Slices of Lyme

Slices of Lyme

Painter Frederick Childe Hassam (1859-1935), a superstar of the American Impressionist movement and a key figure of the Lyme Art Colony, once wrote, “Art, to me, is the interpretation of the impression which nature makes upon the eye and brain… The true impressionism is realism.” One of Hassam’s major subjects was the surrounding town, Old Lyme, a place that continues to make a very real impression.

Any primer on Old Lyme should start with the Florence Griswold Museum (fondly known as FloGris), though it wasn’t the first stop on my itinerary. I could easily have spent an entire day—or more than one—at this 12-acre site, visiting the exhibits at the Robert & Nancy Krieble Gallery (including one highlighting works by the Lyme Art Colony) and exploring the four outdoor trails and various outbuildings.

The story of the museum begins in 1899, when landscape painter Henry Ward Ranger returned to the US from a course of study in Europe. He wanted to create an American equivalent to the French Barbizon, a “tonal” school of landscape painting. Upon visiting Old Lyme, he decided this was the perfect setting for such a project and moved into the family home of Florence Griswold, who had started taking in boarders to meet her household bills. Attracted by the local scenery, the prospect of cheap rent and the positioning between Boston and New York City, Ranger’s peers were soon joining him. After Hassam arrived in 1903, America’s Barbizon evolved into America’s Giverny, becoming the outpost for Impressionist masters like Willard Metcalf and William Chadwick.

My favorite structure is the Griswold House itself, perhaps one of the most ambitious works of art onsite. While the Impressionists were largely devoted to painting “en plein air” (in the open air), they also amused themselves by decorating the doors and walls of the house—perhaps the most giddily impromptu art assemblage you’ll ever see, especially in the dining room. I particularly love the comical mini mural situated above the room’s fireplace, which depicts the resident artists in an imaginary fox hunt.

Another favorite feature is FloGris’s outdoor lunch spot, Café Flo, located on the side porch of the Krieble Gallery overlooking the Lieutenant River. I enjoyed a succulent Lobster BLT ($33) on sourdough with truly crispy housemade potato chips and, for dessert, a tangy, fluffy lemon mousse ($9). Both made a May day clinging to a chilly, rainy and windy March climate much more bearable. So did two brisk strolls along the designated River Walk, where LAC stalwarts once paddled rowboats named Scarlet Fever, Smallpox and Prickly Heat and through the Garden Walk, a re-creation of the site’s four original gardens, featuring rotating displays of pansies, poppies, roses, irises, lilacs and Black-Eyed Susans from spring to fall.

There’s definitely more to Old Lyme than fascinating art history and its offshoots. I had arrived in town at 8 a.m. to experience what locals seem to consider their must-visit weekend breakfast site, The Hangry Goose. (By 9:15, when I left, would-be customers had formed a long hangry line into the parking lot.) I enjoyed a decadent Belgian waffle ($10.25) with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, which I immediately made more indulgent with a liberal application of maple syrup. Fortunately, the waffle itself, large as it was, possessed an indelible lightness that went down easy. My companion enjoyed Hash & Eggs ($14.95) with home fries and toast, making me a convert to that dish with one taste of the savory, tender, greaseless corned beef.

I then worked part of the meal off with a walk at the DEEP Boardwalk at Ferry Landing State Park. For much of this 0.6-mile stroll, you’re walking over the lower Connecticut River on a planked wooden path—populated, perhaps, with congenial fishermen and crab hunters. You’ll also get striking views of salt marshes, traveling boats and, if you’re lucky, wildlife including seals, swans and osprey. The boardwalk ends with an elevated lookout facing the Dr. Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Area at Great Island, dedicated to the town’s renowned naturalist. My favorite manmade landmark was the overhead train drawbridge, where a couple of Shore Line East trains rocketed through just as I was walking underneath.

My next destination was Sound View Beach, established in 1892 and touted as America’s first public beach. By the time I got there, it was raining hard and the neighborhood was desolate. The only sign of life was at the popular beachside restaurant Kokomo’s, which proudly offers “toes in the sand” casual dining, an appealing proposition when the sand is dry. In addition to “Caribbean-Fresh Cuisine,” from Hot Maine Lobster Sliders (at market price) to Bourbon Marinated Sirloin Tips ($25.99), you can avail yourself of Frozen Jalapeño Pineapple Margaritas (served inside a real pineapple for $25) or Block Island Mudslides ($15) as well as your own piece of beach by renting a cabana ($200-$250) or lounge chair ($25) on Kokomo’s slice of oceanfront property. Among what the website describes as “specials of the week,” a “Beach Day Package” for $75 includes two lounge chairs, two souvenir beach towels, a beach umbrella and a reserved parking spot.

