“Where are we going?” My husband, Luke, turned the wheel, absent-mindedly following the directions I was giving him, his tone a blend of curiosity, confusion, and the quite accurate assumption that I had no real answer.
I had found and saved a list of Scenic Roads on Explore Washington and was secretly determined to hit them all. The service on my cell phone was fading in and out, and without GPS in the car, my poor directions caused us to bounce around the area like a pinball; we zig-zagged all over the villages and across Route 202 several times before Luke asked that inevitable question.
The first of what would be many trips for us, it set the tone for those to come. There is a serenity in the unknown, in spontaneity and exploration; a peaceful thrill lies around every bend of never before trodden road, in being “lost.”
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Morning road trips are our jam, so we were up and at ‘em bright and early on a summer Saturday, breeze blowing in the open windows, coffee in hand. Coming up from Fairfield County in the south, we made our way to the Hollister House Garden at its open, when visitors are scarce and the morning sunlight still shines angularly on its beauty. A stunning piece of property nestled into a country hillside, I was immediately smitten with the antique home and big red barn. But when I made my way around the side of the house and caught sight of the formal yet rambling English-style gardens, I was transported across the pond…and back in time.
The weathered stone steps and crunchy gravel paths led us through various “rooms” marked by tall hedgerows in the true English tradition. As I wandered I began to feel like the little girl in The Secret Garden, observing and learning from the ever-evolving life within, a fresh childlike curiosity blossoming in my core. Rustic iron seating scattered throughout sat empty, an invitation for us to gaze at the garden from their vantage points. I wished I could’ve enjoyed a cup of coffee from every single one, and I decided that one day I just might.
A scenic three-mile drive later and we were just north in the historic Washington Green, where it seemed we’d stepped into a painting by Virginia Taylor. Her canvases encapsulate the idyllic charm of New England in a plainly beautiful and classic yet whimsical way, and one cannot help but feel transported to simpler times. Craving a little caffeine boost, we stopped into the Café on the Green next to the Post Office and aptly nicknamed “the Po.” A semi-old-fashioned diner with a view to the Green as picturesque and patriotic as it gets, I thought we’ll come back for breakfast in the fall.
We strolled through the nearby neighborhoods, sleepy like the rest of the town, though not for lack of residence nor vibrancy of spirit. Beautifully maintained properties and well-preserved colonials reflect an ever-present passion coursing fervently just under the surface. A few cars drove slowly past us and each of their drivers gave us a friendly wave or nod. It feels like home.
We cruised just north to the Depot, the unobtrusive business hub of the area. I hesitate to even call it that, for the feeling one gets upon arrival is quite the opposite. Mostly local, family-owned shops surround its center: a former Texaco station transformed into a park with an open air gallery, residential-like garden, and clean modern lines. The Judy Black Memorial Park & Gardens pay tribute to the community-focused philosophy upon which it was built, and the heart of its purpose is fundamental; to relax, play, learn, and share are reflections of the soul of the town.
I spoke with the head gardener, Richard, whose devotion to the vision of the late Judy Black was evident in the dirt on his hands and the fondness in his eyes as he recounted its birth. The gardens breathe life into the gallery, and the art exhales its beauty back outside, a synthesis of nature and art. I only wish we could’ve attended an outdoor movie, the soft glow of classics like To Kill A Mockingbird illuminating viewers’ faces and the inky night sky.
Our tummies began rumbling for lunch by one, so we hopped over Route 202 into the quaint village of New Preston to grab a bite at 9 Main Bakery & Deli. Uniquely named sandwiches like The Soprano and The Waramaug (which we just so happened to eat — delish!) are served on freshly baked bread, and pay homage to the movement for hyper local and fresh ingredients ubiquitous in the area. While the rest of the menu is certainly more than appetizing, the baked goods filling the wood-and-glass case and vintage cake plates on top were the apple of my eye. I knew dreams of oversized, fluffy (and gluten-free!) chocolate banana and pecan zucchini muffins were sure to ensue.
The painted tin ceiling, a well-cushioned window seat, and open-shelving stocked with locally made offerings — like traditionally packaged jam and soaps — are reminiscent of days past and another indication of a business rooted in community. Passion is effortless, but for one of the owners, Julie, it also appeared breezy and relaxed, most likely a result of her California roots.
With our bellies full, it was time for our version of a digestif: a sunny drive around Lake Waramaug. As we moseyed out of town on East Shore Road, it became evident the lake was near. A visible parting in the flora of the landscape appeared, with the haze of a humid summer’s day hanging in the air above the horizon. Trees lined the banks of the lake to our left, and open boathouses sans vessels were yet another sign of summer taking life on the water. We continued to hug the shoreline via North Shore Road and hooked a quick right onto Bliss, the top of which graced us with a stunning vista complete with a bench from which to take it all in.
The bright sunlight sparkled on the water like diamonds, and seemingly tiny boats floated lazily across its surface, their wakes non-existent, as if they were being guided along invisible tracks. The unmistakeable sounds of hot summer days filled the air: crickets chirped and the the rattling buzz of cicadas crepitating resonated through the humidity. And the occasional ting of glasses and flatware from the terrace just behind us was a reminder to add lunch at The Hopkins Inn to our autumn and spring lists.
We continued on and headed down the hill, homes to our left and cows peppering the lush green hillside on the right. The view opened up as we wound around to West Shore Road, the banks there more sparsely treed than the opposite side of the lake, which provided a nearly uninterrupted view as we cruised along at water level. My mind reeled toward crisp days, cool breezes, and the contrast of the warm hues of autumn foliage against the deep blue sky of dry air. I can’t wait to take a bike ride in October.
As we rolled back into town, thick puffs of storm grey clouds lagged slowly behind, but if fables are our guide, the tortoise will always beat the hare. We popped into The Owl and grabbed a table on the porch, the view overlooking the village the epitome of small-town charm. The strum of a live guitar hummed in our ears and further relaxed our voices. A modest menu of appetizers packed a punch and proved again that local flavor reigns over all. The skies opened up and we ran inside to the cozy interior, where cool grey walls reminiscent of the clouds outside were warmed by sheepskin, a stone hearth, and a welcoming vibe. We clinked our glasses to a day well spent and listened to the pitter-patter of rain on the tiled floor outside.
When will we be back? I asked myself longingly. It’s only a matter of time…
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I replied casually, without any hint of admission that I’d just been caught with an empty answer.
“Nowhere in particular,” I said.
One of the many beauties of Washington is that we don’t always need to have a destination, a plan. Certainly its recreation, shops, restaurants, galleries, and events are magnetic, but as goes the old adage many times adapted from Emerson: it’s the journey, not the destination. Luckily for us, sometimes a journey lies within a destination.
The above merely tells the story of one of many very different day trips; below you’ll find a brief list of other great activities we enjoyed.
Head to the Farmers Market at Judy Black on Saturdays from June until November and take advantage of local produce and other offerings
First Fridays in the Depot include the outdoor movie at Judy Black and summer concerts at the Meeting House on the Green
Eat at Marty’s Café in the Depot where you’ll find great sandwiches and salads…and hibiscus tea
This article was originally written for and first appeared on ExploreWashingtonCT.com on August 29, 2019. With their permission, I’m able to share it here as well.