July 24, 2019
Located on the Connecticut River, some five miles from Long Island Sound, the lovely village of Essex deserves a spot on every boater’s bucket list! Text & Photos Tom Richardson
Long a favorite stop among cruising boaters, Essex likes to boast that it has more slips than parking spaces, plus many of its shops, galleries, and restaurants are just steps from the local marinas. There’s great fishing nearby and miles of protected creeks and coves to explore in a small boat, kayak or SUP. Indeed, the Connecticut River is one of 15 wetlands of international importance, and each year Essex hosts thousands of birdwatchers eager to get a glimpse of bald eagles, osprey and the famous fall migration of tree swallows.
As mentioned, the village itself is charming and close to the water, with a Main Street seemingly designed for idle strolling. At one end is the Town Landing, where you can launch a small boat and catch blue crabs from the dock. Head north and you’ll pass small, picket-fence–framed homes in muted colonial colors, occupied by residents who don’t seem to mind the tourists who pass within a few feet of their front doors. Quiet country lanes intersect the busier streets, while Town Park, on Middle Cove, offers public benches and a gazebo for those who appreciate a moment to relax and take in the water view.
A major attraction for visitors is the Connecticut River Museum, which sits front and center on the Essex waterfront. Inside, you’ll find fascinating exhibits on the history of Essex and the Connecticut River, including the 1814 British raid on the village and a replica of the first submarine ever built. Other exhibits explore the river’s former importance as an inland trade route for timber and farming products, and Essex’s past as an import center for African ivory.
More history awaits at the popular Essex Steam Train, a few miles north of the village. This working steam train makes trips from Essex to Deep River and back, and is a favorite among kids. If you get hungry or thirsty during your ride, be sure to stop at the historic Griswold Inn, the interior of which is decorated with historic, nautical art collected by the owners. You won’t find a cozier place to enjoy a meal, glass of wine or pint of ale, and the Inn’s pub features live music on some evenings. Another popular Main Street restaurant and watering hole is the Black Seal, which also celebrates the village’s nautical past. Inside you’ll find tasty food, a wide selection of wines and brews, and a comfortable atmosphere.
If you are interested in learning more about the Connecticut River, hop aboard the 54-foot, 50-passenger Riverquest. Owner Mark Yuknat’s mission is to educate passengers about the history and ecology of Connecticut’s mightiest river. His eagle-viewing cruises alone attract over 2,000 visitors every year, but there are plenty of other creatures and sites to see on one of his trips.
If you love a parade, Essex does not lack for historic celebrations. The village holds 10 parades annually, among them Memorial Day, Labor Day, Eagle Fest, Halloween, Groundhog Day and something called “the Burning of the Ships,” which commemorates the raid of 1814, when 27 newly constructed American warships in Essex were torched by the British during the War of 1812.
So whether it’s history you seek, stunning natural beauty or simply a pretty village to explore, Essex belongs on your boating itinerary.
Essex Names & Numbers
Essex is located on the western shore of the Connecticut River, 5 nautical miles north of Long Island Sound. Bell “8” marks the entrance to the river. Follow the channel markers that start between the entrance jetties to G C “26”, taking care to observe the no-wake zones along the way. Pay close attention to the channel markers off Haydens Point (Fl G “25”), as the rocks here extend underwater right to the channel edge.
Dockage, Moorings & Service
- Essex Town Landing and Launch Ramp, located at foot of Main Street, allows a two-hour tie-up for visitors, space permitting. Very limited parking along street for trailers.
- Safe Harbor Essex Island Marina (860) 767-2483: Set apart from the “mainland” by a tiny canal, Essex Island Marina can accommodate boats up to 150 feet and maintains numerous transient slips. Offers electric, water, cable, WiFi, water-shuttle service, concierge service, picnic grounds with grills, a pool, a restaurant (Marley’s Cafe), laundry, showers, a rec room/arcade, volleyball and basketball courts.
