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The Hepburn family beach house in Fenwick had courts where the actress learned to play tennis.
The Hepburn family beach house in Fenwick had courts where the actress learned to play tennis.Hulton Archive/Getty Images/Getty

OLD SAYBROOK, Conn. — “To me it is — well, as I said — paradise.” This is how Hollywood great Katharine Hepburn refers to her Fenwick beach home in her 1991 autobiography, “Me: Stories of My Life.”

A borough of Old Saybrook, Fenwick stands at the point where the Connecticut River idles into the Long Island Sound. When Hepburn was five, her family, who lived in Hartford, bought a shingled house right on the Sound as a summer home. Hepburn describes Fenwick back then as a community of about 40 houses with a golf course and tennis courts. It’s an accurate enough description today, too.

Set on narrow lanes, and designated a Historic District in 1975, Fenwick is a tidy place, yet untamed. (Sound like Hepburn?) It was where Hepburn learned tennis and golf, and swam in the ocean, something she did every day she was in residence, even with snow on the beach, well into her 80s. “I swim all winter, so the season is never closed to me,” she wrote. It was here that she died, age 96, in 2003. (The house was sold and is currently a private home.)

Despite its great natural beauty and accessibility (Boston and New York are just over 100 miles away; Hartford is less than half that distance; and Amtrak stops in Old Saybrook), the area remains delightfully un-touristy. Summer brings visitors, but when the air freshens and steely gray storm clouds roll in, and the sea grass, birch, and beech glows golden, the notoriously private Hepburn especially loved her home. She wrote, “Come September, Fenwick was deserted, and that’s how we preferred it.”

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Some Hepburn fans make the pilgrimage to see the genteel English manor style brick house she built after the 1938 hurricane destroyed the original one, especially since the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center opened on Main Street in the old town hall in 2009. It’s known affectionately as The Kate and houses a collection of Hepburn memorabilia.

Main Street, a neat expanse that smacks of bygone small town America, is where Hepburn did her shopping and grabbed a bite or a drink with lifelong friends. In the documentary, “Katharine Hepburn: All about Me,” the 85-year-old stops into the James Pharmacy. Miss Anna Louise James was the first African American woman to graduate from the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, and Connecticut’s first female African American pharmacist. It’s still as authentic a soda fountain experience you’ll find, but now serves up classic goodies with organic ingredients. Try The Kate: organic mocha chip ice cream with chocolate sauce.

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Midway between Main Street’s shopping and Fenwick’s seclusion is Saybrook Point and Fort Saybrook Monument Park, where locals fish off the dock, play mini golf, or take in the quiet beauty of protected coastal wetlands.

Or they visit the Saybrook Point Inn and Spa, a marigold colored building flanked by trees on one side and its own marina on the other. In hot weather, locals and visitors alike do drinks or dinner at the inn’s marina side tables, and watch the sunset over the water. Inside, the Fresh Salt restaurant’s fireplace provides a cozy spot to watch winter unfold over the Sound. The inn is the closest to razzamatazz Old Saybrook offers, but the area’s low tourist footprint means it’s a comparative refuge of calm and commonsense comforts.

Due to Old Saybrook’s location near I95, there are several bland chain hotels, but the town has some quaint B&Bs. But with its gorgeous waterside location and the soothing Sanna spa, Saybrook Point Inn is a big draw. Lodgings vary from spacious studio suites in the original inn and in the new boutique guesthouses, both immaculate renovations of old Victorian homes. Both have very posh communal dining and kitchen areas, rooftop fire pits, and clubrooms. For a unique stay, book the lighthouse on the dock, or the Katherine Hepburn suite: elegant and fresh, it’s stocked with books about her life, and photos and memorabilia. Unusually for an AAA Four Diamond property, the inn has unfurnished villas for yearlong lease.

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One can drive into Fenwick, but you can’t park, a backhanded welcome for sure. Bicycling is an ideal way to tour the area, and Saybrook Point Inn has several for guests to use.

Around here, everyone has a Kate story to tell — one they experienced first-hand, or one that’s been passed around. Saybrook Point Inn’s general manager John Lombardo recalls the African Queen, the namesake steamship in Hepburn’s memorable film with Humphrey Bogart, docked at the marina in the mid 1990s. Hepburn requested a private visit. “I watched her walk up to the boat and I saw her talking,” says Lombardo. “I couldn’t hear, but it looked like she was talking to the boat.” No doubt trumpeting the delights of her home: “Connecticut . . . it’s got everything,” she wrote in her autobiography. “Aren’t we lucky?”


Linda Clarke can be reached at soundz@me.com.