The Quintessential New England Town
Although it's on a river, Essex is considered the quintessential seaside New England town. The well-appointed Essex marinas and history of shipbuilding, the salty little town is considered a yachting capital, comparable to Newport and Annapolis in all aspects except size.
Shipbuilding in Essex began in 1733. The 24-gun Oliver Cromwell, the first warship of the Revolutionary War, was built at Uriah Hayden's shipyard. Water in the coves ran deeper in the 19th century than today, and Essex boasted a number of other very busy shipyards that turned out schooners, packets, and other vessels for use mainly in foreign trade. The industry was so big in this town that a bell, suspended from a tree in the village, was rung each morning to awaken the laborers and tell them that it was time to head to work. Apparently the bell had been purposely cracked to give it a unique tone that would resonate farther to reach the ears of the dozing men.
The town's major role in shipbuilding was no secret: the British knew all about it. During the War of 1812 they launched a midnight raid against the town to destroy the local warships and hinder future production. While no one was hurt during the 12-hour raid, 23 vessels at anchor or under construction burned, and the British managed to commandeer a great many supplies from local chandleries, including all of the town's rum.
Later on during the Age of Steam, Essex was busy as a depot for the Connecticut Valley Railroad as well as a stop for the 243-foot sister ships Middletown and Hartford. Although the steamships offered the most glamorous means of transportation at that time, they were also quite dangerous. Two ships suffered boiler explosions off the Essex shore: the Ellsworth in 1827, and the New England in 1833. Steamboat travel lived on for about 100 years after these tragedies, at which time the more convenient automobile stole the show.
Things to See and Do
Beautiful Federal and Colonial homes and unique shops line the streets of Essex, attracting hordes of visitors during the summer (and mere crowds the rest of the year). The number-one can't-miss in town is the Connecticut River Museum (860-767-8269), a highly-regarded showcase of regional history. Its location adjacent to the town dock gives it one of the best views of the harbor, but on the inside you'll see outstanding exhibits on shipbuilding, the animal life and geology of the Connecticut River Valley, and more. The pride of the museum is a working, full-size replica of the American Turtle-the first submarine, which was invented in 1776 by David Bushnell of Westbrook.
Keep your entertainment roster on track by riding the steam train out of the Valley Railroad Company (860-767-0103). Walk around the yard to check out their large collection of old steam and diesel locomotives as well as freight and passenger cars, and other pieces of machinery associated with a working railroad. Daily steam-train rides take passengers upriver with the option of joining a sightseeing boat at Chester for a river cruise. Right at the Connecticut River Museum, RiverQuest (860-662-0577) puts fun and education hand-in-hand with its narrated boat tours of the lower Connecticut River.
The section of Essex known as Ivoryton got its name from a less joyful part of the region's history, serving as a destination for the ivory from tusks of elephants killed in Africa during the mid-19th and early 20th century. That ivory was made into buttons, combs, piano keys, and billiard balls at local factories. Go for some drama at the vaunted Ivoryton Playhouse (860-767-8348), where Katharine Hepburn got her start in 1931; Eva Gabor, Marlon Brando, and Faye Dunaway have performed there as well. Another fixture in Ivoryton is the Company of Fifers and Drummers Museum (860-767-2237). This part of Connecticut is a hotbed of wailing fifes and pounding drums-they come out to make "joyful noise" at every opportunity.
There isn't much happening across the river in Hamburg, a section of Lyme, save for the annual country fair held the third weekend of August. But that's fine, as its quiet beauty is its main attraction.
Restaurants and Provisions
Quality over quantity is the rule in Essex Village, where the eateries are few but famous. Everyone ends up eventually at "The Griz," as the fabled Griswold Inn (860-767-1776) is affectionately known. The inn has been in continuous operation since 1776 (or 1801; there is some debate on the date), and its interior is filled with what may well be the country's largest private collection of Currier and Ives maritime prints, as well as other renowned nautical oil paintings, and an excellent display of antique firearms. A sign over the taproom door reads, "Because we cater to yachtsmen, a coat and tie are not required." Nor is a reservation required, but it's a smart plan at this busy spot.
A block up on the opposite side of Main you'll find the Black Seal Seafood Grille (860-767-0233), with an appealing pub and dining room. In keeping with the town's maritime ties, "The Seal" is tastefully strewn with artifacts from the sea. If you decide to have a bite after some grog, check out the chef's specials as they are, indeed, usually that.
