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What to do when vistiing Madison, Connecticut

by Staff

Among New England states, Connecticut tends to fly under the travel radar. It might not have the sprawling national parks of Maine, the celebrity allure of Cape Cod, or the quirkiness of Rhode Island, but the state is full of sweet, easy-to-navigate towns that are made for weekend road trips.

Case in point: Madison, almost smack-dab in the middle of Connecticut’s southern coast on Long Island Sound.

The town, a suburb of New Haven, was named in honor of James Madison. In eccentric New England fashion, the moniker was suggested by a wealthy sea captain and stuck even though the country’s fourth president had no connection to the state.

With a population of 17,000 spread across its 36 square miles, a pedestrian-friendly downtown, and sandy beaches, Madison today feels lively and familiar, without overcrowding.

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How to get to Madison, Connecticut

Madison is about 16 miles east of New Haven and 38 miles south of Hartford. The trip takes 2 ½ hours by car from most points in the Hudson Valley. From the mid and lower Valley, take I-84 East, CT-25 South, and I-95 North. From points north, take I-90 East to I-91 South and CT-81 South.

Day 1: Shorelines, self-care and showtime

Get your morning start at Cohen’s Bagel Company. Its menu features — wait for it — about two dozen varieties of bagels that are every bit as good as what you’ll find in Manhattan or Brooklyn. The Avocado Smash, with mashed tomato and avocado on a jalapeno or “cheddar everything” bagel, is both tasty and filling.

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Left: The trail to Hammonasset State Park beach. Right: West Beach at Hammonasset State Park. (Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union)Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union
Top: The trail to Hammonasset State Park beach. Bottom: West Beach at Hammonasset State Park. (Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union)Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

Only 1 ½ miles away, Hammonasset Beach State Park is popular for its beach, camping and nature center. West Beach is its longest and most scenic. For those who prefer sun with a side of shade, the park is also home to multiple walking trails, including the short but sweet, ADA-accessible Shoreline Greenway Trail. Kids will love hunting for seashells along Meig’s Point, where thousands of empty shells from razor clams, periwinkles, quahogs, false angel wing and other species get trapped against the shore.

Once you’ve gotten your fill of vitamin D, head 2 ½ miles west into downtown Madison. Have lunch at Life Bowls, which serves a large menu of healthy smoothies, acai and pitaya bowls, salads, and toasts. The Maui Wowie is a blast of nutritious flavor, including acai, blueberries, pineapple, goji berries and shredded coconut.

The Maui Wowie is a blast of nutritious flavor, including acai, blueberries, pineapple, goji berries, and shredded coconut. 

The Maui Wowie is a blast of nutritious flavor, including acai, blueberries, pineapple, goji berries, and shredded coconut. 

Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

If you’re still pleasantly full from breakfast, skip straight to dessert at Ashley’s Ice Cream, which serves frozen dairy and nondairy treats made with a velvety custard base. The seasonal flavors, like peach and black raspberry, are worth the indulgence.

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Most restaurants in Madison close dinner service at 9 p.m., so it’s best to go on the early side. Steamed, on Boston Post Road, makes an assortment of Chinese dumplings, noodles and buns, plus boba tea. Over on Wall Street, Jia Mei Asian Kitchen boasts a budget-friendly selection of Chinese soups, stir-fries and rice dishes, plus Thai curries.

The shops along Boston Post Road in downtown Madison. 

The shops along Boston Post Road in downtown Madison. 

Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

In the evening, take in a show at Madison Lyric Stage. On the grounds of the historic Deacon John Grave House, one of the town’s oldest buildings, this professional theater company presents musicals, operas, plays and concerts. Or kick back and watch a first-run or vintage movie or live-broadcast opera at Madison Cinemas.

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Day 2: Nature, history and downtown shopping

Rettich Preserve encompasses 11 acres of woodland and meadows teeming with wildflowers, close to the banks of the Hammonasset River.

