Unspoiled Vistas, Charming Villages
In Litchfield County, you’d expect to find tidy Colonials and village greens, welcoming wayside pubs and well-mannered citizens in towns with crisp, blue-ribbon names like Kent, Winsted, Barkhamsted, Bridgewater—and you’d be absolutely right. You’d expect to find creative folk of all sorts inhabiting an area so pretty that National Geographic Traveler ranks it among the world’s top 50 scenic places, and you’d be right again. Nestled in Connecticut’s northwest corner about 40 minutes east of Poughkeepsie, Litchfield County is where Manhattan sleek meets New England pristine, and both sides win.
A trip to Litchfield County might be as simple as taking a drive—with 19 designated state parks and forests, finding unspoiled vistas of rolling hills and flowing waters is not difficult. But this is an area where humans have created some fairly spectacular sights and experiences as well, and odds are you will be drawn in—to a historic site, a shopping district, a gallery, a performing arts event. Largely tiny—most have populations of under 5,000—Litchfield’s towns have more than their share of charm.
Take Kent, for example. In 2010, Yankee magazine named Kent New England’s top leaf-peeping destination. For the competition, towns were judged on 14 criteria. Besides fall color, evaluators assessed scenery, vistas, water, drives, hikes, culture, farmers’ markets and farm stands, orchards, parks, covered bridges, lack of congestion, shopping, and a final combined category for food and lodging.
The leaves may have fallen, but the Kent Gingerbread Festival is in full swing this month. “Enjoy as we transform Kent into an enchanted Gingerbread Village!” beckon promoters. Fifty shops will display gingerbread creations in their windows and other holiday pleasures and promotions will be ongoing through December 31 in “a town where parking is free, merchants smile, and gift wrapping is always complimentary.” Kent’s also got a vibrant arts community, ranging from New England tradition to the contemporary sensibilities of places like the Morrison Gallery, home gallery of Peter Woytuk, whose life sized bronze elephants and other assorted livestock currently grace Manhattan’s Broadway Mall. (“Peter Woytuk on Broadway” is featured in this month’s Portfolio)
To the north of Kent lies Sharon, where you’ll find Sharon Audubon Center, a wildlife sanctuary and nature center with 11 miles of hiking trails and raptor aviaries. Everyone’s invited to join a team for the Christmas Bird Count on December 18, or just stop by and meet the birds. North of Sharon lies Salisbury, where they like to race vintage cars and hold ski jump competitions, home of still more beautiful views, outstanding antique shops, cozy B&Bs, and historic wonders.
That is only one direction, and only three towns. And while the views, shops, B&Bs, history, and culture may be laced throughout Litchfield County like blueberries in a well-made muffin, the terrain does vary. Workaday development is largely concentrated in Torrington and New Milford, leaving the smaller towns free to retain their quaint, uncrowded charms; strict zoning and historic district requirements force even national chains to build outposts in keeping with the overall feel. Covered bridges abound—Litchfield has the highest concentration of them in New England, with an exceptional 1864 example crossing the Housatonic in West Cornwall, just to the east of Sharon.
Tourism has been a mainstay of this area ever since the Shepaug Railroad began running from Manhattan in 1872, so you’d expect a refined performance by now, and a decent inn can be found in just about every town. But in your wildest imaginings, you probably wouldn’t conjure Winvian, a resort with themed cottages including “Secret Society” and “Music” and one which houses a fully restored Sikorsky Sea King helicopter. You’d expect bookstores in a county with around two dozen private schools, but you might not expect 18 of them, half a dozen of which deal in rarities. And that’s Litchfield—consistently exceeding your expectations and everyone else’s.
Guardians of History
The Northwest Hills have a history as colorful and flavorful as a farm market at harvest time. The first Europeans came here in the late 17th century, striking out on their own from the more settled Massachusetts Colony to build the magnetic small towns along the Housatonic River. From the first, brilliant and beautiful souls have been drawn there. As such people do, they have woven a dramatic tale indeed.
The first law school in America was founded in the town of Litchfield by Tapping Reeve, whose first pupil was Aaron Burr. The school’s been closed since 1833, but the museum it has become offers a uniquely interactive program; try on appropriate garb and consider issues of the day in role plays.
The Underground Railroad ran strong through Litchfield County, and the Connecticut Freedom Trail will guide you to related historic sites around the region. Abolitionist John Brown was born in Torrington.
