ESSEX, Conn. -- ''What's that?" my husband said, sprawled across the bed in our room at the Griswold Inn, engrossed in his book.
''I know that, but where's it coming from?" he said.
''It's coming from this speaker in the wall."
The option of having classical music piped into the room was a surprise during our stay at one of the country's oldest inns. The Griswold claims to have been in operation since 1776, though Essex town historian Don Malcarne suggests in ''Houses of Essex" (Ivoryton Library Association, 2004) that the structure was built as the Richard Hayden homestead in 1801. Joan Paul, who has owned the inn with her husband, Douglas, for a decade, counters that the business itself commenced operations on June 6, 1776, though perhaps in an earlier building.
Either way, the inn has made the most of its heritage, combining historical charm with modern amenities.
The Griswold is not only a lodging but also a museum that captures the maritime glory of Essex. It is said to have the country's largest private collection of Currier and Ives maritime prints, with their washed-out, dreamlike quality, and Antonio Jacobsen steamship oils, all blue-back oceans and puffy-cloud-filled skies. The walls are covered with nautical maps and prints of steamboats and clipper ships. Ceilings are low, floorboards are wide, and fires crackle in many fireplaces.
The Griswold includes 30 rooms in five buildings and a freestanding cottage in the center of Essex Village. Our corner room on the second floor of the main inn was larger than we expected in such an old building. The light-filled room had area rugs over wide floorboards, a queen bed, two nightstands with lamps, a telephone, clock radio, tiny closet, sitting area with comfortable loveseat, upholstered chair, dresser, and mirror. We could see Middle Cove of the Connecticut River in the distance, but the immediate view on two sides was of huge air conditioning units on the roof.
The bathroom was small but surprisingly modern. The large shower stall had glass doors and a rainfall showerhead.
An excellent guest information booklet included a map and a magazine for Long Island Sound sailors. Walks and bicycle routes are outlined.
Guests have access to common rooms in the Hayden House adjacent to the inn, where there are two parlors, one with a television and VCR player, and a guest refrigerator. The Griswold has five dining rooms, the largest of which, the Steamboat Room, is being renovated as a wine bar, scheduled to open early next month.
The room rate includes a continental breakfast, which we found unremarkable. Fresh melon was not quite ripe, and the toaster, which took an inordinate amount of time and ultimately toasted only one side of the bread, seemed a bit historic itself.
We had dinner in the Library, a narrow, book-lined room with Jacobsen oils on the deep burgundy walls. We started with good clam chowder and a warm salad of frisee, spinach, and grilled quail. Boneless pork loin with ginger-apple sauce was succulent and just a bit spicy, served with tender asparagus. Seared scallops niçoise was an unusual combination of cool arugula salad and warm scallops and thin green beans.
Classic crème brûlée was served with fresh berries, and a molten double chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce was everything a chocolate lover could wish.
The heart of the Gris, as it's known to locals, is the Tap Room, all polished wood and brass with a domed roof made of horsehair and crushed clamshells. On a Saturday afternoon, every seat was taken by patrons of all ages.
Main Street, Essex, is lined with shops, galleries, and beautifully restored houses. The Connecticut River Museum just down the street from the inn, is worth a visit. If you close your eyes you can almost see the majestic steamboats pictured on the walls of the Gris pulling away from the dock.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.