Given that the pricey municipal parking lot has roughly 70 spaces ($7.50 for the first two hours on weekends; $9.50 an hour thereafter) and the other privately owned lots scattered around are even smaller, this is worth considering if you plan to spend the day. I rather enjoyed the ghostly emptiness of the beach on the day of my visit, especially since Memorial Day weekend was around the corner and the site was unlikely to be this quiet for months to come. Even the seagulls seemed to have taken refuge elsewhere.

Getting plenty wet without dabbling in the ocean, I headed back to the street, where I took a peek at other nearby signature attractions soon to open for the summer season, including the much-loved Vecchitto’s Italian Ice, a fixture since 1946. One regret was not being able to ride the 1925 Allan Herschell Carousel, open 7 to 9 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, created by one of the premier 20th-century amusement ride manufacturers in the United States—and one of only two in New England that literally allows riders to grab a brass ring (the other is The Flying Horse Carousel at Rhode Island’s Watch Hill Park). Next door, The Carousel Shop sells its own motherlode of frozen treats, beach toys, clothes and local gifts.

Returning to the center of town, I stopped at The Chocolate Shell, a charming sweet shop presided over by Lizzy McCarthy and her two endearing black labs, 10-year-old Finn and exuberant 5½-month-old Otto. Otto couldn’t have cared less that I was fascinated by the imported gourmet French chocolate pandas ($14.95 apiece) and white chocolate ducks floating above a “sea” of Caribbean-blue jelly beans ($19.95) and kept trying to engage me in a game of tug-of-war with a stuffed bone almost as big as he is. (To be fair, I had started it.) Finn, meanwhile, was happy to plop down beside me wherever I walked while seducing me with soulful eyes.

Just as compelling were the shop’s gorgeous truffles as well as its kid-friendly gourmet lollipops, “lickable” bubble soap and miniature gumball machines. Little ones with pocket money can pick from a selection of popular candies by the bar or piece, including small boxes of Junior Mints (65 cents), caramels (15 cents), Reese’s peanut butter cups (35 cents) and Hershey’s kisses (25 cents). Any adult who leaves without one of the shop’s delectable chocolate samplers ($21.95) is denying themselves a dose of youthful pleasure.

Further pleasure awaits at The Bowerbird, an over-the-top, 4,500-square-foot gift shop established in 1989 to sell “impulsive necessities.” What’s truly necessary is in the eye of the beholder, but the hoary old claim of offering “something for everyone” applies perfectly here. Actually, I’d amend that: There’s something classy for everyone: toys, books, games, jewelry, stationery, gourmet foods, housewares, clothing and decorative items of all descriptions.

Should one day in Old Lyme not be enough, I’d recommend a night or two at the Old Lyme Inn, which was built in 1865 on a 300-acre working farm that at one time accommodated a riding academy attended by a young Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Day visitors can also take advantage of its amenities. Saturday high teas, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., feature monthlong themes—May’s is “Spring Garden Tea” and June’s will be “Wizard of Oz,” for which the fare will include Auntie Em’s Egg Salad and “Over the Rainbow” Petit Fours ($45 per person).

Live jazz brunches, meanwhile, are held every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. I loitered for a bit at the inn’s Side Door Jazz Club, which hosts ticketed performances on Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:30 p.m. Dinners, for their part, will soon undergo a seasonal makeover, though the menu is usually a three-course prix fixe. Beginning May 30, a la carte offerings can be enjoyed on the patio every Thursday through Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m.

I finished up my trip with a stop at the wood-shingled Coffee’s Country Market, a third-generation family business now owned by Ken and Teresa Coffee and revered by locals for its homemade baked goods (pies, cinnamon and pecan rolls, tiramisu, rugelach, banana and blueberry sour cream breads), deli sandwiches, prepared meals and a coffee/design-your-own-smoothie bar. Sadly, I missed the 4 p.m. cutoff for the latter—I would have definitely gone for a large Teresita Coffee or London Fog Latte (both $5.50)—but even without that indulgence I found much here that impressed me, from the broad spreads of fresh produce and gourmet products to local java blends by Moodus Mud Coffee Roasters and Middletown’s Perkatory Coffee Roasters.

Happily, I went home with some select goodies—Teresa Coffee’s delectable strawberry thumbprint cookies ($5.25) and an equally fab lemon meringue minipie ($5.95) among them—which sustained me through the following day. And only a few days after that, I was already ready to make this road trip again, because Old Lyme is the kind of town that elevates reality to an art.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Images 1-9 photographed by Patricia Grandjean. Images 10-11 sourced from

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