Great Dates in Connecticut for Valentine's Weekend Romance

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What do you do for Valentine’s Day? Go out for dinner? Pick up flowers and bring home a bottle of wine? It used to be that lovers aspired to be very creative in orchestrating special-occasion dates meant to impress. That got us thinking about how easy it would be to put Connecticut’s manifold amenities center-stage in some great dates this Valentine’s Day. Here’s some inspiration for some good, old-fashioned romance.

Arts & Culture, New Haven Style

Remember when you were young and wanted to impress your lover with a tempting travel daydream? The romantic destinations you conjured surely included Paris, London and Venice. It’s a voyage you can complete amid the cold Connecticut winterscape by building a great date around the exhibit “Whistler in Paris, London, and Venice” at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven.

(James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne, from the First Venice Set, 1879–80. Etching and drypoint. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913.)

Wherever you’re arriving from, here’s an itinerary for a magical day, or an overnight:

Without stressing, plan to “touch down” in downtown New Haven by mid-morning, the perfect time to alight at the Belgian bakery Maison Mathis for a pre-exhibit latte and croissant, or The Green Teahouse for an authentic Chinese tea experience and, perhaps, an early lunch.After feasting on the Whistler exhibit—the first Whistler show of its kind for the world-class art museum—it’s time for some self-indulgent shopping at the amazing array of clothing and specialty shops that are collectively branded as The Shops at Yale.

A post-shopping coffee or tea experience is always in order—try Atticus Bookstore Café for a unique experience or take a stroll to the incomparable Blue State Coffee on Wall Street.

As twilight falls, a brisk walking tour of the Yale campus (find the Beinecke Library and the Alexander Calder sculpture in the courtyard) is truly romantic—and it helps work up an appetite to experience what may be New Haven’s greatest strength, its world famous pizza places and fine dining restaurants. There are so very many we love, but for French head to Union League Café, for Spanish it’s Barcelona or Olea, for true Italian Basta Trattoria, Goodfellasl’Orcio and the new Mario Batali-branded Tarry Lodge, and for pizza Pepe’s, Modern, Sally’s and the off-the-radar insider’s choice, Da Legna.

After such a satisfying day, who wants to drive home? Why not stay the night in sophisticated luxury at The Study at Yale and enjoy more of New Haven before heading home the next day.

Winter Fun

Sure there’s plenty of skiing to be found in Connecticut—ice-skating is out there, albeit harder to find, which is a shame—but when it comes to a marriage of winter fun and romance, our state offers an option that trumps all others. It’s an authentic, old-fashioned horse-drawn sleigh ride o’er the fields and through the woods.

Several farms and venues offer sleigh rides (a blanket of snow is necessary, of course, and unlike at the ski slopes this has to be natural whiteness), and two of the best are Loon Meadow Farm in Norfolk and Allegra Farm & Horse-Drawn Carriage & Sleigh Museum in East Haddam.

“Our antique lap robes will keep you cozy as you relax to the sound of sleigh bells jingling,” the Loon Meadow website explains. “Our two-passenger antique surrey sleigh, drawn by a single horse, is perfect for couples, while our larger sleigh drawn by two horses will accommodate up to 10 if all adults, a few more if children. Your horse-drawn sleigh ride throughout our 20-acre farm begins at our stable yard. Glide over the fields and through the woods, from there the horses know the way to carry the sleigh, back to the barn where a steaming cup of hot mulled cider awaits you!”Allegra Farm & Horse-Drawn Carriage & Sleigh Museum is a Connecticut treasure that has participated in movies like Amistad, Time Machine, Kate and Leopold, and The Buccaneers by the BBC, and its carriages, wranglers and horses have appeared on the television shows “Ed,” “Sex in the City” and the “Today Show.”

Once you’ve enjoyed a sleigh ride and discovered the richness of the past brought back to life, it’s time to move on to warmer experiences.

From Loon Meadow, a best bet is to transition to dinner and a show at Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, also in Norfolk. The Irish Comedy Tour is at Infinity on Feb. 13 and Average White Band is there Feb. 21. If you want to make it an overnight, the Manor House Inn or Mountain View Inn in town are lovely country lodgings.

Or you can book a “magical, winter wonderland escape at the Interlaken Inn, Resort & Conference Center in Lakeville, its “Dashing Through the Snow” Sleigh Ride Package (above) includes a sleigh ride through the countryside, two dinner entrées for the price of one, deluxe guest accommodations, and breakfast for two the next morning. While in Lakeville, also be sure to dine at The White Hart (or stay there too), where British-born chef Annie Wayte has created a terrific gastropub menu.