If you're looking for a quicker bite, the Crow's Nest (860-767-3288) at the Brewer Dauntless Shipyard serves breakfast and lunch with a view of the marinas and the Connecticut River. With their line-up of tasty scones, Belgian waffles, sandwiches, soups, and salads, you could eat all day long. Dinners are served in season.
Back on Main, Olive Oyl's Carry Out Cuisine (860-767-4909), just across the street from the Griswold Inn, serves the lunchtime favorites: sandwiches, quiche, salad, and soup. Get your snacks and beverages at Essex Coffee & Tea Co. (860-767-7804); while you're re-energizing, admire the model ships and nautical art, or just pore over a newspaper. Whether it's time for dessert or not, there's no bigger treat on a summer day than to grab a cone at Sweet P's (860-767-7805) and walk to the museum docks to sit for a spell.
Downtown isn't the only place to find a fine meal. Make dinnertime a moving experience with a ride on the Essex Clipper Dinner Train (860-767-0103), which runs Friday through Sunday from June to October. The two-hour excursion, which leaves from the Connecticut Valley Railroad depot in Essex, gives you ample time to savor both the meal and the scenery.
Before you can say, "homarus Americanus," a cab can buzz you over to Oliver's Restaurant and Taverne (860-767-2633), where seafood reigns supreme. You won't have to shell out a lot for a great dinner, and afterwards you can retreat to the pleasant pub and pool tables upstairs. This establishment carries a history, both in its name, which honors the first ship built for the Continental Navy in Essex in 1775 (the Oliver Cromwell), and in its hand-crafted hardwood bar. Built in 1903 and installed in the Wentworth Hotel in Chicago, the bar was moved to Kelly's Speakeasy in Cicero, Illinois, during prohibition where it was a gathering place for locals as well as more famous (and infamous) characters including Babe Ruth, Al Capone, and George "Bugs" Moran. The oak and mahogany structure was purchased in 1981 from a Connecticut antique dealer.
In Essex's Centerbrook section, try Gabrielle's (860-767-2440) for a leisurely and lovely dinner. For a quicker and more casual bite, head to Pizza Pub (860-767-1993) or Bun on the Run (860-767-3395). Those who find price no object must try the prestigious Copper Beech Inn (860-767-0330). Located on Main Street in the village of Ivoryton, it's hands-down one of the finest restaurants in the state.
Back in downtown Essex, Village Provision Company (860-767-7376) is a small but complete convenience market, with deli meats, groceries, and beverages; they also offer bicycle rentals and laundry service. A short cab ride will take you to Bennie's (860-767-8448), a small but upscale market, or to Bokum Plaza, where you'll find Colonial IGA (860-767-9029) as well as a pharmacy, ATM, sub shop, and Chinese restaurant. Meat lovers will love Cliff's Quality Meats (860-767-1539) on Plains Road.
If the prospect of a new vessel is tugging at your heartstrings, Wilde Yacht Sales in the heart of the marine center displays a line of Nordic Tugs to fill the bill. You'll find marine supplies and accessories at The Chandlery at Essex (860-767-8267). For unique boat furnishings and nautical gifts, take a short walk to Boatique USA (860-767-8765) on Pratt Street. For the female skipper or crew, Equator at River's Edge (860-767-0120), just off the tiny traffic circle in the heart of Essex, is a casual boutique with touches of elegance and an eclectic assortment of music CDs for sale.
Navigation and Anchorages
Use ChartKit Region 3, page 33; Maptech Waterproof Chartbook Long Island Sound; Maptech Waterproof Chart #2; and Maptech electronic and NOAA paper charts 12375 (1:20,000) and 12372 (20,000). Use tide tables for New London. High tide at Essex is 1 hour 39 minutes later; low tide is 1 hour 38 minutes later. Multiply height of tide at New London by 1.2 for height of tide at Essex. Mean tidal range is 3.0 feet.
It's impossible to miss Essex-there are boats everywhere, most of them sporting masts. You'll see a large mooring area with two channels (marked by yellow cans) leading through the masses to the marinas and town. At night, the lights of the little town are alluring, and without the sound of speedboats on the river, this is a peaceful place.
