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CONNECTICUT

A playground for grown-ups

The old villages are quaint, the inns historic and luxurious and the antiquing fantastic. Welcome to the friendly Nutmeg State.

July 19, 2009|Rosemary McClure

WASHINGTON, CONN. — When I planned this trip to Connecticut, I expected to be awash in a sea of blue blazers, pink polo shirts and cream-colored sweaters knotted around the tanned necks of lacrosse players. The upper-crust area I planned to visit, in the picturesque northwestern region of Connecticut, is Preppy Central; it's also a playground and retreat for Oscar de la Renta, Henry Kissinger, Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Kevin Bacon.

So I was focused on two things when I arrived: ogling celebrities and making polite conversation with people named Muffy or Atherton.

I didn't expect my first encounter to be with the huge black bear that lumbered across the road in front of my car. I careened to a stop and hoped the bear wouldn't want to share my cheeseburger.

It didn't, so I quickly hit the road again, bound for new sights and adventures in the Nutmeg State.

Connecticut, wedged between New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, is about 1,000 square miles larger than Los Angeles County. In exploring its scenery and inns in the northwest and beyond, I found a state rich in rolling landscapes, peaceful towns and quaint fishing villages.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, July 29, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Connecticut vacation: A story about inns in Connecticut in the July 19 Travel section included an information box that said Southwest offers nonstop service from LAX to Hartford. The flight is direct, meaning it has a stop but no change of planes.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 02, 2009 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Connecticut vacation: A story about inns in Connecticut in the July 19 Travel section included an information box that reported that Southwest offers nonstop service from LAX to Hartford. The flight is direct (stop, no change of planes) but not nonstop.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Connecticut vacation: In Travel on July 19, a box accompanying an article about inns in Connecticut said Southwest offers nonstop service from LAX to Hartford. The flight is direct, meaning it has a stop but no change of planes.

I also found that inns are special places here. When a hotel has catered to guests for a couple hundred years -- give or take a few decades -- it has the hospitality thing down cold.

Connecticut and its innkeepers have been making visitors feel welcome for eons. In fact, George Washington often visited the region. Local residents were so eager to make him feel welcome that they renamed their village Washington.

Today, the village looks much as it did a century ago -- a quiet, pretty town full of steepled churches, Colonial-style houses and a village green. The local historic commission asserts that it's one of the most unspoiled towns in the state. That may be why Joan Rivers, Conan O'Brien and a host of old-money families have homes here.

If it was good enough for them, it would make a good base for me. Besides, Washington is surrounded by some of the state's most luxurious inns, not surprising, given its proximity to Manhattan (about 90 miles).

"A lot of stressed-out New Yorkers hop over here for the weekend," said Ben Webster of Mayflower Inn & Spa, an elegant country house in Washington. I looked around at lushly landscaped grounds that segued into verdant woods; the Mayflower, I learned, edges up to the Berkshire Mountains.

"People must love to go hiking here," I said.

"Actually, a walk is about all they want," Webster said. "The biggest hike most of our guests ever take is up Fifth Avenue."

The inn, with 30 rooms, prides itself on its award status: five diamonds from the American Automobile Assn. and five stars from Mobil. The decor has an old-world ambience; beds are plush concoctions. "It takes housekeeping 45 minutes to make each one," Webster said.

There's also the spa, which "Good Morning America" has branded the nation's best. It offers 20,000 square feet of pleasure, including an indoor pool, treatments, fitness classes and cuisine.

With overnight rates that start at $550, the Mayflower isn't for everyone, including me. But its restaurant serves lunch. And the 58-acre grounds are worth seeing, so I tried a crab cake ($20) and then strolled the green-on-green acreage, prepared to act nonchalant if I spotted a celebrity. None appeared, but I did run into Tomako and Nick Edwards of Greenwich, N.Y., who were doing the same thing as I.

"The inn is one of our favorite places," Tomako said. "We can't stay away for long."

When I left, I took the Edwardses to visit the area's galleries and antiques shops. Many of the towns surrounding Washington -- Kent, Litchfield, Woodbury -- draw a steady clientele of antiques buffs. A 20-minute drive took me to Woodbury, nationally known for its antiques row: a six-mile strip packed with dealers and crawling with Muffys and Athertons.

I moved on to Winvian, Connecticut's Inn With a Difference. I'd heard a lot about Winvian, a whimsical fantasy near Washington, but I was unprepared for the surprises on this 113-acre estate.

The inn is made up of 18 cottages designed by 15 architects, each with a separate theme. You'll find a treehouse, a log cabin, a greenhouse, even a helicopter cottage, with a real Coast Guard copter inside.

Big kids never had it so good.

But it's not for little kids. As owner Maggie Smith says, "You can bring your horses or dogs. But you can't bring children." Like most of the inns in this story, Winvian is an adult retreat. So adults can act like kids without any competition.

My favorite of the several I peeked into was the camping cottage, in the middle of seemingly endless woods. Everyone should be lucky enough to find a campsite like this: Floor-to-ceiling windows bring the outdoors in. At night, stars glow on the ceiling; during the day, there's a bright blue sky. If you tire of the great outdoors, you can pop up the flat-screen TV in the compartment at the end of your bed.

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