If your sleigh ride is at Allegra Farm, there’s a wealth of nearby fine dining in Chester, Essex and on the shoreline in towns like Old Saybrook. The restaurant Fresh Salt at the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa even has fireside dining; what’s more perfect than that after a sleigh ride through a cold, wintry landscape?

Stay at Saybrook Point to keep the romance going, or for a more historic and intimately styled option, stay at the Boardman House in Old Saybrook.

Outside Insider

“For my own part I prefer a winter walk that takes in the nightfall and the intense silence that erelong follows it,” wrote James Russell Lowell in an 1890 essay.Amid everything that’s happened in the 125 years since then we’ve seen the primacy of walking diminish greatly in general, and walking for pleasure amid the glories of all seasons diminish also. There’s nothing as briskly refreshing, and as starkly beautiful, as getting bundled up and walking on trails and through fields on a winter’s afternoon, steeping in the landscape as the light begins to fade and dusk comes. (Above, Bantam Lake in winter, as seen from a White Memorial trail; Douglas P. Clement photo.

One of the best places in Connecticut for a walk like that (or cross-country skiing) is the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, where the approximately 4,000 acres of nature preserves that ripple away from Bantam Lake are etched with some 35 miles of trails. Start at the nature museum at the heart of the conservation center, and make sure to find and traverse the magical boardwalktrail around Little Pond.

You’ll leave White Memorial exhilarated, and nothing is more satisfying after that than a gourmet dinner at West Street Grill in Litchfield, Community Table in Washington and Arethusa al Tavolo in Bantam. (Right, Chinook salmon at al Tavolo.)

Make it a sybaritic experience by staying over at The Mayflower Grace in Washington or Winvian in Morris, and wrapping in some spa treatments the next day—that and some shopping in tiny but retail rich New Preston, a village of Washington. As they might say on TV, the walk is free, the whole experience is priceless.

Nightlife, Gold Coast to NYC  We know this is a great date because we know people who do it whenever time allows. What is “it”? An urban sophisticate’s version of romance Connecticut-style with a bit of a “Sex and the City” vibe. It’s as simple to describe as it is richly rewarding: Book a room at the Delamar Greenwich Harbor (above) in Greenwich (on a Saturday, say), check in as early as they’ll let you and then head to the train station for a short ride into Manhattan—to visit a museum, have dinner, catch a show and be back at your luxury waterfront hotel before the late-night TV shows come on. After breakfast the next morning, take advantage of the Delamar’s terrific spa and also get in some shopping on Greenwich Avenue before heading home. It’s the best way to experience New York City, we’re told, and we’d have to agree.

The itinerary above makes us realize how much fun it would be to opt for any of a number of Fairfield County saturation experiences. For terrific culture, shoppingand dining as part of a day trip or overnight, you could touch down in the SoNo section of Norwalk and never leave—except to stay over at the Hotel Zero Degrees in Norwalk. You could also book the Delamar in Westport as a base camp for exploring the terrific shopping and dining there, like the new restaurant Vespa (above) or the Japanese noodle bar Kawa Ni from Bill Taibe of The Whelk.

Wining and Dining

Wining and dining your beloved is a great date idea regardless of the time of year, but this winter four Connecticut wineries are teaming up for the Winter Wine Trail—a perfect excuse for a small romantic road trip, with wine at both ends.

Follow this itinerary exactly or reverse it depending on where you’re coming from or where you plan to end up. Travel the Winter Wine Trail and get your passport stamped at all four vineyards between Jan. 5 and March 29 to be entered to win more than $2,500 in prizes.

Start your date along the shoreline at Chamard Vineyards in Clinton. This idyllic winery has been growing grapes on its 20 acres since 1983. Sip some in the tasting room. But the best part? Chamard has an adorable French-inspired bistro, so start your day with a panini and a coffee before moving on.

Next stop, Bishop’s Orchards Winery in Guilford (a mere 15 minutes away), best known for its specialty fruit wines pressed on-site from its own apples, peaches, pears, strawberries and raspberries. If fruity wines aren’t your style, try the award-winning Chardonnay, Pinot Gris or Cabernet Sauvignon.

On your way to the next winery, Gouveia Vineyards in Wallingford (30 minutes away), stop into the American-style restaurant and lounge J. Christian’s, built in a renovated 1920’s bank on North Main Street. Comfort food is updated here with seasonal ingredients. And all the cocktails are made with fresh juice, for a refreshing break from wine.

Then on to winery number three, Gouveia, which took home top prize for its Cabernet Franc in the Big E Northeast Gold Wine Competition for Best Grape Wine in 2012.

