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Off the Beaten Path in Connecticut

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New Haven, Connecticut in the Fall.

New Haven, Connecticut in the Fall.

Connecticut is steeped in history, with intimate small towns featuring "George Washington Marched Through Here" plaques. The state is also filled with exquisite scenery. Its small size (you can drive through the entire state in under two hours) gives its inhabitants easy access to its surrounding states. Boston, Newport, New York City, and the ski resorts in Vermont are just a few hours away, making Connecticut the perfect home base for many day-trippers.

There are plenty of touristy things to do here, such as trips to Mystic Village and Aquarium or Sturbridge Village, but there's only so much cider-sipping and leaf-peeping you can do before you wonder what else Connecticut has to offer. If you're like me, then you like finding the unusual hidden gems that are off the beaten path.

Connecticut Lingo

It might be helpful to learn some of the lingo before you start, so as not to raise eyebrows. Pizza is "ah-PEETS" or a "pie". Mozzerella is "mootz". New York is "the city". East Haven is referred to as "staven". A hot dog is known as a "Hummel" or a "dog". "Mystic" is used interchangeably for the town, the aquarium and the historic village. And don't forget - the annual Yale-Harvard football game is known simply as "the game".

Silhouette of Sleeping Giant

Silhouette of Sleeping Giant

Outdoor Fun

Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park in Portland is not your average park. For an entry fee of less than $30, you can spend the day swimming or snorkeling, wakeboarding, cliff jumping, scuba diving, kayaking, rock climbing, hiking, biking, having fun on their ziplines, running the challenge courses, or just relaxing in the sun. They also host many exhibitions and competitions.

If you enjoy hiking, then a trip to Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden is a must. This two-mile long rocky ridge got its name because from afar, its silhouette looks like, well, a sleeping giant. The park has over 30 miles of trails for everyone from beginners to veteran hikers, lots of areas to enjoy a nice picnic lunch and rock cliimbing fun. The most popular trail is the 1.6 mile Tower Trail which ends at the summit where you will find a four-story high stone observation tower, referred to by the locals as "the castle".

Two weekends a year, the Stamford Museum and Nature Center opens its doors to families for an overnight campout on the grounds. Included in a barbecue in the meadow, an exotic animal program, a night-sky viewing and marshmallow roast, and a hearty breakfast the next morning served up by the Museum staff.

Al fresco dining at The Place in Guilford.

Al fresco dining at The Place in Guilford.

Places to Eat

Located in the heart of New Haven's Little Italy is Pepe's Pizza which made its debut in 1925. Their pizza is known for its thin crust cooked over coal fires. If you're heading there for dinner, however, be sure to arrive several hours early as they don't take reservations and the lines can sometimes circle the block. Also bring an umbrella, as they won't even let you set foot inside the small restaurant until your table is ready. When you're there, be sure to try their white clam pizza. It's heaven.

The Place in Guilford is a one-of-a-kind experience. Only open during the warm summer months, The Place is like an old-fashioned New England clambake. Dining is al fresco with small wooden tables and tree stumps for seats. In the center of it all is a huge firepit where all of the food is grilled, including steaks, corn, clams and bluefish. Guests are encouraged to bring their own salads, chips or other fillers. And if you want to enjoy beer or wine with your dinner, break out the cooler to bring with you as The Place is BYOB.

If you love your burgers, you will love Louis' Lunch in New Haven. There is debate whether Louis' is where the hamburger was invented, but the fact is that Louis' was established in 1895 and made its first hamburger in 1900, making it the longest continuously running hamburger restaurant in the United States. Their burgers are served on toast with the only available toppings being onion, tomato or cheese. Don't ask for ketchup, though, as even the signs on the wall tell you that ketchup will never be served there. Louis' is listed in the National Register of Historical Places, has won numerous awards, and was featured prominently in George Motz's movie, Hamburger America.

The daily lines begin to form at Louis' Lunch in New Haven.

The daily lines begin to form at Louis' Lunch in New Haven.

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A lone home on the Thimble Islands.

A lone home on the Thimble Islands.

Fun on the Water

Hammonassett Beach State Park located in Madison is Connecticut's largest beach, and has been open to the public since 1920. The beach is beautiful, and you don't even have to leave the beach to eat as there are many food pavilions right there where you can buy burgers and dogs. And if you like to camp, just bring your camper or tent and you can spend a beautiful weekend camping here with Long Island Sound at your front door. The best part is Meig's Point at its furthest end. The large stonewater breaker was built in 1955 and offers spectacular views. The are is mainly salt marsh with little islands rising up sporadically. If you're looking for peace and quiet at the beach, Meig's Point is just that place.

The Thimble Islands is an archipelago of small islands in the Branford area off the Long Island Sound. One of the largest, Horse Island, is 17 acres and is owned by Yale University who uses it for ecological studies. Governor Island is 10 acres and is home to 14 houses, while Money Island is 12 acres and is home to an entire village of 32 homes and a library. There are many boat tours available through the islands during the summer. Frisbie Island is maintained as a bird sanctuary and is open to the public only one week every summer.

Brightly-colored turkeys at  Gozzi's Turkey Farm.

Brightly-colored turkeys at Gozzi's Turkey Farm.

Strange Animals

If you head on up to Brooklyn, CT, you can visit the Creamery Brook Bison Farm where they've been raising buffalo for almost 20 years. You can take a guided tour, visit the petting zoo and even make your own ice cream and butter from bison milk. Buffalo meat is available for purchase in their store, and an outdoor picnic area is available.

Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without a visit to the Gozzi Turkey Farm. Located on the historic Boston Post Road in Guilford, Gozzi's has been selling farm-raised turkeys to local residents for over 70 years. Just in front of their store sits a pen filled with toms and hens dyed in different pastel colors, making this a perfect place to stop and visit even at Easter.

Paul Newman and wife, Joanne Woodward.

Paul Newman and wife, Joanne Woodward.

Home to the Stars

With its close proximity to New York City, Fairfield County has always been a popular spot for celebrities to call home. Most of the 23 towns and cities that make up Fairfield County continue to have a very New England-like small-town feel to them, despite the fact that Fairfield County is one of the highest income counties in the United States.

Westport is a popular place to live among celebrities. Just a few of its famous current and past residents are Martha Stewart, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, Michael Bolton, and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Gene Wilder, Benny Goodman, Hulk Hogan, Harry Connick, Jr., Jackie Robinson, and William F. Buckley have all called Stamford home, while Kevin Costner prefers Darien. And former President George H. Bush was raised in Greenwich, where the Rockefellers and the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy also resided.

The Amistad Memorial

The Amistad Memorial

Did You Know?

In 1839, a ship full of Africans bound for the Caribbean as slaves aboard the Spanish ship Amistad, rebelled and took control of the ship. It landed in Connecticut, and a trial was held to see whether the Africans were the property of the Spaniards, or whether they were illegally taken from Africa and free to return.The New Haven judge sided with the Africans, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed. The case was an important precursor to the abolition of American slavery.

A memorial to the Africans stands in front of the New Haven's City Jail where the Africans were held during the trial, and a replica of the Amistad has its home port in the city's Long Wharf section on the New Haven Harbor

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