A scene out of Currier and Ives, the town’s main street is lined with Georgian and Federal-style homes and white picket fences stretching down to the harbor. Essex Village is one of three villages that make up the town of Essex, the others being Centerbrook and Ivoryton, former headquarters of Comstock, Cheney & Co., one of the country’s preeminent 19th-century manufacturers of ivory piano keys, billiard balls, combs, knitting needles, and toothpicks. Essex is a full-service destination, with romantic lodging and upscale dining, along with a great museum and historic steam train for the young and the young-at-heart.
The Griswold Inn (36 Main St., 860-767-1776, www.griswoldinn.com, doubles $150-
$305 with continental breakfast), which dates to 1776, offers not only historical lodging but also a museum that captures the maritime glory of Essex. The “Gris,” as locals call it, has begun offering tours of its art collection, which includes dreamlike Currier and Ives maritime prints and Antonio Jacobsen steamship oils, all blue-back ocean and puffy-cloud-filled sky. The sprawling “campus” comprises the main inn and six historical buildings; one of them, Hayden House, has the inn’s only television in its parlor. The Copper Beech Inn (46 Main St., Ivoryton, 860-767-0330, 888-809-2056, www.copperbeechinn.com, doubles $199-$475 with continental breakfast) features luxurious accommodations in a Victorian-era mansion, carriage house, and the European-style Comstock House. Formerly the private estate of Archibald Comstock of S.M. Comstock Co., a major importer and manufacturer of ivory products, the inn gets its name from a massive copper beech tree on the property.
The town’s historic inns both offer fine dining. The Griswold serves food in its dining room (lunch $9-$16, dinner $17-$34), with classics such as short ribs and chicken pot pie along with newer, seasonal dishes such as grilled lime chicken in the wine bar and tap room. The inn is known for its buffet-style Hunt Breakfast ($21) on Sundays. At Pip’s at the Copper Beech (entrees $10-$29), chef Noel Jones, formerly of On 20 in Hartford, blends traditional French brasserie fare with modern American cuisine; local striped bass is served with fingerling potatoes, shaved fennel, and bouillabaisse sauce. Set in a restored Victorian home, Gabrielle’s (78 Main St., Centerbrook, 860-767-2440, www.gabrielles.net, lunch $12-$19, dinner $14-$33) changes its menu to reflect the season and local bounty, said chef Jay Groten. The one item customers won’t let him remove from the menu is steamed mussels in garlic butter with fried shoestring potatoes and tarragon aioli. A local favorite, the Black Seal Seafood Grille (15 Main St., 860-767-0233, www.theblackseal.net, lunch $7-$16, dinner $7-$25) has a distinctly nautical feel: dark wood, exposed beams adorned with oars, and walls decorated with nautical maps and thick coils of rope. Burgers and hot sandwiches are popular, and everything is homemade.
At the Connecticut River Museum (67 Main St., 860-767-8269, www.ctrivermuseum.org, adults $8, children ages 6-12 $5), you can walk 410 miles of the Connecticut River in 10 minutes without getting your feet wet, by means of a three-story-high mural by Russell Buckingham that maps the river from Old Saybrook to the Canadian border. Exhibits show how the river shaped the lives of explorers, farmers, shipbuilders, and artisans, and they display ship models, manifests, navigation tools, and a full-scale working reproduction of the “Turtle,” the country’s first submarine, a clunky, wooden egg-shaped vessel. From Feb. 1-March 17, visitors can take an EagleWatch Boat Tour from the museum’s dock aboard Project Oceanology’s 65-foot Enviro-lab III. Expeditions depart on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays for a 1½-hour-long tour with museum educators and naturalists ($40, no children under 6). From May through October, visitors can ride a vintage train through the marshes of the Connecticut River Valley, then board a Mississippi-style riverboat to cruise the river. The Essex Steam Train and Riverboat (1 Railroad Ave., 800-377-3987 or 860-767-0103, www.essexsteamtrain.com, adults $17-$26, children 2-11 $9-$17) will operate a special Eagle Flyer train tour Feb. 16 and 17 with naturalists on board to share information and help passengers spot bald eagles. Up for a stroll? An Essex Historical Society (www.essexhistory.org) brochure maps a self-guided tour along Main Street, describing the historic homes and other buildings. You can download it from the website or pick one up at the Connecticut River Museum or the Griswold Inn. The Ivoryton Library (106 Main St., 860-767-1252, www.ivoryton.com), built by Comstock, Cheney & Co. in 1889, is a gem. The main reading room features a brick fireplace, leaded glass windows, and a display of ivory objects including combs, buttons, piano keys, dice, and cuff links. In the foyer are two 5-foot elephant tusks.
The Wine Bar at the Griswold Inn (see STAY) offers small plates and more than 50 wines by the glass, and the Tap Room at the Gris has live music seven nights a week. At the Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St., Ivoryton, 860-767-7318, www.ivorytonplayhouse.org, $40 adults, $20 students, $15 children) you can enjoy live theater on a stage that has hosted Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, and Art Carney. The 2013 season opens March 13 with “Life Could Be a Dream,” featuring classic doo-wop hits. Oliver’s Restaurant & Taverne (124 Westbrook Road, 860-767-2633, www.oliverstavern.com, $9-$24), is combination tavern and sports bar and live entertainment venue. The Heartbeat Dixieland Jazz Band performs on the second Thursday evening of each month, and there’s frequently a local band on Saturday nights.Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.