The final stop on the Winter Wine Trail is Paradise Hills Vineyard (only four minutes away). Finish your whirlwind day of delicious wines with a glass of their Cayuga White or Chardonnay in the Tuscan-inspired tasting room, opened in 2011.

After all that tasting, you may be tempted to not drive and stay the night. Let the date continue by booking a stay at The Wallingford Victorian Inn. Called a “very special experience,” by online reviewers, this property has a storied past and has been well maintained as a sweet bed and breakfast at the corner of North Main Street and Curtis Avenue.

A Sweet Retreat

While the state doesn’t have an official chocolate trail (they really should with the number of delicious, homegrown chocolatiers around), you can make your own chocolate adventure by pairing a sweet spot with a dinner reservation.Start a delicious date at the Bridgewater Chocolate Factory Store in Brookfield. The artisanal chocolates are made just steps from the front counter, filling the entire store with enticing smells. These handmade treats have been honored as a Northwest Corner hidden gem for decades, since Swedish native Erik Landegren opened shop in the 90s.

Hop in the car and drive to Deborah Ann’s Sweet Shoppe in Ridgefield for a second sweet stop (only 25 minutes away). This shop takes you back in time, serving up homemade cream truffles, peppermint bark, fresh fudge, old-fashioned candy canes, homemade ice cream and much more.

We recommend dinner at either Market Place Kitchen and Bar or Ondine, both worthy eateries in Danbury sure to impress your date.Market Place (right) has lived up to its reputation as an elite farm-to-table restaurant serving a locally sourced and seasonally rotating menu to the foodies who flock there. The owners are clearly doing something right, opening their second location in Woodbury last November, just two years after launching the flagship restaurant.

If French is your fancy, Ondine, situated in a stone and stucco house overlooking Margerie Lake Reservoir, is the place. It’s a contemporary twist on the classics à la carte, in a four-course spread or a five-course tasting menu.

To add a few more chocolate stops to your itinerary, start your date in Norwalk by visiting the Chocolate Rain Shop or Chocopologie Café before heading on to Deborah Ann’s. Stop for dinner and finish your sweet trip in Brookfield.

Cooking Classes

Learning something new is a great date plan for new partners or longtime couples, and joining forces in the kitchen to create a beautiful meal is always an intimate activity. There are several stores and schools around the state where you can take a cooking class with your sweetie. And why not make a day of it complete with shopping and dinner?

Sur la Table in Canton hosts different cooking classes throughout the month at their beautiful, industrial cook top visible through the large shop windows. Classes take place around 11 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. most days, making it a perfect addition to a shopping day at The Shoppes at Farmington Valley. Bounce around J.Crew, White House Black Market, Loft and other high-end retail stores before or after your class and then finish the date with dinner at Abigail’s Grille and Wine Bar just down the road in Simsbury.

The Silo Cooking School at Hunt Hill Farm in New Milford has hosted an impressive roster of chefs including PBS’s Sara Moulton and Master Chef Jaques Pépin. On Feb. 8, Maria Sanchez of Sweet Maria’s in Waterbury will share her sweetest secrets in a Valentine’s-themed cooking class. She will walk attendees through the recipes for her raspberry linzers, Nutella thumbprints and more. Admission is $90 and the class takes place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Start the date here and then move on to shopping in downtown New Milford before having dinner at the classic Italian restaurant Tivoli.

Learn how to purchase and prepare a delicious fish meal at Aux Délices Cooking School in Stamford on Feb. 25. (There are other classes in the coming months, too.) For $125 per person, you and your date will get a hands-on cooking lesson to prepare roasted cod in saffron broth, pan-fried trout over jasmine rice and stuffed whole red snapper with salsa verde. Sounds delicious! Before that, get some shopping in at high-end retail stores like Armani Exchange, Coach, Michael Kors and Williams-Sonoma in the Stamford Town Center.

Finally, plan a date around two February cooking classes at The Fig Cooking School in Hamden. You and your partner can learn how to cook Classic Comfort Food on Feb. 6 (the menu includes jalapeño guacamole, Heide’s famous chili, sweet corn bread and chewy chocolate chip cookies sprinkled with sea salt) or a Dinner in Burgundy on Feb. 26 (featuring Gruyère gougères, coq au vin, salad frisée with lardons and dijon vinaigrette and cherry clafoutis). Both classes are $85 per person.

Mystic and the Coast

The sea has long fueled romantic notions, so mixing together a few waterfront destinations in Southeastern Connecticut can make for a memorable experience.The best way to start is finding deluxe accommodations on the water—The Inn at Mystic overlooks Mystic Harbor and Fisher’s Island Sound, and offers turn-of-the-century charm with modern amenities. Some rooms also have woodburning fireplaces, oversized Jacuzzis and even balconies, perfect for watching the sun set together.

