You’ll never forget the first time you see Gillette Castle.
A striking oddity in the New England hills, it towers above the glittering waters of the Connecticut River and draws your eye with seeming magnetic force, the quiet majesty of its chalk-white exterior framed against the blue sky and green leaves of surrounding trees.
The best way to get to the castle is via the historic Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, which has transported passengers across the river since 1769, and the best way to get to the ferry is via the Essex Steam Train, an old-school locomotive that pulls vintage railroad cars through the Connecticut countryside, leaving a trail of black smoke in its wake and the echo of its piercing whistle.
Taken all together, the train, ferry and castle might just be the king of Connecticut day trips, especially family-friendly day trips (though, as the author of the recently published Gillette Castle: A History, I may be biased on this front.)
To embark on this quest of summer fun, choose the Gillette Castle Connection option from the Valley Railroad Co. in Essex. Catch the 11 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. train from Essex Station, then embark on a 30-minute ride through the Connecticut River Valley. Get off at the Hadlyme Flagstop and walk to the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry.
The five-minute ferry ride costs an additional $2 per passenger each way, and drops you off at the base of Gillette Castle State Park. To get to the castle you’ll hike three-eighths of a mile up a moderately graded trail. Admission to the park itself is free, but touring the castle is $6 for adults, $2 for children under 12, and free for kids under 5.
Inside the castle, guests learn the tale of William Gillette, the most famous actor of his day. In the late 1890s Gillette wrote and starred in the title role of Sherlock Holmes, the first major production featuring the Baker Street detective. The popularity of Gillette’s portrayal of Holmes — first on stage and then in film — allowed him to build a castle-like house complete with sliding furniture, hidden passageways and spy mirrors.
But don’t get too caught up in this history. You have to make it back to the ferry and across the river to catch either the 2 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. train back to Essex, concluding what will have been an epic trip.
More trippin’: After getting off the train, spend some time in the beautiful riverside town of Essex. For more history, you can visit the Connecticut River Museum, which is dedicated to the body of water that bears Connecticut’s name. Or if you end up skipping the train ride and driving to the castle, you’ll be close to the Goodspeed Opera House, a celebrated theater that has been the birthplace of several major musicals, including Annie.
Eating and drinking: One of Connecticut’s classic restaurants, The Griswold Inn, is in downtown Essex. It is cited as the oldest continually run tavern in the U.S., which speaks to its commitment to customer service. (You don’t survive more than 200 years in the restaurant industry if you’re not doing something right.) Across the river from Gillette Castle is the town of Chester, another great Connecticut town with lots of dining options, including the River Tavern, a critically acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant.