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Connecticut Shore Hop

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I arrived in Old Saybrook, Conn., too late to catch sight of Katharine Hepburn, who’d lived here until her death in 2003. But a small town like this would never let a legendary woman like that be forgotten.

“I hear Katharine Hepburn stories all the time,” said Chuck Still, executive director of the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, mentioning the town’s fire marshal and a security systems installer as examples. “People think of her as Citizen Hepburn. For many people in the community, she was their claim to fame.”

On-screen and off, Hepburn was known for her elegance, her wit, and those cheekbones as sharp as steak knives. Yet I also had to give the star credit for her fine taste in geography: Old Saybrook is a pearl born from the sands of the Connecticut shore.

“Fenwick is and always has been my other paradise,” reads a giant inscription in the Hepburn museum, which is housed in the performing arts center. (Fenwick is a borough of Old Saybrook.)

I’ve been visiting the Constitution State’s coastal area since I was single-digit-years old. My family has kept a sailboat in Noank, a few miles south of Mystic, since the 1970s. Yet my knowledge of the chain of towns — Old Saybrook, Niantic and Groton — along the shoreline is paltry. We were always rushing to the boatyard to catch the optimum winds; my memory of these communities is a blur of exit signs.

On a weekend when no one was on the water — Hurricane Irene had blown through a few days earlier — I finally had an opportunity to detour. My father kept any peeps of protest to himself.

“The Connecticut shore is a community of small towns,” said Still, “and each of these small towns has its own identity.”

If I had to assign an identity to each town along my chosen route, then Old Saybrook would be Kate. Its character mirrors hers: attractive, cultured and a bit salty. On a more literal level, I could easily craft an improvised tour of Hepburn sites.

I started with the museum, two rooms containing such memorabilia as awards, personal letters signed “Katy” and photos of her boating, biking, golfing and sitting in a bathtub after the hurricane of ’38 swept away her Fenwick home. Following a tip from Eunice Royston, a volunteer manning the gift shop, I next went to Walt’s, a supermarket that Hepburn frequented. (According to a video at the museum, she favored Walt’s lamb chops.)

“I would see her old car parked out front,” said Royston. “People were always very polite and let her shop.”

I paid my final homage at her “summer cottage,” a stormy-weathered estate perched on a peninsula on Long Island Sound. Irene had chewed up a nearby dock, but Hepburn’s home remained seemingly untouched, a steely grand dame who stood her ground.

Across the Connecticut River, Niantic does not name drop unless the object of affection has scales and a pouty mouth. For example, at Cini Memorial Park, under the Niantic River Bridge, you might hear fisherfolk belting out their love for a particular striped bass, porgy or bluefish. Along the boardwalk, a few lines dipped into the Niantic River, the water quiet except for the occasional splash of a bird having better luck.

The boardwalk at Cini Park is part of a proposed plan to create a connected path that runs more than a mile west to Hole-in-the-Wall Beach. The section that parallels Long Island Sound is currently closed, due to hurricane damage. But the beach, secreted below McCook Point Park, was unharmed and cleaner than a playground sandbox. One exception: the clusters of shells whose inhabitants were still home when I last checked.

The wildlife is abundant along the shore, both above (cormorants, gulls, egrets, etc.) and below (scallops, spider crabs, razor clams) the waterline. But one of the most exhilarating sightings straddles both worlds.

New London is home to anaval submarine base, and with a little patience, you might see a half-submerged submarine slicing through the waves like a supercharged whale. (I saw one as recently as August.) Of course, you could sit on the banks for days and days and glimpse only leisure boats and ferries. Or you could skip the romanticism and be more practical.

The Submarine Force Museum, on the Thames River in Groton, encourages visitors to play out their childhood fantasies of piloting a submarine. In one exhibit, I pressed my eye against a periscope viewfinder and spied on a pair of white swans. In another room, I sat behind the controls of a sub, paralyzed by the tangle of buttons and switches. And on the USS Nautilus, I descended into the belly of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, a thrill tinged with­­ claustrophobia and sympathy for the crew, who had to sleep like cans on tightly packed pantry shelves.

The antidote to such a tight space is open space. The University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus offers unobstructed views of the sea and sky, with only a low rocky ledge keeping the Thames River honest. The lawn rolls up, toward the 41-foot Avery Point Lighthouse, and out, to a sprinkling of sculptures. The walkway to the lighthouse is paved in sentiments: Carvings in the bricks honor friends, family members, Navy sailors and visitors touched by the serene setting. “D&S Pfiserter’s Favorite Lunch Spot, ’87-’90,” read one slab.

Indeed, the sea-trimmed greenscape begged for lobster roll and chowder takeout from Abbott’s, the busy eatery that for me encapsulates summer, even after Labor Day. However, such an order would require a trip to Noank, which meant that we probably wouldn’t make it back to Groton.

Knowing my dad, we’d bypass Carson’s Store, Noank’s breakfast institution, and the LathamChester Store, an art gallery showcasing local talent. We’d cruise past the house on Church Street where Amelia Earhart wed G.P. Putnam, and the historical society on Sylvan Street. We wouldn’t even blink at the slip of beach at Noank Town Beach. We’d head straight for the marina, to our slip, to our boat, in the off chance that the wind had picked up and we could go for a quick sail.

I couldn’t take that risk.

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