In addition to the seasonal, sea-inspired cuisine served at the Harbour House Restaurant at the inn, Mystic also has a number of terrific dining spots: The Oyster Club (below) features fine farm-and-sea-to-table cuisine that changes daily based on what’s fresh, local and available; Red 36 is the quintessential seaside eatery, with wooden tables and wide decks, platters of fried seafood and gourmet treats; and the Engine Room draws crowds and mugs of craft beer, with more than 16 brands always on tap, in addition to a menu stocked with creative comfort food. And then there’s always Mystic Pizza for those looking to recreate a little classic movie romance.Historic downtown Mystic has a number of shops to visit, from Bank Square Books and Mystical Toys to Scrapbook Cove and Stonewear Clothing. If you love ice cream year-round (and we do!), the ever-popular Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream is open weekends through winter.

If your notions of romance involve having the entire family together, Mystic Seaport celebrates “Winter’s Aweigh” during President’s Day weekend with kid-friendly activities, including winter working dog demonstrations, art projects, toy boatbuilding, nautical games and sea chanteys. Children under 17 are admitted free during the weekend, and there are also other exhibits to explore, including the last wooden whaleship afloat, the Charles W. Morgan.

If this has you yearning for actual time on the water, on Feb. 15, the Custom House Maritime Museum in nearby New London invites visitors for a seal-watching trip—see the cute denizens of the deep frolic about the frosty waters of the Long Island Sound, all while snuggled aboard a heated boat (although dress warmly anyway).

Back to School

Some of us met our loves while in college, so one way to relive the birth of a romance is with a return trip to campus.As the state’s flagship university, UConn is where hundreds of Connecticut couples have spent significant time getting to know one another. Although those nights of initially meeting up in the dorm are done, you can get together for a show at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts. This month includes performances by world music stalwarts Zap Mama and Antibalas (Feb. 12); Broadway superstar Audra McDonald (above; ABC / Andrew Eccles photo) (Feb. 13); and maverick organist Cameron Carpenter (Feb 15).

One of the state’s hidden gems is The William Benton Museum of Art, tucked away in the middle of the UConn campus. In the Paint: Basketball in Contemporary Art—a perfect tie-in for any Husky fan—runs concurrently through March 29 with UConn Reads: The Omnivores Dilemma, which focuses on the culture, politics and science of eating.

Speaking of eating, there are plenty of dining options within a short drive. The Farmer’s Cow Calfé in Willimantic is known for ice cream but there’s also wraps, sandwiches and paninis; the Dog Lane Café offers light seasonal fare, from grilled items to fresh salads, plus smoothies aplenty; and for craft beer fans, Willimantic Brewing Co. brews more than a dozen styles of beer each month plus 20 different craft microbrews on tap.

If you’re planning on staying, it only makes sense to be in the center of it all, and that means the Nathan Hale Inn, which offers special packages that include tickets to campus events. Just off campus is the historic Altnaveigh Inn and Restaurant, which has a few cozy guest rooms in addition to three separate dining rooms.

Newly opened Storrs Center is a walkable retail and entertainment district featuring multiple restaurants, the UConn Co-op Bookstore, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry and Pandora’s Playground Tattoo, Piercing & Gallery—a little ink to commemorate the date?

And of course, no visit to UConn is complete without a stop at the Dairy Bar—two scoops of Husky Tracks, thanks!

Romance in the Air … and Sea

For fans of military and transportation history—and we know you’re out there!—Connecticut offers a pair of world-class museums dedicated to the spirit of adventure and innovation.Just beyond the runways of Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks is the New England Air Museum, home to more than 80 full-sized historical aircraft, ranging from 19th-century balloon baskets and single-propeller planes to fighter jets and even a restored B-29 Superfortress. Other artifacts and significant objects are on display, and there is a variety of activities, demonstrations and special programs. Upcoming open cockpit days—when visitors are allowed to climb into selected aircraft to experience a pilot’s perspective—are Feb. 15 and March 15.

If all that aerial action gets you hungering for a meal that will keep you closer to earth, Pho 75 Vietnamese Restaurant is one of the most popular eateries in the area, while Jonathan Pasco’s Restaurant & Tavern in nearby East Windsor offers regional specialties as well as pasta and seafood.

And if you want to “strike” while romance is in the air—Bradley Bowl is a fun, friendly destination and a former stop on the Pro Bowler’s Tour.

