The idea of Connecticut's beauty during the holidays has been etched in our minds for 150 years, ever since then-ubiquitous prints by popular artists of the day brought cozy, snow-covered New England scenes into everyone's home. The quintessential image "Christmas Snow," by Currier & Ives, shows boys bringing home a Christmas tree through a perfect winter landscape.
Of course, the world was never as idyllic as those prints suggested, and the modern world has evolved considerably; it's hard to know what Currier & Ives would have done with mini-malls. But something of the good old days still remains in Connecticut at this very joyful time of year, and ferries across Long Island Sound make it easy for Long Islanders to access.
Here are three great Connecticut areas to explore this winter.
The northwestern corner of the state is defined by scenic rolling hills. "Litchfield is quintessential New England," says Maggie Smith, the owner of the high-end lodging Winvian in Morris. "It's a wonderful time of year here." Winvian (from $499, 860-567-9600, winvian.com) comprises 18 unique cottages, including one styled as a treehouse and one as a helicopter, all of them tricked out with fine amenities.
Another deluxe hotel, the Mayflower Grace in Washington (from $250 midweek, gracehotels.com/mayflower, 860-868-9466) is a member of the Relais & Chateaux association and boasts on its 58 acres a renowned restaurant and a spa (don't miss the indoor pool). Not all the lodging options here are expensive: The antiques-filled Country Loft Bed & Breakfast, situated in a yellow clapboard home in Woodbury, has five rooms that begin at just $140 (203-266-4500, countryloftantiques.com.com).
Litchfield is full of farms, and some of their bounty shows up at Community Table in Washington (860-868-9354, communitytablect.com). Chef Joel Viehland used to work at the super-hyped, foraging-centric restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, and his experience gets translated into ethereal dishes like red snapper with snap peas and sea beans in an herb mussel broth ($32).
The area boasts three scenic towns in particular that call out for a visit. The Litchfield Town Green is surrounded by pristine historic buildings, anchored by the First Congregational Church, one of the most photographed in the state.
Kent, a charming pre-Revolutionary town on the Housatonic River, goes one step further, holding a Gingerbread Festival until Jan. 5 (visit kentctgingerbreadfest.com). And although its Christmastown Festival will be over, it's hard to resist a place called Bethlehem this time of year. Luckily, it stays fully decked out for weeks, and some people even visit just to postmark their Christmas cards from there.
The coast, particularly from New Haven to the area where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound, has a storied history. "We get lots of visitors from Long Island at all times of the year," says Joan Paul, the proprietor of the Griswold Inn in Essex (from $145, 860-767-1776, griswoldinn.com). It was founded in that most seminal year, 1776, and claims status as the country's oldest continuously operating inn.
"December is our busiest restaurant month of the whole year," says Paul, and "The Gris," as it's known, goes all out this month, with Colonial-costumed waitstaff in the restaurant and nightly performances by the a cappella group the Royal Court Singers. The wine specials also are worth noting, particularly the Bountiful Barbera lineup. It doesn't hurt that Essex has been frequently cited as a must-see, picture-perfect small town, as is nearby Chester.
For a little more urbanity, check into New Haven's The Study at Yale (from $150, 203-599-4111, studyatyale.com), right in the heart of the famed university's campus. The modern-but-cozy, art-filled surroundings of the lobby and 124 rooms encourage nesting, and the on-site Heirloom restaurant specializes in what chef Carey Savona calls Farm Coastal cuisine.
Yale has a wide variety of museums with unusually deep collections, but the true art lover should visit the Yale Center for British Art (free, 877-274-8278, visit britishart.yale.edu) before it closes for a year of renovations on Jan 1. The collection of founder Paul Mellon astounds with its canvases by the likes of Turner and Gainsborough. Wandering through museums makes people hungry, so dash across town to Frank Pepe's for a white clam pie ($20.50 for a medium, 203-865-5762, pepespizzeria.com) at the place that originated the beloved New Haven-style thin crust pizza.
It's no surprise that Mark Twain had a lot to say about Christmas, from the skeptical to the joyful, and the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford ($18 with tour, 860-247-0998, marktwainhouse.org) is one of many reasons to come to the central part of the state this time of year. The house where Twain lived for more than 20 years is dressed up in many an evergreen garland each December.
Perhaps the most famous of all literary takes on the holiday, Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," is in full swing at the Hartford Stage (from $25, 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org), the city's excellent repertory theater, until Dec.28. It's a particular favorite if you have kids in tow.
When it comes to lodging, you can stay close to all of the culture in Hartford -- don't miss the Wadsworth Atheneum art museum ($10, thewadsworth.org) -- by bunking at the full-service Hartford Hilton Hotel (from $105, 860-728-5151, hiltonhartford.com), which has a central location and good views of the city going for it. Or decamp to the southeastern countryside and Glastonbury's Connecticut River Valley Inn (from $185, 203-633-7373, connecticutrivervalleyinn.com). The owners of the five-room inn, situated in an updated 1740s home, pride themselves on a hearty three-course breakfast.
And you might as well finish your central Connecticut stay by going back to the land. Cato Corner Farm in Colchester (860-537-3884, catocornerfarm.com) produces a dozen or so outstanding, award-winning cheeses -- the Bridgid's Abbey and Hooligan are particularly laureled. Their cheese store is open year-round, and the operation is run by a friendly mother-and-son team. The picturesque farm (cows, snow-covered pastures) is just begging for the Currier & Ives treatment, but an iPhone photo will do.