Connecticut’s Quiet Corner: Lots to See and Do
When I pressed the scan button on my car radio and heard only static, I knew I wasn’t in suburbia anymore. I had entered the Quiet Corner, a pocket of Northeast Connecticut that has remained virtually untouched, despite its proximity to major metropolitan areas.
Cows grazing, country stores, and clear starry skies are just a few of the charms I encountered.
“This is real countryside,” said Brian Jessurun, a Quiet Corner resident and co-owner of the Vanilla Bean Café in Pomfret. “I leave my keys in my car so I know where they are.”
Aside from not having to lock his doors, Brian also enjoys the close proximity to Providence, Boston, Hartford, Worcester and the shoreline, as well as the sense of community that comes from living in a small New England town. “Everyone knows each other,” he said.
Though the Quiet Corner is… well… quiet, don’t let the name fool you. Many come here to escape the fast pace of the city, but there are also plenty of unique activities to explore, including hot air ballooning, spas, museums, farms, and award-winning vineyards.
The Spa at Norwich Inn
I began my journey in Norwich, slightly south of the Quiet Corner, at the Spa at Norwich Inn. I arrived at the Inn’s red brick reception building to see women strolling through the garden in bathrobes.
Upon entering the spa, I received my own soft, terry-cloth bathrobe to wear while I waited for my appointment. I opted for a relaxing hot stone massage, just one of the many treatments offered at the spa.
Patrons can also take advantage of facials, body wraps and polishes, and of course, a variety of massages, one of the most unique being a massage lesson for partners. The spa has indoor and outdoor pools, as well as a whirlpool, steam room, sauna, and fitness center.
After my treatment, I met Peggy Cosgrove, the spa’s public relations representative, for lunch at Kensington’s, the spa’s restaurant. We ate on the deck, overlooking a reflecting pool, surrounded by ladies lunching in their bathrobes.
As is the case with most spas, the restaurant emphasizes healthy eating. The menu lists the nutritional content of each dish. I ordered a hummus vegetable wrap (264 calories) and French Fries (I don’t want to know how many calories.)
“We give you choices,” said Peggy of the mostly healthy menu. “If you want to eat red meat and a chocolate dessert, we have that too.”
She went on to explain Executive Chef Daniel Chong-Jimenez’s philosophy. Put simply, his goal is to create great-tasting meals that are also good for you. He believes that people looking to improve their diets should change one element at a time, not everything at once. In addition to cooking, Chong-Jimenez also gives nutritional consultations.
After lunch, I reluctantly left the Spa at Norwich Inn. I was envious of those who were staying for a week.
On my way back from Norwich I passed through Willimantic, part of the town of Windham. It is best known for its quirky Thread City Crossing Frog Bridge. Four menacing, bronze frogs with gold eyes sit on giant spools of thread at the ends of the bridge, which crosses the Willimantic River.
The bridge pays homage to the “Battle of the Frogs.” One night in 1754, the citizens of Windham awoke to terrifying sounds. Fearing an Indian attack, they prepared to defend themselves.
The townspeople marched in the direction of the noise, only to find that a nearby pond had dried up, resulting in the death of hundreds of bullfrogs. The terrifying sounds had come from frogs fighting for water.
Since the bridge opened in 2000, Willimantic has embraced the bullfrog as its mascot. Pictures and smaller sculptures of the frogs are displayed all over town, and many businesses are named after them.
The spools of thread may seem like an odd addition, but they actually represent Willimantic’s industrial history. It was once known as “Thread City,” because the American Thread Company had a mill on the Willimantic River.
Up, Up and Away!
The next morning, my second in the Quiet Corner, I awoke at 4 a.m. I wiped the condensation off my car windows and drove south to experience the area’s ultimate view: the view from a hot air balloon.
“Up, up and away in my beautiful balloon,” Gerard sang as we floated off the ground. “If you had your eyes closed you’d never know we took off,” he said. It was true. I felt no sensation of flying.
It was the perfect morning for ballooning: clear skies and very little wind. Since morning is the best time to fly, Gerard and Mark Lefevre, co-owners of Eastern Connecticut Balloon Services, schedule most of their flights at sunrise.
I arrived at our launch site in Norwich to find Gerard and his crew unfolding his balloon, “Amazing Grace,” in a colorful line on the grass. Gerard and Mark also build their own balloons, but that morning we flew in a factory-made balloon.
Gerard has been piloting balloons for about 30 years, and has been on approximately 1100 flights. “You get addicted to it,” he said. He and his brother have flown hot air balloons in Europe, Canada, and all over the United States.
The crew attached the balloon’s basket, and placed an industrial-sized fan at the hole in the bottom to fill it with cold air. I watched as Amazing Grace slowly expanded.
Once the balloon was full, Gerard used the torch at the base to fill the hole with flames. I peered inside. The top of the balloon looked like a stained glass window — a yellow circle in the middle surrounded by blue triangles and purple lines.
After several pulls of the torch, Amazing Grace tipped upward. My fellow passengers and I climbed a step stool to enter the basket. Within minutes we were flying.