Back in the day “watching submarine races” was code for finding a quiet parking place at night. In Groton, thesubmarines may not race, but it can still be a spot for a couple to enjoy time together—while exploring the USS Nautilus (the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, built and launched in Connecticut) and the rest of the U.S. Submarine Force Museum. See exhibits chronicling the history of undersea warfare, including a reproduction of the first-ever battle sub, the Revolutionary War Turtle, built by ambitious local inventor David Trumbull.

When you come up for air and food, there are multiple choices nearby. Paul’s Pasta Shop is a short ways down the banks of the Thames River, and offers heaping servings of terrific Italian fare. For a little dinner theater, Koto Japanese Steakhouse is a hibachi-style eatery that also serves sensational sushi. Octagon Steak House dishes up high-end fare set inside the Mystic Marriott Hotel & Spa, a perfect place to end your explorations and relax—perchance a couple’s massage at the Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa is in order? It’s on the premises. Sometimes there’s nothing more romantic than a little pampering.

Brewery and the BeastWhen it comes to romantic imbibing, beer usually takes a back seat to beverages like wine, champagne or cocktails, but with the opening of so many great craft breweries in Connecticut over the past few years, more and more couples are finding there is nothing more romantic than a hoppy IPA or freshly poured stout. As a result the line “Hey, honey, want to go to a brewery this weekend?” is becoming a more viable romantic suggestion. With beer-loving lovebirds in mind, we’ve built a craft-brewing getaway around a trip to Stratford’s Two Roads Brewing Company, one of Connecticut’s most popular breweries.

Get to the Stratford area early and begin the craft beverage drinking with a different kind of “brew” at Source Coffeehouse in nearby Bridgeport. This artisan coffeehouse offers the type of gourmet coffee you hear about in places like New York City and Seattle. If you’ve never had one, order a pour-over, a handmade specialty coffee must-try that is worth the wait.

From there, get into the eccentric, hipster craft beer mode by swinging over to the Barnum Museum, also in Bridgeport. The historic museum building has been closed since 2010 because of storm damage, but some of the most intriguing artifacts are on display in an adjoining building. It’s an off-the-beaten-path temple of the odd and unusual.

Grab lunch at new Bridgeport favorites such as barbecue restaurant Walrus + Carpenter or Fire Engine Pizza Co., both of which have excellent craft beer selections.

Make sure to leave extra time for your trip to the brewery itself. Two Roads is one of the largest and most impressive brewing facilities in all of New England. The tours are detailed and interesting, and full of samples, of course.

For dinner, head to nearby Fairfield and stay true to the theme of the day with a trip to Craft 260, an excellent new craft beer bar and restaurant, or switch gears by going to Brick + Wood, an exciting new Italian restaurant that offers wine on tap.

Spend the night at The Inn at Fairfield Beach. Located across the street from Fairfield Beach, each room at this beautiful inn features a utility kitchen, living room area, private bath and a choice of balcony and/or fireplace.

Feeling Lucky

It’s cold, it’s snowing and winter has already lasted too long. Who cares? If you spend a weekend at one of Connecticut’s resorts and casinos you’ll forget it’s cold outside as you warm up to each other at the card tables or slot machines, while simultaneously enjoying the many fine dining and entertainment options the resorts and the area has to offer.

At Mohegan Sun you can kick things off with an old-school diner style date at Bobby’s Burger Palace. With its classic American décor this restaurant, owned by Bobby Flay, offers some of the best burgers and shakes in Connecticut and will help you relive your high school days, cue: soundtrack to Grease or Jersey Boys.

As evening approaches catch a show at one of the resort’s state-of-the art theaters. February performances include Fleetwood Mac (Feb. 7), Eric Paslay (Feb. 14) Aaron Lewis (Feb. 20) and the Average White Band (Feb. 20).

At Foxwoods Resort Casino, couples can enjoy dinner at one of the most romantic restaurants in Connecticut, Paragon. This 24th-floor restaurant offers stunning views of the Connecticut countryside and a locally sourced, organic menu. With breathtaking sunsets and live piano music, it provides the kind of date you see in the movies. After dinner you can enjoy drinks in The Scorpion Bar or at High Rollers, a sophisticated lounge and bowling alley, which is reminiscent of New York City’s Brooklyn Bowl.

Of course Foxwoods also regularly hosts live performances by top-end entertainers. Upcoming shows include Lil Jon (Feb. 10) and Jim Norton (Feb. 13).

After a weekend or day of gambling and carousing at the casinos some R&R might be in order and The Spa at Norwich Inn is the perfect place to find true relaxation. This hotel and spa offers 37 treatment areas and an attentive staff that will pamper you with traditional massage therapies, hand and foot therapies, facial therapies, body treatments and skin care enhancements.

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the February 2015 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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