There is definitely a correct way to enter this town, and luckily, our Google Map obedience resulted in the proper welcome to East Haddam. This small Connecticut village is home to just over 9,000, tucked snuggly against the Connecticut River, and, as you might have guessed, located just east of a town named Haddam. As we curved towards the river, bombarded by warning signs about the upcoming swing bridge, the treeline broke and a majestic opera house greeted us, proudly perched above the water. We looked at each other. No Starbucks for 20 miles in any winding direction, but sure, an opera house. This unexpected and undeniably unique greeting epitomized our month long stay in this town. With its citizens’ boundless generosity and the town’s enchanting holiday spirit, East Haddam was brimming with exceptional places to discover, each distinctly different from anything we’ve yet to see during our full-time travels. Here were our favorite things to do in East Haddam, Connecticut.
Gillette Castle State Park
Running like seams across the Connecticut countryside, we saw rustic stone walls everywhere. Many were firmly intact while others were crumbling into something that more closely resembled a pile of stones than a stone wall. We were told that as farmers during the revolutionary period were clearing the land for crops, they’d create boundaries with the collection of rocks they’d turned up. Fast forward 150 years or so, and the actor William Gillette had a new, much more extravagant project for the Connecticut field stones: his own castle.
This weird, lavish structure is utterly hypnotic. We just couldn’t stop staring at it. Everything appeared to be made out of stone, like something out of the Flintstones town of Bedrock. Stones for the walls, the paths, the window awnings, the faux Grand Central Station through which a miniature train used to pass on its loop around the property boasting famous guests like Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin.
This wonderfully jarring architectural concoction was Gillette’s own creation and served as his retirement home after years of playing Sherlock Holmes in theaters around the globe. Now a state park, the property and its castle offer travelers like us a maze of hiking trails to explore and a stunning view of the Connecticut River. If you’re driving near East Haddam and just have time for one stop, the Gillette Castle wins our vote.
This town is home to some stunning architecture. Even the Grist Mill Market with their delicious coffee and La Vita Restaurant with their housemade chips are in adorable building. Any drive we took was adorned with beautiful buildings left and right. Here were a few of our favorites.
MoreFit Health Club
There are days when full-time travel can slip into loneliness, and I have yet to find a more effective anecdote to any wavering of isolation than the MoreFit Health Club. On our third full day in East Haddam, I joined MoreFit. After a quick search and a helpful phone call, I walked into this stunning studio. MoreFit immediately became my daily endorphin stop. The calming environment and invigorating workouts were just part of the equation. The owner, the trainers, and all the MoreFit members were the crux of my experience. From the day I signed up to the evening I left, each person I interacted with learned my name, asked about my travels, and shared their favorite East Haddam recommendations.
MoreFit was created by the Polish powerhouse Maryla Radziszewski. Her small frame houses an unstoppable force. She and her family transformed this old fishing building into the modern facility by hand. No bank loan, no contractors, their singular effort brought this incredible amenity to East Haddam. Maryla has created a space dedicated to wholistic wellness. In addition to more traditional workouts, MoreFit offers massages, physical therapy, acupuncture, and nutrition training.
Then there are the group classes: Simply Lift, Zumba, Blast ‘n’ Trim, Vinyasa Yoga, Life Your Core, Restorative Yoga, Tight and Tone. A full month of almost daily classes, and I still didn’t hit them all! From Theresa Govert’s fluid yoga series, to David Tiefenbrunn’s energized Zumba moves, to Klaudia Radziszewski’s butt-kicking circuits, these classes had me simultaneously sweating and laughing every day.
And then there was Billi-Jean King. I have yet to work with a more motivating or creative trainer. Her journey has taken her from dancing at the local opera house to leading workouts as a military officer. This fascinating background shines through in her training. From her elegant footwork to her incredible fitness, her carefully designed classes reminded me that working out can be a ridiculous amount of fun.
In February, months before our full-time travel began, I read a wonderful book by Jonathan Fields called How to Live a Good Life. One of the thirty tasks in the book was to blast music and dance when you were completely alone. I read that chapter, and made a conscious decision not to do it. It just felt too weird. But in this small Connecticut studio, the self-consciousness melted away, and I danced. Not gracefully, not well, but more fully and joyously than I have in years. If you’re lucky enough to live within driving distance of MoreFit and fear is holding you back, my recommendation is this: just try one class. With their welcoming community and brilliant trainers, my guess is that you’ll keep coming back.
Two Wrasslin’ Cats
We arrived to East Haddam on a Saturday. After crossing the river and looping through town, the state highway dipped into a mile of densely wooded curves before opening up to three-way stop. Sitting at this junction was a funky little building with a bunch of folks in the parking lot, waiving to passing cars and holding signs. The largest sign, maybe 4 feet tall by 8 feet long, had the following Shaun King quote in hand-painted lettering: “Dear Muslims, Immigrants, Women, Disabled, LGBTQ+ folks & All People of Color, We Love YOU-boldly & proudly. We will endure.”
We learned later that this was one of the weekly vigils held outside the fabulously named coffee shop, Two Wrasslin’ Cats. Everything this place does, it does boldly and proudly. From its bright colors to its cat collection to its effervescent celebration of difference, the environment energizes the innate empathy and warmth inside each visitor. In the first few moments of meeting the owner, Mark Thiede, it was clear where this contagious positivity was rooted. Mark’s gentle voice and genuine interest in our story became our first anchor in East Haddam. When we asked, he generously shared his story too.
It turned out the sign we had seen the day we arrived was actually the second iteration. The first version, created by local citizen Theresa Govert (yep, the same woman teaching incredible yoga classes at MoreFit), had been displayed the day after the 2016 election at a different street corner. It was promptly defaced. The second sign was quickly created and with Mark’s support found a new home at Two Wrasslin’ Cats. The coffee shop quickly became a community hub for activism, serving as a sister-city for the January 2017 Women’s March which drew over 500 citizens to its small parking lot. Since then, the Together We Rise CT movement has hosted their weekly vigils here.
Two Wrasslin’ Cats provides a stunning example of what steady day-in, day-out local and national engagement looks like. The proliferations of community can be felt throughout the coffee shop: the overflowing bulletin board, the buzzing Sunday morning conversations, the first-name greeting bestowed on each visitor who walks through the door. It’s an incredible balancing act Mark has created: fostering deep connections and difficult conversations, all while gracefully serving incredible coffee and addictive chocolate chip cookies.