Inn and Out

Inn and Out

This has been a special holiday season for the shoreline river town of Essex, which, for the record, consists of three villages: Ivoryton, Centerbrook and Essex proper. Country Living named it the seventh-most magical Christmas town in the United States (out of 30). Not to be outdone, on December 12, NBC’s Today Show spotlighted Ivoryton—particularly its Ivoryton Illuminations, a nightly display of half a million lights that has run through December for the past 15 years—as part of its 2023 “Merriest Main Street” series.

All pretty exciting, of course, but Essex is getting accustomed to plaudits like these. Celebrated as the “perfect small town” in Yankee, it’s also lauded in several guidebooks and become a go-to set destination for recent Hallmark Channel (Christmas at Pemberley Manor; Next Stop, Christmas) and Netflix (The Noel Diary) Christmas movies. And now, of course, it’s getting a feature in Daily Nutmeg.

I’ve always loved road-tripping here, even when facing down an encroaching winter monsoon this past Sunday. But there’s no way you can absorb it all on one day. I chose to focus on Essex Village’s thriving downtown, featuring countless small shops of all kinds decked out in holiday finery, loads of shrubbery covered in tiny lights and two central historic attractions. Naturally, my first stop was The Griswold Inn, locally known as “the Gris,” established in 1776 and one of the oldest continuing operating inns in the country. Famed for its Sunday “hunt breakfasts” and Sea Chantey Nights, it’s now running a holiday-season series of Sunday brunches ($57.95) culminating on Christmas and New Year’s Eves with a spread including hand-carved New York sirloin. (There will also be a New Year’s Eve dinner offering three courses for $75.) Should you decide to spend a night here, there are 34 unique rooms available, ranging from standard doubles to superior suites and even a family cottage across the street.

For brunch, I dined on an abundance of salads—including a baby arugula salad with apples, walnuts, goat cheese and white balsamic vinaigrette—scrambled eggs, Applewood bacon, country sausage, home fries, vegetables and three meat selections: baked ham Florentine, buttermilk fried chicken and baked cod with tomato basil cream sauce. An excellent mimosa and housemade scones, muffins and double chocolate chip cookies put the whole experience over the top, as did my table in the library, surrounded by cases and cases of well-loved books.

Also adding ambience are the bar’s elevated Christmas tree and selections from the Griswold’s museum-quality marine art collection, the largest privately owned collection of its kind. By popular demand, lecture tours of these works, led by inn co-owner Geoffrey Paul, are offered twice a year. Other artifacts include banners from the 1840s, when the inn was a target of the women’s temperance movement. According to its history, the Gris made some effort to be a “first-class temperance hotel,” but not for long. Thanks to Essex’s proximity to the Connecticut River, rum-runners kept the inn supplied with spirits all through Prohibition, and though the Griswold was raided and fined, it was never out of business.

Back in the present, I headed to the beautiful Connecticut River Museum, established in 1974 and located right on the waterfront. There are docks and decks to walk and benches to look out from, and every time I visit, I find myself venturing right to the water’s edge to commune with nearly tame mallards and seagulls. One particularly cool feature of the museum happens when you look out the windows of its galleries and feel like you’re on the water in a huge houseboat. Located at Steamboat Dock in a renovated 1878 warehouse, its permanent exhibits explore the history of the river from pre-Colonial Native American settlements to the present.

Other outstanding features include the three-floor stairwell Vertical Gallery, a mural created in 2009 by artist Russell Buckingham that maps key points along the Connecticut River’s 410-mile length. There’s also a replica of the “American Turtle,” the world’s first combat submarine, designed by Westbrook native and Yale graduate David Bushnell to be used as a weapon against the British during their occupation of New York Harbor in the Revolutionary War. Though it was unsuccessful in three attempts to blow up British ships, George Washington wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson noting, “I still think that it was an effort of genius.”

Currently on display through mid-February is the museum’s 30th annual holiday train show, mounted by artist and enthusiast Steve Cryan, whose detailed layout this year incorporates a shimmering river between banks replete with buildings and train tracks. In January through March, the museum will celebrate the seasonal return of American bald eagles to the Connecticut River with both exhibits and public Winter Wildlife Cruises aboard its tour boat RiverQuest, devoted to exploring the river’s ecology and wildlife.

Essex shopkeepers are even more devoted to their businesses. Though there’s been one outpost of the Talbots women’s clothing chain in town for decades, most other stores are mom-and-pop endeavors, many of them housed in historic buildings. Two favorites are Essex Duck, which sells rubber ducks in every theme from show-business to politics, and Chocolate Geeks, known for its International Chocolate Awards-winning “Truffle Shots”—confections that come in flavors like Chipotle Cinnamon, Whiskey Kiss and Fig + Balsamic and made Forbes’s list of “Best Chocolates for Holiday Giving” in 2017. Both shops are owned by Sherri and Larry Athay, who also produce killer chocolate chip cookies.

I likewise love Weekend Kitchen, which accurately bills itself as a “not-so-typical kitchen and home store.” Among its wares are hand-printed cards, stationery and other paper goods by the owners’ Green Grape Press. Up the street and brimming with goodies for kids, pets and parents, a tripartite enterprise divided into Toys Ahoy!, Gracie’s Corner and The Glass Basket, all owned by husband and wife Allen Divoll and Dee Ferris, have inhabited the 1801 Ephraim Bound Homestead for more than 30 years. The Glass Basket is a go-to for gifts, particularly glass Christmas ornaments. The Griswold Inn’s store, called Goods & Curiosities, covers the gamut from Hot Buttered Rum Mix and enamel teapots to games and local history books, while the Connecticut River Artisans Co-op, which claims to be the oldest of its kind in Connecticut, showcases the works of more than 30 regional crafters. Also noteworthy, especially if you’re looking for women’s clothing (or gift cards for women’s clothing), are the charming, funky Emmy’s on Main and the classy, contemporary One N Main.

It may seem insane to write a story about Christmastime in Essex and wait until the final paragraph to mention the Essex Steam Train & Riverboat, but the harsh reality is that that attraction is the hottest toy of the Christmas season; as soon as the annual schedule for North Pole Express rides with Santa is announced, the tickets sell out.

There should be a slate of more accessible events planned for warmer times in 2024, among them four-course dinner train tours and riverboat rides aboard the Becky Thatcher. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s the Christmas season, and Essex is a gift.

Photo Key:
1. Out front at the Gris.
2. A Sea Chantey Night earlier this year.
3. The Connecticut River Museum.
4. A view of the museum’s holiday train display.
5. Allen Divoll and Dee Ferris at Toys Ahoy!
6. Inside Emmy’s on Main.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images 1 and 3-6 photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Image 2 photographed by Chris Renton.

More Stories