Rettich Preserve encompasses 11 acres of woodland and meadows teeming with wildflowers, close to the banks of the Hammonasset River.

Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

Rettich Preserve encompasses 11 acres of woodland and meadows teeming with wildflowers, close to the banks of the Hammonasset River. Because of its proximity to I-95, which hums with traffic by 9 a.m., it’s best to hit Rettich Preserve in the early morning or early evening.

Back in town, pick up breakfast at Meriano’s Bake Shoppe. The 35-year-old, family-owned bakery sells mouthwatering Italian pastries like sfogliatelle, pasticiotti, pignoli, and the Naples-meets‒New England lobster tail: a layered-pastry horn stuffed with ricotta cannoli filling.

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Walk it off through the Madison Green Historic District, a town green surrounded by historic architecture. While it’s typically open only on Wednesdays, the Allis-Bushnell House, built in 1785, sometimes offers weekend programming. It provides a fascinating peek at how residents lived during different periods: Colonial, Revolutionary War, Civil War and Colonial Revival. The perennial gardens are lovely.

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Left: The Madison Green Historic District. Right: RJ Julia bookstore. (Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union)Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union
Top: The Madison Green Historic District. Bottom: RJ Julia bookstore. (Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union)Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

Come lunchtime, the Historic District often has a couple of food trucks parked near the Madison Youth & Family Services building on School Street. At RJ Café Bistro, find classic sandwiches, like curry chicken salad and turkey and avocado. Vegetarians and meat lovers alike will enjoy Madison Cheese Shop & Café, which serves a range of gourmet grilled cheeses and cold sandwiches, plus cheese and charcuterie boards.

After lunch, shop downtown. RJ Julia Booksellers is a larger-than-it-looks repository of fiction and nonfiction. Water Street Jewelers sells artisanal and luxury collections, plus custom designs. Pick up squirrel-proof bird feeders and other supplies, including optical birding equipment, from the Audubon Shop. Off the main avenue, along Wall Street, stop in Robertson Madison for designer casual clothing, and the Wine Thief, where you’ll find globally sourced wines, including a powerhouse selection of French grapes.

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Pick up squirrel-proof bird feeders and other supplies, including optical birding equipment, from the Audubon Shop.

Pick up squirrel-proof bird feeders and other supplies, including optical birding equipment, from the Audubon Shop.

Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

As the sun fades, drive to Wharf Beach and walk the flagstone pier, where you can watch boats bobbing in the ocean. On the grand wraparound porch of The Wharf at the Madison Beach Hotel, savor a cocktail while watching the sunset blanket the coast.

Wrap up your trip with a leisurely dinner at Café Allegre. This chef-owned restaurant shines a spotlight on updated Italian favorites like arugula salad, served with a creamy wheel of burrata, pomegranate seeds, and peaches; and capellini with lobster in a tomato cream sauce. Ask for the stuffed, fried artichoke, even if it’s not on the menu.

Café Allegre, a chef-owned restaurant shines a spotlight on updated Italian favorites like arugula salad, served with a creamy wheel of burrata, pomegranate seeds, and peaches.

Café Allegre, a chef-owned restaurant shines a spotlight on updated Italian favorites like arugula salad, served with a creamy wheel of burrata, pomegranate seeds, and peaches.

Robin Catalano / Special to the Times Union

Where to stay in Madison

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The Homestead represents a thoughtful approach to craft lodging. Rooms are generously sized, with modern bathrooms. The inn has dozens of other considered touches, including multiplug units and USB ports on both sides of comfortable beds, in-room record players, plentiful free-choice snacks, outdoor seating areas with fire pits, and a freshly prepared, self-serve breakfast.

The Madison Beach Hotel, part of the Hilton Curio portfolio, has ocean views, nautical-inspired guest rooms and a spa where you can relax with a body scrub, facial or massage. The building is fashioned after the grand seaside inns of the Victorian era.

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