“Wind Bourne,” Mark’s balloon, lifted off shortly after and floated near us. We ascended and made our way over Interstate 395, where several cars honked as we waved.
“People really look up to you when you’re in a balloon,” Gerard joked.
I could see roads, fields, treetops, houses — a much better view than from an airplane. We floated above the wispy clouds that blanketed the ground beneath us.
We were 3800 feet high, moving only between ten and 15 miles per hour. I was amazed at how serene it felt. The ride was silent except for the occasional hiss of the torch. Gerard pointed out Fishers Island and Block Island through the fog. On an exceptionally clear day you can see all the way to Boston from this height.
The wind pushed us toward a river, and Gerard decided to tap the water’s surface. “I’ll try to do it without getting your feet wet,” he said. He lowered us toward the water, until we were almost skimming the surface. We peered over the edge to see how close we were. Gerard let the balloon descend just a little bit more, and we touched the water. No one’s feet got wet.
Our balloon drifted toward a condominium parking lot in Jewett City. People came out of their apartments to watch and take pictures. I suppose it’s not everyday that a hot air balloon lands outside your door. Gerard threw a rope to the crew, and they pulled us down — a very smooth landing.
After the crew packed up the balloons, we returned to our meeting site for a champagne toast. “Champagne and propane, the breakfast of balloonists,” Gerard joked. I smiled. Though I had to wake up extremely early that morning, the balloon ride was worth getting up for.
The Quiet Corner is also home to Connecticut’s scenic Route 169. It was named one of the country’s “ten Most Outstanding Scenic Byways” by Scenic America, a nonprofit organization committed to preserving the nation’s countryside. Route 169 was the only New England road that made the list.
It begins in Norwich, and stretches through the towns of Lisbon, Canterbury, Brooklyn, Pomfret, and Woodstock, until it finally crosses the Massachusetts border. Along this road are several places worth stopping, including Roseland Cottage, the Prudence Crandall Museum, and Sharpe Hill Vineyard.
I fell in love with Roseland Cottage immediately. This gothic revival house reminded me of a mini-Newport Mansion. The house combines gothic features, such as pointed gables and finials, with American ideas such as diamond windows. The best part: its bright pink color. Roseland Cottage has been painted over ten different shades of pink since it was built in 1846.
Henry Chandler Bowen, the owner of Roseland Cottage was originally from Woodstock. Bowen made his fortune in New York City, and then returned to Woodstock to build a summer home for his family. He was a Republican, an abolitionist, and a temperance advocate.
The tour of the house began in its intricate garden, which looks almost the same now as it did when it was laid out in 1850. Boxwood borders its 21 flowerbeds, creating the look of a small maze.
My tour group was required to put on shoe covers to enter the house. Inside we saw diamond stained glass windows, painted porcelain doorknobs, the family’s original Gothic furnishings, Lincrusta-Walton wall coverings and—gasp—closets! It was unusual to have closets in 1846, because residents of Connecticut were taxed according to the number of rooms in their houses. Since each closet counted as a room, most people went without.
Despite all the luxuries inside, my favorite part of the house was the bowling alley in the carriage barn. Servants used to set up the wooden pins and roll the ball back to bowlers. Imagine having that job.
The Prudence Crandall Museum
Also found on Route 169 is the Prudence Crandall Museum, which is located in the Luther Paine house on the Canterbury Green. Prudence Crandall, who the museum honors, opened a private academy for girls in this house in 1832.
The community supported the school at first, but that changed when Crandall admitted a black student. She was forced to close the school due to the lack of support and the number of students that withdrew. However, Crandall reopened the school in 1833, as an academy exclusively for young black women.
In order to shut down the school, the Connecticut legislature passed the “Black Law.” The law made it illegal to educate black students without getting the community’s permission first, and also to bring black students in from other states. Crandall was tried and found guilty of both. The Supreme Court eventually overruled her conviction, but that didn’t stop the community from harassing Crandall and her students. One night in September 1834, they awoke to find a mob attacking the school. Crandall, unwilling to risk the safety of her students, closed the school permanently.
Sharpe Hill Vineyard
Not far from Route 169 is Sharpe Hill Vineyard, one of the best-known vineyards on Connecticut’s Wine Trail. “Would you like to taste the number one selling wine from New England?” asked Catherine Vollweiller when I arrived. Catherine and her husband Steven are co-owners of the vineyard.
With one sip of “Ballet of Angels,” I could taste why it has won 76 medals in international competitions. It had a slightly sweet, but not too sweet, citrus taste. Though “Ballet of Angels” was originally made entirely from Vignoles grapes, it is now made from a secret blend of ten different kinds of grapes.
The vineyard itself is impressive. Rows upon rows of grapevines cover the green hills. Shape Hill consists of 120 acres—30 of which are planted and hand picked. An old barn, surrounded by organic gardens and a weathered, wooden fence, houses the restaurant and tasting room.
There’s also a patio and garden where customers can dine or enjoy a glass of wine. The restaurant serves dishes like Spicy Jamaican Chicken, Filet Mignon, and Wild Salmon. Everything is literally grilled on wood. In the summer, all of the restaurant’s organic vegetables come from the vineyard’s garden.
