July 3, 2012

Storming Gillette Castle - East Haddam, Conn.

It's not your imagination; that's a castle! Gillette Castle,
a beautiful and totally unique 24-room mansion,
found on the Connecticut River.

Beautiful, cloudless Sundays in July are a rare commodity here in New England - and the perfect excuse for spending the day by the water or breaking in a new pair of hiking boots.

Seeking to accomplish both of these things (whilst continuing on my never-ending quest to soak in my fair share of Vitamin D), I headed out on the first glorious day of July to Gillette Castle State Park in East Haddam, Conn.

I'm rather ashamed to admit that I'd never before set foot in this place. It's one of those landmarks my friends had all seemed to frequent on their grammar school field trips, but for whatever reason, I'd never had the pleasure.

Let's just say it was worth the wait.

Here, on 184 acres of what was once the estate of a famous stage actor named William Gillette, you'll find hiking trails galore, fantastic views of the Connecticut River, picnic areas, a campground, and lots of enchanting little stone-lined bridges and paths. There's even a visitors' center shop and a grill serving food and ice cream in case you're starved by the end of your trip.

But the real star attraction is the 24-room stone castle, a mansion designed ingeniously by Gillette himself.

Today's Stefcations Highlights:
Boarding the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry.
  • What You'll Find: An honest-to-goodness stone castle (no, really!), perched above the Connecticut River, surrounded by plenty of hiking trails and scenic views. Located in Gillette Castle State Park, 67 River Road in East Haddam, Conn.
  • When to Go: The grounds are open year-round, while the castle itself is open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (with a special Christmastime season). If you'd like to take the Chester-Hadlyme ferry to get here, it runs from late April through November.
  • What It'll Cost: The park itself is free. Roam the trails, picnic by the lily-padded ponds, or longingly watch the boats and jet-skis speed by on the Connecticut River. For the self-guided tour of the castle, it's $6 per person and $2 for kids ages 6-12, with no charge for kids under 5. The ferry, should you choose to take it, is $3 per car (bring cash).
  • By the Way: Reportedly, the castle is a sight to see during the winter season, when it's decorated for the holidays. 

Lots of (mostly light) trails to choose from;
check out the park's hiking map here.
Gillette, a playwright and actor who back in the day was best known for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage, was clearly a very cool guy with a flair for more than just acting.

No stranger to drama, he designed his home (where he lived from 1919 until his death in 1937) to feature all the wacky things you'd picture in mystery novels - including secret passageways and hidden mirrors through which he could covertly observe his guests from afar without them knowing it.

At the same time, this place is a museum and a true work of art. Every wooden door and latch is carved with an ornate design (no two doors in the place are exactly alike). Artifacts and correspondence from Gillette's lifetime grace the various rooms - down to the "cat bell" that summoned Gillette's 15 cats for dinner every evening. (Love it!) Tour guides stationed throughout will happily share entertaining anecdotes with you. There's an art gallery. Even the light switches are funky little artistic creations.

And, um, it's a castle.

Tourists on motorcycles
enjoyed the park, too.
The day I visited, the place was bustling with activity. People of all ages were strolling around - young couples, families with baby strollers, even tough-looking motorcycle dudes in muscle T-shirts, who I caught attentively snapping photos of the castle's stone walls and the surrounding flowerbeds.

There were also rehearsals going on the park's small outdoor stage, where actors from a local theater troupe were practicing for an upcoming production - about, what else, Sherlock Holmes. (If you want more detes on this, you can find them here.)

So if you're up for a little fairy tale of an adventure, you can find it - no matter what your age - right here in the heart of Connecticut.

Fantastic views of the Connecticut River
from Gillette's estate, also known as the Seventh Sister.

Enjoy a picnic by the one of the park's lovely lily ponds.


  1. I've never been to the castle. I think it's time to remedy this!

  2. Oh, wow! I did not know about the Gillette Castle! This looks like a terrific place for my family to visit for a weekend outing!! We're always looking for new places to hike, so it's a win-win :)

    Thank you for the info!

    1. So glad to turn folks onto this place! It's the perfect spot for a nice-weather weekend. If you do go there, definitely report back and let me know what you thought!! :D