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• Closer to what urban types consider civilization, yet entirely apart from the fray, is The Boathouse at Saugatuck Restaurant in Westport (521 Riverside Ave., 203/227-3399, saugatuckrowing.com).
Last spring, the graciously appointed private Saugatuck Rowing Club made the surprising decision to open its restaurant to the public and installed the marvelous chef John Holzwarth, formerly of The Dressing Room restaurant in town, to head up the kitchen. Thus, visitors can enter the club, walk up a flight of stairs, catch a glimpse of a fully equipped gym, then find themselves in a high-ceilinged restaurant with a deck overlooking the river and its rowers. The food alone is worth the trip: supremely clean and flavorful dishes like wild Montauk fluke with baby beets, fava beans and bok choy, and roasted quail with heirloom grains, radicchio and a port-cherry sauce delighted us one night, as did a special appetizer of liver pâté with wild mushrooms.
The view is simply thrilling, and has gotten even better with the addition of an open-air, ground-level oyster bar at the foot of the docks. If you’re like me, within minutes you’ll decide you’ve missed your calling and were born to glide through the water in an elegant wooden boat shaped like an olive dish.
And yes, you can try it. Chad Gleason, general manager of Saugatuck River Rowing Club (203/221-7475), explains that the curious can take a tour of the facility (call ahead) and opt into a limited-access, one-month membership. “Work out, take a steam,” he suggests. And, learn to row. “Experienced rowers make it look easy, like ‘Swan Lake’,” he says, but apparently there’s more to the sport than meets the eye. Thus, private lessons for adults are offered at $120 for nonmembers, and Gleason has a suggestion for an extra-romantic date: Why not a double private lesson ($200) followed by dinner at the restaurant? Yes, please.
• The Saybrook Point Inn and Spa in Old Saybrook (2 Bridge St., 860/388-1111, saybrook.com) has been a favorite summer splurge for years—and now, there are even more compelling reasons to visit. First, there have been dramatic renovations, resulting in a new restaurant, Fresh Salt (which opened on May 12), where the view is the star of the show. And what a magical view it is: The Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound (thus the name, Fresh Salt) in a vista uncluttered by industrial buildup. The menu is equally spectacular, focusing on local bounty such as Stonington scallops, Maine lobster and Atlantic swordfish. There’s an oyster bar with shellfish harvested from nearby waters, plus modern fare with Asian influences, including lobster potstickers and tempura squash blossoms. Executive Chef Carlos Cassar has also concocted dishes that seem destined for sharing while enjoying the scenery, such as the Iberian Farm Plate with Serrano ham, Manchego, artichokes, olives and rustic ciabatta.
If you’d like to add salty air to your menu, give Captain Wayne McAllister a call (860/301-3534). He pilots the Sunset Drifter Charters out of the Saybrook Point Marina and offers hourly trips for up to six passengers on his 44-foot Sea Ray—which has a bridge, for extra thrills—on the river, the Sound or both.
The captain is flexible, and encourages his passengers to design their own adventures. You can take a laid-back family trip to a sunny swimming area (Fresh Salt can prepare boxed lunches for you, if you like), or a romantic cruise to nowhere. Note: Cruises are subject to weather and water conditions, of course, which can be tricky at night, but don’t worry—you can always stay at the inn.
Cruising is $200 for one hour, $295 for two hours and $150 per additional hour. You can BYOB; there’s water and soft drinks on board, and cruises are strictly nonsmoking. Just give the captain at least a 24-hour notice, and prepare for an unforgettable trip.
• Nestled in the verdant farmlands of Connecticut’s Quiet Corner is the perfectly eccentric Golden Lamb Buttery in Brooklyn (499 Wolf Den Rd., 860/774-4423, thegoldenlamb.com). Eccentric? Well, yes. First of all, it’s in a town called Brooklyn, which in this case does not have swarms of hipsters fast-walking in stingy-brimmed fedoras. Second, it’s located on a 1,000-acre farm. Third, to get to the restaurant itself, you enter through a big old barn filled to the rafters with antiques, memorabilia, a gigantic American flag and random mismatched chairs. There, you place your drink orders. You can take them outside to a deck with a view that makes oxygen-deprived city girls swoon, or wander the grounds and visit cute donkeys with Beatle haircuts.
Or, you can go for a hayride. Yes, a hayride. You and your martini and your jacket and tie (requested by the proprietors) mount a wagon—with actual hay—pulled by a slow tractor through Hillandale Farm’s acreage, serenaded all the while by an acoustic guitarist.
When it’s time for dinner, your straw-flecked party files through the restaurant’s tiny kitchen, which looks for all the world like a grandmother’s domain, with regular-folk ovens and ladies in aprons.
The Golden Lamb has a single 7 p.m. seating for its lavish prix fixe dinners, served in three small dining rooms on Friday and Saturday nights, so that guests may linger “until the candles burn down.” Dishes such as Chateaubriand, rainbow trout and roast duckling await; the $75 price tag includes soup, an array of family-style vegetable dishes and dessert. An à la carte lunch is also offered Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 2:30.
The drive to Brooklyn is long from almost anywhere except the Quiet Corner, but it’s lush and leafy and worth it. You’ll lose your city blues, if you’ve got ’em, and even if you don’t, your faith in the power of the personality-driven restaurant will be restored.