Patrons can take a self-guided tour of the grounds. A trek to the top of the hill behind the restaurant yields a view of the Last Green Valley. It is the only place where the valley can be seen in its entirety.
The Last Green Valley stretches across the Quiet Corner as well as south central Massachusetts. It received its name because when examining a nighttime map of the east coast from Boston to Washington D.C., this is the only area that remains completely dark, due to all of the undeveloped land.
Safe Haven Alpaca Farm
As my visit wound to an end, I decided that I couldn’t leave the Quiet Corner without visiting one of its farms. And if you’re going to visit a farm, why not visit one with unusual South American animals?
“Warning: Alpacas may be habit-forming,” read a sign in the store at Safe Haven Alpaca farm in Hampton. With one touch of an alpaca pelt, I realized it was true. Alpaca wool is as soft as cashmere and five times warmer than lamb’s wool. It also doesn’t have “the itch factor” that wool does.
Safe Haven is home to over 100 alpacas, and is the largest alpaca farm in Connecticut. Here alpacas graze in green fields next to a bed and breakfast that reminds me of a Swiss chatelet.
Along with llamas, alpacas are part of the Camelid family, and are originally from the Andes Mountains. However, while llamas are mostly used as pack animals in South America, alpacas are bred for their soft fleece. The Safe Haven Country Store sells yarn, sweaters, socks, and mittens made of alpaca wool, among other things. The yarn in the store comes from the alpacas on the farm.
Edie Roxburgh, the owner of Safe Haven, explained that the animals are sheared to harvest their fleece, but also for their comfort. “They look like Q-tips after they’re sheared,” she joked. While the fleece is removed from the alpacas’ bodies during shearing, their heads remain fluffy.
All of the alpacas at Safe Haven have names. One of the new crias (baby alpacas) born this year is named Ripley, after the show Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, because he weighed 24 pounds when he was born, and is multi-colored. His face is white, his neck and one front leg are black, and the rest of his body is gray.
There’s also an alpaca named Jesse James. “He’s a little outlaw,” said Edie. “You have to be careful what you name them, because they turn into their names.”
Saying Goodbye to the Quiet Corner
As I drove north on I-395, and was finally able to listen to the radio again, I bid farewell to the Quiet Corner. Though I was glad that my sabbatical from the media was over, I began to appreciate my time without it.
I was glad to know that there still exists a place where one can truly escape from the city, where everyone knows each other, and where people don’t have to lock their doors.
Where to Eat
The Vanilla Bean Café
Readers of Connecticut Magazine have voted this café the best for desserts, sandwiches, and vegetarian food. The Vanilla Bean Café opened 19 years ago and has since become a local landmark. Owners Barry & Brian Jessurun believe is using local ingredients whenever possible. The café is located in an early nineteenth century barn. Inside, the walls are covered with stained glass mosaics created by chef Brett Laffert. Outdoor dining is also available. Try the ginger lemonade. It’s delicious!
This more upscale restaurant, with its funky décor and floor to ceiling windows that open to the street, provides a little bit of city in the country. It’s known for its shellfish and seafood, especially their raw bar, which is unusual for the area. For those who don’t like seafood, there are also plenty of other dishes, including vegetarian options. As the Vanilla Bean Café’s sister restaurant, 85 Main shares a similar philosophy. They buy their ingredients as fresh and as local as possible.
Rustica is a casual Mexican restaurant that also serves some American fare, including vegetarian options such as the vegetable burrito and the vegetable quesadilla. Inside sombreros hang from light fixtures and a mural of mountains and cacti at sunset illuminates the back corner. My favorite part was the cactus-stemmed glasses.
Victoria Station Café
This coffeehouse’s mismatched velvet chairs, stained glass lamps, glass mosaic tables, and mellow music create a warm and artistic atmosphere. Local musicians often provide live entertainment. The café serves an assortment of coffee, teas, and baked goods.
We-Li-Kit Ice Cream Stand
This ice cream stand is a local favorite. We-Lik-It sells homemade ice cream in unusual flavors like cricket crunch (vanilla ice cream with mint cookies and chocolate chips), purple cow (black raspberry ice cream with white chocolate chips), and s’more (chocolate ice cream with marshmallow swirls and chocolate-covered graham crackers). They make cones, sundaes frappes, and floats. Beware of the flies.
Where to Stay
The Spa at Norwich Inn
The Inn at Woodstock Hill
The Inn at Woodstock Hill is a traditional country bed and breakfast with 22 rooms decorated with antiques and floral fabrics. Each room has a private bath, cable television, and wireless Internet access. Some rooms even have fireplaces. The Inn also has a Zagat rated restaurant and a complimentary continental breakfast.
Eastern Connecticut Balloon Services, Inc.
The Prudence Crandall Museum
Sharpe Hill Vineyard
Safe Haven Alpaca Farm
Riverbend Campground offers canoeing on the Moosup River. Patrons can choose between white water or still water paddling.
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