Iron mining was a massive force in the region’s economy, leaving traces that can still be seen. A variety of the resulting products can be seen in Kent at the museum of the Connecticut Antique Machinery Association.
Even when Litchfield County folk blow it, they blow it in grand opera style. Otherworldly example: the abandoned town of Dudleytown, near Cornwall. Begun in a not very hospitable spot to begin with and the scene of tragic crime, Dudleytown today is renowned among ghost hunters. Dan Ackroyd has called it “the scariest place in New England.” Ask any local what a truly massive pain this is. Mundane example: Architect Alfredo de Vito’s futuristic white house in Lakeville attracted such universal ire that no one dared inhabit it for years. That’s the Northwest Hills: even when they’re bad, they’re just so good at it.
If you’re shopping for clothing or home décor, most Litchfield towns offer some worth checking out. Tiny New Preston, for example, is home to J. Seitz & Company, chosen as a textbook example of excellence in store design by the National Retail Foundation. The brainchild and life’s work of Bill and Joanna Seitz, the emporium offers a wide selection of refined treats—silk pajamas and slippers, and baubles “for her” and items of cedar, leather, and “clocks, caps, and curios” for “him” along with clothing, furniture, antiques and folk art. Also in New Preston is the Firehouse (“Fashion and Furthermore”) offering “sophisticated, easy style and great service” to those who come to peruse a selection that includes baby items, gifts and “personal treasures.”
Then there’s Nusport, located in Kent, credited by many reviewers with singlehandedly revolutionizing spa-wear with the meticulously designed, comfy gear dreamt up by Don and Patricia Wilder Polley. At their Studio Store you’ll find the latest things, such as the “must-have Track Jacket, so beautifully made you wouldn’t want to sweat in it!” Fabrics are super-absorbent and eco-friendly, colors are cool and coordinated.
It’s not just about the latest fashion, either. The Antiques Dealers of Litchfield County guide lists over 70 dealers, scattered countywide in what the association casually mentions is “prolific territory” for fine old things. Just as most every town has its shops, most every town has historic landmarks to boast of, and there are half a dozen museums in the mix, including the Railroad Museum of New England in Thomaston. Thomaston was named for Seth Thomas of clockmaking fame, and retains a certain amount of industrial bustle along with its historic opera house—a classic New England manufacturing town, size small, spirit indomitable.
Lovely & Lively
No exploration of Litchfield County would be complete without Bethlehem, especially at this time of year. Postal workers in Connecticut’s own Christmas Town hand-stamp and cancel scads of Christmas cards each year with their town’s special mark. Bethlehem is home to the Abbey of Regina Laudis, where visitors can marvel at an 18th-century Italian creche. The Abbey, founded by Mother Benedict Duss and Mother Mary Aline Trilles de Warren, was also home to stage and screen actress Dolores Hart after she retired. Forty Benedictine women who live at Regina Laudis pray the Liturgy of the Hours, round the clock, all year. The abbey is also home to The Gary-The Olivia Performing Arts Center, hosting summer theatrical productions in an open-area setting, and to an art shop where one can purchase the sisters’ pottery, candles, ironwork, artisanal edibles and other handmade goods. Don’t forget to pick up a copy of their Women In Chant CD if you like Gregorian.
Litchfield County is a place to fall in love with and revisit over and over. This time of year, the ski centers will be lively; in the summer, hot air ballooning is just one of a long, long list of outdoor possibilities, what with all those state parks and forests laced with running water. (The largest multilevel waterfall in the state is located in Kent, and can be seen from Route 7). Festivals abound, year round. Good eats are also abundant, whether you want tradition (try the Hopkins Inn in New Preston) sushi (available at The Woodland in Lakeville) vegetarian (the Infinity Music Hall and Bistro specializes in farm-to-table yummies) or game dishes, which you will find at Adrienne in New Milford.
So the next time you feel an itch to wander a bit and need a mini-vacation’s refreshment, don’t forget there’s another world nearby, a world of sophistication, grace and unspoiled beauty. Lovely, lively Litchfield welcomes you with quiet confidence, well earned.
- David Cunningham
- Kent Falls
- David Cunningham
- The 172â€™ long West Cornwall Bridge, built in 1864, is listed on the national registry of historic places.
- David Cunningham
- Inside the Hotchkiss Library
- David Cunningham
- Connecticut Antique Machinery Association museum. Antique mining train with hoppers.
- David Cunningham
- Falls Village Inn
- David Cunningham
- Sharon Clock Tower