WHY GO: The Northwest area of Connecticut, in and around the Litchfield Hills, is called “The Secret Corner” (as opposed to the Northeast section of CT, which is dubbed the “Quiet Corner.”) This hilly, lake-studded region of Connecticut is home to the glitterati who prefer to leave their glitter in Hollywood or New York, eschewing the Hamptons scene for a much more subdued summer break. This getaway brings you through some rustic-posh towns where the majority owners of shoe-crafter, Manolo Blahnik, have set up shop – though not the kind of shop you might expect. We take you to the most secret sections of the “Secret Corner” including a B&B so mind-blowing; you’ll have to see it to believe it.
What To Do in Washington CT and Surroundings
DRIVE: Lake Waramaug, New Preston. Cruise the 6 or so miles around this lake (which would be deemed a “kettle pond” on Cape Cod), and plan to stop for a tasting (or weekend music) at the Hopkins Winery – or a drink on the front porch of the Hopkins Inn. Pull over at Lake Waramaug State Park if you’ve made reservations (way in advance) to pitch a tent on one of 77 sites within view of the water, and then peek into several independently owned life-style shops in New Preston, on the southern edge of the lake.
VISIT: Institute for American Indian Studies, Washington. On a dead end in a residential neighborhood, this cultural center/archive/history museum is tough to find. Don’t give up, though. Through well researched displays and dioramas, the Institute showcases the cultural and archeological aspects of Native American tribes both in Connecticut and throughout the country. Designed in a circular Wigwam shape, the museum presents a 12,000 year time line of Native American life in Quinnetukut – the Algonquin word for “Long Tidal River” that was Anglicized to “Connecticut.”
There are two long-houses on site – one incorporated inside the museum, used as classroom space for enthusiastic school groups who study here, and another on the 15 ½ acres outside. Inside, kids can handle artifacts and climb in and out of a canoe for an authentic Native American experience. Locals come here for solace: to walk the mile long trail or smell lingering smoke in the outdoor Sachem House composed of tree bark and tree branches (as opposed to animal hide used by the Plains Indians). Plan on at least an hour here. Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5, year round. $8 adults, $5 children.
VISIT: Gunn Memorial Museum, Washington. Affiliated with the lovely stone Gunn Library, the Museum features temporary exhibits, walking tours, film series, and other programs. On display now is a retrospective about the Horace Mann School’s John Dorr Nature Laboratory in Washington CT – celebrating its 50th year. As a daughter and sister of Horace Mann graduates, I can remember forty years ago my brother declaring the threshold of the compound’s latrine to be “the john door of the John Dorr Nature Lab.” I wonder how much has changed. Open Thurs-Sat 10-4, Sun 12-4.
SHOP/ICE CREAM: Arethusa Farms Dairy, Bantam. What are those Manolo Blahnik guys up to? They own cows and lots of land and have called their Litchfield Hills enterprise Arethusa Farms. Pick up cheese, ice cream, and farm-fresh milk “like it used to taste.”
VISIT: New Milford Historical Society Museum, New Milford. If you love historic structures saved from demolition, you’ll adore this assemblage of buildings that constitute the New Milford Historical Society. Most notable is the former Elijah Boardman Mercantile Store – owned by one of the state’s first senators and moved from the town center and reassembled, complete with its original beams, in 1996. The 1823 First Bank of Litchfield County Building is in the process of being restored.
The Historical Society Museum houses a fantastic “button tableau” – an art piece made from “vegetable ivory nut” buttons fashioned in New Milford, which boasted a burgeoning button industry in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. You’ll find examples of the “Lettuce Leaf” Wannopee Pottery, which became highly collectible after Jackie O wrote about it, portraits of the town’s founding fathers by celebrated artist Ralph Earl (whose work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC), and other arcane objects. A tour of the Museum includes a walk through the attached 1815 Knapp House. Interestingly, all structures can be accessed without going outside. $3, 30 minutes to one hour tours depending on interest. Tues-Fri and Sunday,12-3.
Where to Eat in Washington CT and Surroundings
EAT: Arethusa al tavolo, Bantam. Next door to the Arethusa Dairy Store, this upscale restaurant is also owned by the stiletto – um, Manolo Blahnik – guys, George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, as well. Ingredients are sourced from their own farm nearby and from others in the neighborhood. The resulting dishes are nothing short of magnificent – according to a slew of glowing reviews.
EAT: GW Tavern, Washington Depot. So THIS is where all the locals go. At least on Monday nights when other restaurants are shut tight. The food is good, the atmosphere low lit, and the crowd is congenial and neighborly.
Where to Stay in Washington CT and Surroundings
STAY: Hidden Valley B&B. Up a long, steep, woodland driveway, this B&B certainly is hidden from the world. You may have your doubts about what you’ll find as you pass a couple of modest neighboring homes on the way, but fear not. This is one of those places for which the well-worn phrase “Hidden Gem” absolutely applies. Though it has been written up in Travel + Leisure, Country Home and other glossies, this extravagant four room South African Dutch Colonial manages to feel like a private home – although an opulent one – by virtue of its owner, Regine Laverge-Schade, known to friends as “Ine” (pronounced “eenie”). The Holland-born Laverge Schade, built her dream home overlooking the hills and dales of northwestern CT. Views are spectacular, but what makes this place so special is “Ine’s” sense of style, grace and warmth. What makes Hidden Valley B&B even more incredible is room rates are half – and sometimes even a third – of other luxury inns in the area (see below). Rooms $280 in winter, $325 in summer plus tax include gourmet, cooked to order breakfast and respite from the world for nearly 24 hours. See complete write – up here.
STAY/EXPENSIVE: Winvian (Morris) and Mayflower Grace Inn (Washington). These upscale properties are lovely and, in the case of the funky Winvian, with themed “cottages” – unique. Mayflower rates begin at $880 during high season, Winvian at $1200 per night.
STAY/BUDGET: Hopkins Inn, New Preston. Overlooking Lake Waramaug, this “family style” inn has been updating rooms recently. Most inexpensive are the shared bathrooms ($125 per night), though you can score rooms with en suite baths for $135-$140 per night. Rooms are country-comfy. The Inn maintains its own beach and features a beautiful patio – the perfect sunset cocktail perch overlooking Lake Waramaug.