashier was in an open-air booth behind a plexiglass shield, but probably should have been wearing a mask, too.

Staying apart from other hikers and golfers (and each other) was easy, but keeping our distance in the line at Rich Farms, where all but one patron was masked, was trickier. Even with clear marks on the patio, large groups waiting together sprawled a bit, and the service windows are closer than six feet apart. For those who need to be completely protected, even a little day trip may pose some hazards.

For us, the day was deemed a sweet success, as we surfed the back roads homeward on a cool evening breeze.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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