The dock at the Connecticut River Museum, at the foot of Main Street, is 6nm upriver of the Saybrook Breakwater Light, and 2.6nm upriver of the Interstate-95 Baldwin Bridge.
From the south, follow the Coast Guard buoys up to Fl G 4s 27ft 5M "25, north of Haydens Point. Be sure to pass south of R N "24" on the southwest side of Nott Island (several boats a year make a stand in the sand). Then follow the private buoys past the moored fleet into your preferred marina.
South Cove's entrance is between Thatchbed Island and Haydens Point. Although it's too shallow for anchoring, it is home to a diversity of wildlife. Middle Cove, lined with beautiful homes, a marina, and the town green, is much more hospitable; it has a dredged channel about 5 feet deep. Some silting has occurred, so sailboat skippers will want to enter on a rising tide.
Essex Island Marina, at the entrance to North Cove, and Brewer Dauntless Shipyard, just inside, are almost resorts. Essex Boat Works as well as the aforementioned yards can handle any type of repair or service your vessel requires. As implied by its name, Essex Island Marina is surrounded by water, but the free shuttle ride for legitimate visitors and customers takes all of a minute for the "crossing." Found some hard stuff with the prop on your cruise? H & H Propeller Shop (866-335-7767), nearby on West Avenue, can straighten out your problems.
Due to the large number of moorings between the river channel and the marinas, there is no anchoring here. Check with The Chandlery at Essex or one of the other local facilities if you'd like to pick up a mooring or you need a launch ride. There is a 6-mph speed limit in effect between Fl G 4s 27ft 5M "25" at the South Cove entrance and R N "28" at the north end of the main mooring area.
If you want a quiet anchorage away from it all, try the far side of Nott Island, a.k.a. "Six Mile Island." Most boats will only be able to approach the anchorage from the south due to the shoals and marshes at the north end of the island, but there is 7 to 12 feet of water here, and usually some solitude. You'll also find a nice beach on the northwest side of the island. The water in this part of the Connecticut River is acceptable for both swimming and fishing.
If you're coming from the north, keep an eye out for the rocks and sandbars that surround Brockway Island; insurance has paid for far too many boats beached and broken on this island. Take note of the sandbar and shallows extending north and west of the island.
Brockway Island is opposite the entrance to Hamburg Cove, 1.5nm north of Essex. The entrance to the cove is somewhat unimpressive, with a grass island right in the middle.
Past the narrow, buoyed channel, the cove opens up to a deep hemlock-lined basin. The channel inside the cove is marked by a series of green cans to port and red daymarks to starboard ("red-right-returning"). Heed the buoys, stay well inside the channel, and proceed cautiously. What's revealed inside is worth the trip.
Because of the many swimmers and moored boats, there is a 5-mph speed limit throughout Hamburg Cove. The tide range is less than 3 feet, but the tidal and river currents can add up to several knots in the entrance channel.
Surrounded by hills and completely protected, Hamburg Cove is an excellent hurricane hole, but it often gets extremely crowded during the summer, with rafting parties or club rendezvous almost every weekend. At the northern end of the cove you'll find Reynold's Garage & Marine, offering sales and service.
Because of the poor holding and crowded conditions, the harbormaster recommends picking up a mooring (the size should be indicated on the float), but you should remain aboard in case the owner returns. Almost no wind gets in here, so it can get hot, and there's nothing to blow the mosquitoes away. One of our readers claims the cove is also her favorite spot to ride out a thunderstorm because of the way the sound bounces off the hills.
Continuing south to Essex, you'll see masts and the waterfront of town once you leave the entrance to Hamburg Cove. Proceed until you see the no-wake markers and then begin to look for the private markers leading you through the mooring area to the marinas. Because of the town's popularity, it's best to call ahead to reserve a mooring or slip.
Shoreside and Emergency Services
Airport: Chester (860-526-4321)
Coast Guard: New London (860-442-4471) or VHF 16
Harbormaster: Essex & Hamburg Cove (860-767-8494)
Police, Fire, Ambulance: 911
Taxi: Essex Taxi (860-767-RIDE)
Tow Service: Sea Tow 800-4SEATOW or VHF 16, TowBoatU.S 800-391-4869 or VHF 16, Central Connecticut 860-395-0405, Old Saybrook 860-388-4065
Train: Long Island Railroad 631-231-5477