- Safe Harbor Dauntless Shipyard (860) 767-0001: Full-service marina with designated transient slips, pool, showers, laundry, grills, picnic area, and deli.
- Brewer Dauntless Marina (860) 767-8267: Located on the west bank of the CT River just north of marker R-26, Brewer Dauntless Marina has long floating docks and a 150-foot fixed dock which serves as the Valvtect fuel dock. Additionally, the marina has plenty of moorings, which are serviced by the marina’s launch.
- Essex Yacht Club (860) 767-8121: Slips and moorings for transients, as well as showers, bathrooms, and a galley that serves lunch.
- Essex Boat Works (860) 767-8276: Full-service yard offering hauling, repairs, rigging, carpentry, storage, painting, and more.
- H&H Propeller (866) 335-7767: Propeller tuning and repair.
- A small anchorage in 7 to 12 feet of water can be found just east of Nott Island. The channel here is narrow, but offers just enough swing room for most boats.
- Many boaters also choose to anchor or grab a mooring in popular Hamburg Cove, opposite Brockaway Island, 1.5 miles upriver.
- Essex Town Landing: At the foot of Main Street, adjacent to the Connecticut River Museum. No fee, but parking is very limited.
- Baldwin Bridge Ramp: Old Saybrook, below I-95. This is a free state ramp with parking for about 75 rigs.
Action Sports (860) 388-1291: Kayak and bike rental in Old Saybrook.
- Village Provision Company (860) 767-7376: Small market with deli meats, beverages, and laundry service. On Main Street.
- Bennie’s Farm Market (860) 767-8448: Upscale market outside the village.
- Colonial IGA (860) 767-9029: Large supermarket and pharmacy in Bokums Plaza.
Where to Eat
- The Griswold Inn (860) 767-1776: “The Gris” (est. 1776) is local institution in downtown Essex at 47 Main Street. Great food and atmosphere. Also features a pub and wine/tapas bar. Live music some night.
- Marley’s Café (860) 767-2489: Located at Brewer Essex Island Marina, Marley’s Cafe is known for serving contemporary casual fare with Caribbean, Latin and Asian accents. Indoor and outdoor dining offer incredible views of the Connecticut River. BYOB.
- Olive Oyl’s (860) 767-4909: Coffee, pastries, gourmet sandwiches, salads, box lunches and other provisions.
- Abby’s Place (860) 767-0560: At Brewer Dauntless Shipyard. Casual breakfast and lunch spot on the water.
- Black Seal Grille (860) 767-0233: Casual seafood grill and pub fare. Open for lunch and dinner.
- Sweet P’s (860) 767-7805: Ice cream in Griswold Square.
Things to Do & See
- Essex Steam Train & Riverboat (800) 377-3987: Train and steamboat tours aboard the Becky Thatcher, a 65′replica paddlewheeler.
- Connecticut River Museum (860) 767-8269: Explore the history of “New England’s Great River”. The museum keeps the river’s traditions alive through educational programs, exhibitions, special events (including schooner tours) and festivals.
- Riverquest (860) 662-0577: Narrated natural history tours of the region and river. Passengers usually see eagles and many other birds on the 1.5-hour excursion. Launches from Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam.
- Pratt House Museum (860) 767-1191: Built in 1701, the Pratt House chronicles the changes in Essex from an agrarian community to a commercial shipbuilding hub.
- Essex Art Association (860) 767-8996: Where talented Connecticut artists showcase their work.
- If you enjoy nature walks, there are a number of well-marked trails and wildflower-covered fields of Cross Lots (across from the Essex Public Library on West Ave.), a 10-acre oasis bounded by ancient stone walls.
Where to Stay
- Griswold Inn (860) 767-1776: The cozy Gris has been welcoming weary sailors and landlubbers since 1776. Choose from tempting menus in the main dining room or at the wine bar before retiring to a luxurious, antiques-filled room.