Tuesday 18 June 2019

Connecticut: Falling for New England


Autumn or Fall in New England is captured in all its rustic elegance outside the Connecticut State Capitol building in Hartford
Autumn or Fall in New England is captured in all its rustic elegance outside the Connecticut State Capitol building in Hartford

Madeleine Keane

Fall in New England. Four words pregnant with romance and promise and beauty. That this trip will coincide with my birthday makes it seem utterly seminal and special.

October 4 starts in Simsbury; a quintessentially American town with its pristine sidewalks, elegant colonials and white picket fences,. It is also home to the Simsbury Art Trail, a collection of 32 life-size bronze sculptures dotted around the neighbourhood and aimed at capturing the quotidien: so there's a girl sunbathing, a middle-aged man reading a newspaper, a postman on his beat. The life-like figures are the work of Seward Johnson and add a surreal element to this quaint place.

We're in the heart of Connecticut, one of the six New England sisters - along with Rhode Island, Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Travel folk love to compare places to siblings and one of our guides informs me that Connecticut is the younger, sexier one.

The big day opens with a working breakfast, then we're off in search of a pumpkin patch. If you thought our Halloween celebrations had got increasingly over the top, we can blame it on our American cousins who approach it with their typical gusto and exuberance. So the farm stands laden with heaps of golden and orange gourds abound, and three weeks in advance of the October fest, clapboard houses are festooned with skeletons, jack-o-lanterns, cobwebs and witches.

Pictures taken, we're back on the road to New Canaan. This prosperous place is curiously familiar and later I find out that The Ice Storm (a powerful movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline) was made here. We are in town to visit The Glass House, the estate of the famous American architect Philip Johnson where he lived with his partner David Whitney.

Set in verdant curves, it comprises brick house, guest house, ghost house, art and sculpture galleries, the latter featuring works by Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel and Robert Rauschenberg, and there's a sublime swimming pool - a perfect circle with a stone plank for a diving board.

Little does the birthday girl realise she's going to spend some of it on a party bike drinking beer careering round a New England university town. Needless to say it is sensational fun. You've probably seen these contraptions round the environs of Temple Bar, being ridden by squealing hens. They look like a tram with bike saddles which double as bar stools on which we perch while drinking, cycling and taking in the sights of New Haven.

We stop at the town's oldest pizza joint, Pepe's for their famous white clam pie. Next up is the perfectly preserved burger wagon, Louis' Lunch: here it was in the early 1900s a student came from the college asking for ground beef on bread. And thus the hamburger was born. They still serve the meat patty on a slice of toast and, under peril of your life, don't ask for ketchup or mayo.

Last stop on our culinary carousel is Miya's, a boho sustainable sushi restaurant, (we could only be in the States) where the chef owner plies us with sake and fried Japanese knotweed, while telling unprintable anecdotes during a monologue on the importance of sustainability in an increasingly consumerised society. As fascinating as it is unforgettable.

Happily, the highlight of the trip also takes place on this day. This is a tour of Yale, and honestly it feels like being in a living history tableau.

It's the day before the Kavanaugh hearings. The rivalry between the two leading Ivy League colleges - Harvard and Yale - has always been immense with the latter claiming their preponderance of judges on the Supreme Court gives them the edge. One Brett Kavanaugh is a former Yale alumnus and yet huge posters still tell Christine Blasey Ford, 'we believe you'.

The delightful final year student (economics, ballet and general all-round loveliness) who gives us our tour is predictably tactful - and anyway, I'm far more interested in the history of this intriguing place which started in nearby Saybrook as the Collegiate School.

Granted a charter in 1701, it was renamed Yale in 1718 in honour of Welsh merchant Elihu Yale who donated monies, books and a portrait of King George I.

The notorious Skull & Bones fraternity society was conceived within these hallowed walls. There's also the magnificent Beinecke Library. One of the world's largest, it's devoted to rare books and manuscripts, and copies of the Gutenberg Bible and John James Audubon's Birds of America are on permanent display on the mezzanine.

A jaunt on the Essex Steam Train brings more fun on wheels. Meticulously restored, the vintage steam locomotive has a first class Pullman lounge and conductors straight out of central casting. On eau-de-nil velvet revolving chairs, we sip Manhattans and Martinis as we roll through the stunning Connecticut River Valley, the glinting water framed with trees burnishing to copper, crimson and mustard. We pass Gillette Castle - a medieval gothic edifice once owned by William Gillette, an American actor famous for his stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes - and a field of bloodied corpses: more Halloween excess.

Mystic Seaport is every bit as alluring as it sounds - a pretty maritime village, famous for Mystic Pizza where the film of the same name (with Julia Roberts and Matt Dillon making his debut) was made. Be sure to stop at Sift Bakery for one of their famous macaroons. And at the first rate Mystic Seaport Museum, take the tour of the whaling ship.

New England was also the birthplace of America where the Pilgrim Fathers landed and here in Mystic, Mayflower II is being restored in advance of the 400th anniversary of its maiden ancestor.

Of course even before the Pilgrims there were the Native Americans and it is a great treat to visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. Tribally owned-and-operated since it opened 20 years ago, the highlight here is a life-size tableau of a village - stunningly realised in minute detail.

Hartford is the state capital and also known as the place where the leading light of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst, made her famous 'freedom or death' speech.

We're put up for the night in the recently refurbished Delamar. When I tell you the lobby is currently showcasing an exhibition of the late Dennis Hopper's monochrome photographs you'll get the general vibe of coolness and chic.

It is everything a really good hotel should be - spacious, gracious and stylish with every whim catered for. Our tired bunch are welcomed with Champagne before a delectable dinner in their stylish artisan restaurant.

As someone who has spent a lifetime working in the book industry, I'm always moved to see the places in which great writers work - from Dylan Thomas's seaside cabin in Laugharne to Ernest Hemingway's fine home in Florida's Key West. So I'm delighted that our last stop before the airport is the Mark Twain House in Hartford.

Samuel Clemens (to give him his real name) lived here with his wife and daughters and wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in these wonderful rooms.

The old mansion is so thoughtfully and authentically preserved you can almost smell the cigar smoke. The excellent docent explained how, when his publishing company failed in 1894, Sam was forced to set out on a worldwide lecture tour to earn money.

Tragedy struck a couple of years later when his daughter Susy died from meningitis while on a visit to the Hartford home. She was 24. Unable to bear being in the place of her death, they never returned there to live.

Our adventures in Connecticut ended, let's conclude with one of Twain's great maxims. "Travel," he once wrote, "is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

Get there

Aer Lingus flies direct and year-round from Dublin to Bradley Airport, Hartford Connecticut. One-way fares start from €169, including taxes and charges, when booked as a return trip.

Bradley Airport is located just outside Hartford, in the heart of Connecticut, the gateway to New England and is also equidistant between New York and Boston.

For more information on Bradley, Aer Lingus and Connecticut visit bradleyairport.com, ctvisit.com and aerlingus.com.

This feature was originally published in The Sunday Independent.

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