LITCHFIELD, Conn. (AP) — The demoiselle crane moved delicately across the field, arched her long, silver-grey neck and offered an elaborate bow. Then the bird, a native of Eurasia, flapped and hopped and danced over the grass in a courtship ritual that was all the more extraordinary because of where it took place — off a rambling country road a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the center of this Northeastern Connecticut town.
The Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy — 16 acres (7 hectares) of beautifully landscaped aviaries and ponds — is home to hundreds of birds from around the world, including many rare and endangered species. For years the conservancy, which was founded by famed ornithologist S. Dillon Ripley in the 1980s, shunned publicity, though visitors are now welcome on weekends.
Still, the bird sanctuary remains one of the secret treasures of Litchfield County, a place of picturesque villages and historic inns, saltbox houses dating to the 1700s, soaring white clapboard churches, and seemingly endless rivers, lakes and meadows carpeted with wildflowers.
"Litchfield County is full of hidden gems. You just have to know where to look," says Dixie Delancy who, with her brother Dan, sells hot dogs and pulled pork sandwiches on the shores of Lake Waramaug in New Preston. The pair are a font of local knowledge and history and happily direct bikers, kayakers, fishermen and history buffs to the best spots.
Delancy, an avid hiker and kayaker, writes a blog at LaksideLunch.com called "Hot Dogs and Tourism" that's as good as any guidebook, detailing spectacular fly fishing on the Housatonic River, the old-world charms of a covered bridge in West Cornwall and the natural wonders of a 250-foot (76-meter) waterfall at Kent Falls State Park.
Another local wonder, though distinctly man-made, can be found just south of the falls among the rambling gardens and 18th-century barns that make up artist Denis Curtiss' studio and home. The massive steel panthers, elephants and giraffes that loom among the trees provide a startling sight for visitors motoring along Route 7. Curtiss, 66, a retired teacher from Cornwall, has been making the unique, cubist-style structures for decades (he says one of his biggest clients was the late singer, Andy Williams, who shipped more than 20 pieces to his home in Missouri). When home, Curtiss welcomes visitors for free tours of the place he calls "Sculpturedale".
In the heart of the county is the charming town of Litchfield itself, with historic buildings, galleries and restaurants laid out along a 1770s green and dominated by the towering white First Congregational church and stately granite courthouse.
In 1978, Litchfield was designated a National Historic Landmark and today members of the local historical society lead walking tours through the village, which features dozens of historic sites, including The Tapping Reeve Law school (founded in 1784, it was the country's first law school), the Ethan Allen house and the Sheldon tavern where Washington supposedly once slept.
The early 19th century was Litchfield's "Golden Age," when the town was a thriving urban and cultural center, home to the law school and the Litchfield Female Academy, one of the earliest schools for girls in the United States. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who grew up in Litchfield (her father Lyman Beecher was a minister at the Congregational church) was one of its most prominent alumnae.
In the 20th century, the county reinvented itself as a haven for artists and writers. Arthur Miller, Philip Roth, William Styron and Alexander Calder all lived in towns throughout the county, and many actors, including Meryl Streep, Mia Farrow and Susan Saint James have homes here. More recently George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, president and vice president of the Manolo Blahnik shoe company, opened an upscale dairy farm, ice cream shop and restaurant in Bantam.
"There is definitely a cultural underbelly to the county, some of it driven by wealth but also by genuine artistic sensibility," says potter Guy Wolff, who creates gorgeous terra-cotta pots inspired by 18th century French and English designs. He cheerfully describes them as "the most expensive flower pots in America": the larger ones cost thousands of dollars. But Wolff welcomes anyone to stop by his Bantam studio on Route 202, where, whether they purchase or not, he will regale them with the artistic history of the county.
For many visitors, the true splendor of Litchfield county unveils itself in the fall, when the hills turn dazzling shades of gold and bronze, and leaf-peepers and hikers clog the back roads.
There are hiking trails of all levels: a 10-mile (17-kilometer) stretch of the Appalachian Trail runs through the northwest corner with spectacular views of the Housatonic River valley and the Taconic mountains. It's not uncommon to spot ragged looking-hikers — all brawn and long beards — emerge from the woods and plod past the expensive galleries and restaurants that line Main Street in Kent.
Just outside Litchfield, ramblers can tackle easier trails at the White Memorial Conservation Center, a wildlife sanctuary set among 4,000 acres (more than 1,600 hectares) of fields, ponds and woodland. It includes a nature museum, campgrounds, boating and bird-watching. Many of the trails are free: There's a wonderful 1.5-mile (1.6-kilometer) boardwalk path over a reedy marsh (the Little Pond trail) that is spectacular even in winter, when the ice cracks magically all around as you walk.
Fall is also a good time to visit the vineyards that dot the area, or browse the antique shops in Woodbury where dozens of dealers have stores, many housed in the Colonial, Greek revival and Victorian mansions that line Main Street.
And it's the perfect season to visit Topsmead, perhaps the most enchanting home in the county. Perched high on a hill about 3 miles (5 kilometers) north of Litchfield, this exquisite English Tudor-style home with its slate roof and ivy-clad walls, formal flower gardens and apple orchards seems shrouded in the sensibilities of another era.
The house was built in the 1920s as a summer residence for Edith Morton Chase, daughter of the first president of the Chase Brass and Copper Company in Waterbury. As a young woman abroad, Chase fell in love with the English countryside and decided to recreate a corner of the Cotswolds on her land in Litchfield.
Through October, on alternate weekends, volunteers offer free guided tours of the house, which is preserved exactly as it stood when Chase lived there. Visitors can walk through the kitchen and living room and bedrooms, peruse the handwritten notes on ingredients for perfect cocktails in the butler's pantry, and listen to amusing anecdotes about Chase's love of opera, the Yankees and Egyptian cigars.
When she died in 1972, Chase bequeathed her 17-acre (7-hectare) estate — named for "Top of the Meadow" — to the state, requesting that it "be kept in a state of natural beauty".
Says gardener Gene Ptachcinski, who is charged with keeping it that way, "there is no spot more beautiful in Litchfield County."
If You Go...
LITCHFIELD, CONN.: Located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from New York City and 130 miles (210 kilometers) from Boston.
LIVINGSTON RIPLEY WATERFOWL CONSERVANCY: 55 Duck Pond Road, Litchfield, http://www.lrwc.net/. Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Adults $10, including one child under the age of 12. Additional children, $5.
KENT FALLS STATE PARK: 462 Kent Cornwall Road, Route 7, Kent. Open daily 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. Parking weekends and holidays: $9 for Connecticut vehicles and $15 for out-of-state; http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=325228
LITCHFIELD HISTORICAL SOCIETY: 7 South St., Litchfield. Admission to both Litchfield History Museum and Tapping Reeve House and Law School, adults, $5; children under 14 and law students, free; seniors and students, $3. Walking tour information at http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/.
SCULPTUREDALE: Intersection of Carter Road and Route 7, Kent. Free tours when artist is home; http://www.deniscurtisssculptor.com/sculpturedale.htm.
WHITE MEMORIAL CONSERVATION CENTER: 80 Whitehall Road, Litchfield. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Adults, $6; children 6-12, $3; children under 6, free. Parking and hiking trails free; http://www.whitememorialcc.org/
TOPSMEAD STATE FOREST: Buell Road, Litchfield. Grounds and trails open daily year-round. Free guided tours of the residence offered June-October, second and fourth weekends of the month, noon- 5 p.m. (until 4 p.m. Oct. 28-29); http://www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=325076.