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Cruising Down the Connecticut River

East Haddam offers among the best in birds, musical theater and vistas.

For more on tourist locations throughout the state, visit the Connecticut Day Trips Facebook page.

Even on a rainy Saturday it’s worth cruising up the Connecticut River on a RiverQuest boat out of Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam and seeing some osprey, egrets, eagles and sprawling, rich folk houses. The sprawling houses aren’t as rare as the birds, of course, but you may enjoy the contrast of natural and flashy anyway.

Capt. Mark and Mindy, who run the boat but also point out the attractions, natural and manmade, simply make the trip.

“There goes a bass boat. He’s obviously chasing a very fast bass,” Capt. Mark says of the airborne racer passing us.

We slow to go by the yacht club so that, as our captain tells us, our wake won’t cause any martini spillage, and then we’re clear. “After the yacht club, we’ll go up to a blistering 8 knots,” Mindy prepares us.

And then as we approach the craggy and gorgeous Gillette Castle on the crest of the hill to our right, Capt. Mark tells the story. When Gillette’s wife was on her deathbed, she made her husband promise he would never remarry. “He kept his promise. He spent the rest of his life partying up there in that castle,” our narrator says.

But lovely as other people’s wealth is to ponder, it’s the natural assets that make the RiverQuest cruise a treat. Mindy takes pains to describe where you can see an eagle’s nest, even though the trees are fully leafed out and most of us need extra instruction. She keeps at it, I mean it, until everyone spots the nest.

Just that morning the passengers saw the two baby eagles flapping their wings. No such luck on the noon cruise. But on the way home, we got to see a noble young adult eagle in profile at the top of a dead tree, thanks to Mindy and the binoculars on board.

A painting on the ceiling of the covered part of the boat shows that same eagle’s dimension in full flight. And pictures of young osprey were flashed on the TV monitor, showing us that their oversized wings literally weigh them down in the early weeks of life, until they grow into them.

If you’re a serious birder, you’ll want to go on a February or March cruise – dress warmly – when the trees are bare and the eagles have landed. But this time of year, you can enjoy the warmth and fulfillment of seeing the prolific mountain laurel – our state flower – growing on the hillsides and egrets and cormorants frolicking along the shoreline. The low-drag boat allows superior vantages.

Upon deboarding we got the opportunity to see the East Haddam Swing Bridge make way for a small sailboat to slip through with its mast intact. And then we joined the Goodspeed Opera House matinee crowd at the 1853 Gelston House for lunch, where you can get a lobster sandwich or salmon and asparagus plate for just under $20. This, while enjoying a great view of the river and the ornate house of inspired musicals.

If you want one more thing, just one more thing, to make the afternoon perfect, stop in up the street at the Hillside Sweet Shoppe and get a scoop of homemade caramel caribou and one of dirty farm boots. What a combination.

Next time you can tour the castle or take in the musical. But for one day’s escape, we are sated.

Here are some details for planning your East Haddam getaway. The  90-minute cruise with RiverQuest is $20, $15 for kids, ages 2-12. The two-hour sunset cruise costs $25. Visit ctriverquest.com or call 860-662-0577. For reservations and other information, call the Gelston House at 860-873-1411 or visit gelstonhouse.com. To ask about homemade ice cream, candy and toys at Hillside Sweet Shoppe, call 860-970-5382 or visit hillsidesweetshoppe.com.

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