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Essex Cruise: Music, Steam Trains and a Castle!

September 28, 2016


Cruising to Essex on the Connecticut River should be an extended weekend destination for any boater.  Here you can be active with fun things to do or just sit around the pool and relax.   Essex is a small colonial era river front village.  Its main street is lined with boutiques and pretty homes dating back over 200 years. It has a local pub, a gourmet deli, an ice cream place as well an inn a steam train depot and an interesting nautical museum.  Essex has the unusual claim for a United States village to be attacked directly by a foreign country.  It is here that 186 British troops rowed six miles upriver from the Long Sound and burned 27 ships that were used against them in privateering.  It is sometimes referred to the “Pearl Harbor” of the War of 1812.

To cruise to Essex you look for the light house on the south end of the jetty and follow the jetty past the second light house. You will soon pass Old Saybrook on your port and continue up river.  It is important to remember “Right, Red, Return” and obey the many no wake areas. Once in Essex Harbor you turn to port into the mooring area marked by two yellow cans.   From there you will see the fuel dock.  Brewers owns all three marinas so you have a choice as to where to stay.  Most boaters prefer the Essex Island Marina because it has a restaurant, pool, outdoor movies, shuffleboard and basketball courts and some activities giving it a small nautical resort feel.  When you see the yellow markers hail channel 9 for docking instructions.  The Brewers fuel dock has gas, diesel, water and pump out.  On arrival you will find dock hands swift to get to your spot to tie you down. Once on the island a stroll to town is a 60 second pontoon ferry ride across the channel.  The ferry runs until 11PM weekdays and until 1AM on weekends and never has more than a two minute wait.   

We arrived Friday afternoon which gave us time to walk down Main Street to the Connecticut River Museum (www.ctrivermuseum.org).  Here we wondered through a few rooms of exhibits that displayed the history of Essex and had different artifacts on the river and the area.  One interesting exhibit was a reproduction of The Turtle.  This was the colonies answer to a one man submarine and showed what old time Yankee ingenuity was all about.  Visitors can sit inside and operate the hand levers that move the “dual” oars. (They did not call it a propeller back then.)  One crank moved the small vessel forward and the other submersed it. A third crank drilled a hole in an enemy ship to attach a bomb.   After taking an hour to see the exhibits we boarded the 100 year old schooner Mary E that sits dockside of the museum. Here the crew unfurled the sails of this classic boat for a 90 minute scenic cruise on the river.

Our evening started at the Griswold Inn. (www.griswoldinn.com) The Gris as it is called is reported to be the oldest continuous run inn in America dating back to 1776.  If you need a break from your cabin you can check into their simple and tastefully designed rooms with many decorated with Americana nautical art. It has a dining room, a tapas restaurant and the Tap Room.   The dining room offers what is called a traditional and a seasonal menu. We enjoyed a dish of traditional baked cod and short ribs. After dinner and on a strong recommendation we got a shared table to hear the “Psychedelic 60’s” in the Tap Room.  The Tap Room is an old bar with a cast iron fireplace in the middle and an original ceiling made of horse hair and oyster shells. The have good pub food.   The three man band who play every Friday had the place rocking with many, including our waitress dancing in the small space in front of the band or near the tables. 


The next morning we visited The Essex Steam Train and River Ride about a mile from town.  (www.essexsteamtrain.com). This company offers a few different excursions. The most popular one is to take the train up river and board a boat for a cruise further up the river before getting back to the train.  We opted to take the train to see Gillette Castle.  Before boarding we checked out there 1920 locomotive and watched an engineer walk around the locomotive with an old fashion oil can lubricating the different joints.  

Riding a vintage steam train is an experience of different senses. First you feel the locomotive lurching or chugging as the pistons start to fill with steam. Next you hear the hissing of steam escaping along with the distinct sound of its steam whistle. Finally when underway there is the mild smell of the coal burning.  

Our ride stopped after 30 minutes where we disembarked and made our way to the castle.  This required us to walk down a road to catch a ferry across the river and then enter the 122 acres where the castle sits on.  The ferry ride offered an impressive view of the castle lit up by the afternoon sun.  The entrance to the castle grounds is to the left of the ferry dock and requires an easy uphill walk.  Once on the top you purchase your ticket, watch a video and then tour the castle.  Mr. Gillette was an actor born in 1853. He is most famously known for bringing the Sherlock Holms character to the United States.  He bought the land in 1914 on the Connecticut River and built a twenty four room mansion reminiscent of a medieval castle.  The castle is known for its surveillance system of mirrors in different corners, unusual door knobs and locks and a quirky bar.  With our return to Essex we strolled into a few of their shops, had a late lunch at the nautically designed Black Seal (www.theblackseal.net) and cooled off in the marina’s swimming pool to end our day.

Dinner Saturday night was at the Tap Room at the Gris getting there early to get a table before their piano sing along crowd comes in. (the fish and chips served here is a classic)  Saturday nights have not changed in the few times over the last dozen years we have been here.  For over twenty years John Banker and Friends have literally been playing to the “usual crowd”. This usual crowd help him play or sing during different songs. When he is about the play Billy Joel’s Piano Man, the “regular crowd” leaves the room so they can “shuffle in” again as the words to the song play. The atmosphere on Saturday nights is all about a small town feel and fun.  We came back Monday night to hear the Jovial Crew play manly and rowdy sea chanteys. This is a band not to miss. 

One advantage to coming to this area of the Connecticut River is that when you are finished with your visit to Essex you can cruise a mile up river and stay the night in peaceful Hamburg Cove as we did Sunday and Sunday night before returning back the Essex Island Marina for Monday night.  Hamburg Cove can be reached through a very narrow channel where you will find several guest moorings for $25.  This is a good place for any needed down time where the key activities were swimming, reading and napping.  The sunset here is very pretty.  Essex is also is a good destination when planning a longer cruise in the region because you are near Connecticut villages of Mystic and Stonington. You are also close to Block Island and the North Fork of Long Island.  

(For past Boating World cruise stories on these areas email tab@tabhauser.com or go to www.tabhauser.com ).



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