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15 Coastal Connecticut Curiosities: Kate Hepburn, African-American Firsts, Art History and One Scandalous Hotel Among Other Things You Probably Didn't Know About This Quiet State

02/16/2015 09:36 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

She was Annie Hall without the neurosis. She wore pants! She was beautiful, witty, gregarious, and a clever verbal sparring partner with each of her leading men. Born in 1907, Katharine Hepburn, the legendary actress, was hero and role model for women who were not afraid to be intelligent - and she lived right here, in Connecticut, at the mouth of the Connecticut River and the Long Island Sound, in Old Saybrook.

Directly across the I-95 Bridge, Old Lyme, the Birthplace of American Impressionism, holds further surprises.

Even if you were born and raised in the often overlooked State of Connecticut, these 15 facts might surprise you. For more information on these towns and other Offbeat Destinations in the Northeast USA, check out GetawayMavens.com.

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1. Katharine Hepburn came by her strong feminist views honestly. Her mother, also named Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was influential in the Women's Suffrage movement, and went on to co-found the American Birth Control League (the predecessor of Planned Parenthood) with Margaret Sanger in the 1930's.

2. The Hepburn's lived in Hartford CT, but had a summer home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook. The home floated away during the Hurricane of 1938, so Kate rebuilt a larger house on the same site, and it's where she lived until her death at age 96.

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3. Avoiding the superficial, striving, Hollywood scene like the plague, Hepburn was known in town as down to earth (she did her own grocery shopping), no-nonsense and fiercely independent. After she died, locals named the renovated Arts Center after her.

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4. Kate Hepburn was among several strong accomplished women in this little Connecticut Shore town. The excellent casual Moroccan restaurant, Tissa's LeSouk du Maroc, occupies the 1790 General Store to the Humphrey Pratt Tavern (where, in 1824, the Marquis de Lafayette "made a purchase" - as it states on a prominent sign outside the door). In the early 1900's the store was a Pharmacy/Soda Fountain, run by Anna James and her brother-in-law, Peter Lane. Owners of the new restaurant have preserved some artifacts, posters, newspaper clippings, charming wood apothecary drawers and Miss James' original 1896 Soda Fountain with Vermont Granite counter.

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5. Anna James, the African-American daughter of an escaped slave, was the first woman to become a pharmacist in Connecticut. James, the only woman in her class at Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, Class of 1908, took over her sister and brother-in-law's drugstore in 1922. Recognized as the "confidant and conscience of the community," and much beloved, James retired in 1967 at the age of 81.

6. Anna James was not the only famous Black woman to live in Old Saybrook: her sister's daughter, Ann Petry, also a licensed pharmacist, found fame and fortune as a novelist. Petry's classic American novel, The Street (1946), about a young hardworking black mother struggling to raise her child in 1940's Harlem, still resonates today. The Street was the first book written by an African American author to sell over a million copies.

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7. Old Saybrook was once home to a hot, celeb-magnet hotel with a naughty reputation. Due to its striking location at the mouth of the Connecticut River, the seaside section of Saybrook has been luring tourists since the late 1870's - first, as The Pease House, and then in the late 1950's to early 1970's as the Rat Pack favorite Terra Mar. Fifties Modern, several large outdoor pools, a big yacht marina - Terra Mar drew Frank Sinatra, Jane Mansfield, Ted Kennedy, Tom Jones and a slew of Bold Faced Names. In the warm months, Terra Mar was Las Vegas meets Miami Beach, attracting scandal, gambling, gangsters and finally, The Law, which cracked down on illegal activities and effectively put Terra Mar out of business.

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8. The Saybrook Point Inn, rebuilt on the footprint of the razed Terra Mar, is the polar opposite of that bastion of bad-boyhood. Bringing beauty and decorum back to the shore, the Inn now features an acclaimed Spa, a Community Health Club, a newly renovated and renamed restaurant, Fresh Salt (replacing, interestingly enough, Terra Mar Restaurant), one of the first "Green" Marinas on Long Island Sound, and a brand new "Boutique Inn" property, Three Stories, across the street.

9. This part of the Connecticut Coast never became a commercial port - for good reason. Mother Nature, in her most violent moods, plays havoc here with sandbars and islands, carving compositions randomly. What is one day a deepwater channel is a beach the next.

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10. In Old Lyme at the turn of last century, Florence Griswold played "Den Mother" to a group of artists who would become leaders in the American Impressionist movement. With the death of her parents in the late 1800's Griswold, fifty years old, destitute, and in danger of losing the home that had been in her family since it was built in 1817, opened it up as a boarding house for artists who were drawn to the clarity of light in Old Lyme that they called the Lyme Light. Establishing a bona fide Artist Colony, Childe Hassam, Henry Ward Ranger and dozens more moved in and painted on everything within sight, including Griswold's cupboards and doors. You can still see these works of art on a tour of the Florence Griswold Home, as well as spend a day at the galleries, studios and gardens on the site of the Florence Griswold Museum.

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11. You can paint "en plein air" just as the Impressionists did - and exactly where they did - every Sunday from April to December at the Florence Griswold Museum. Included in the price of admission, you're supplied with a smock, canvas,brushes, pallate, paints and quick instruction, and then sent outside to the banks of the Lieutenant River to create a masterpiece that you can take home. Given that children under 12 are free, and admission to the whole Florence Griswold Museum compound is just $10 per adult, this attraction is one of the best bargains in New England.

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12. In the early morning, drive to the bird-watching platform at the end of Smith Neck Road in Old Lyme for an immersion in the hazy tableau - the blurred, muted landscape - of an impressionist painting.. Signs on the railings promise views of Ospreys, Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets, though all you might see through the mist are sailboats moored in the narrow ribbon of water that separates this land from Great Island, also known as the Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Area.

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13. Modern-day Audubon, Roger Tory Peterson - of Peterson's Field Guide to Birds fame - lived in the birding paradise of Old Lyme. He moved here in mid-life, living out the last decades of his life in what amounts to an open aviary. Drive to the waterfront or better yet, paddle one of the Canoe/Kayak Water Trails, or walk the quarter mile DEP Marine Headquarters Boardwalk, which traverses the Connecticut River from DEP's parking lot, to find that birds are everywhere - Blue Herons, Cormorants, Terns. You'll gaze upon dozens of Osprey nests dotting the landscape like mini War of the World tripods and branches festooned with white egrets - like living Christmas trees. It's otherworldly and nirvana for naturalists.

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14. Celebrated chef (and local) Jacques Pepin, joins in games of petanque (a French version of bocce ball) on the grounds of the plush 9-room Bee and Thistle Inn in Old Lyme on some summer nights. Pepin also displays some of his art and books in this refined French-style Inn that sits next door to the Florence Griswold Museum and showcases works of emerging artists both inside and on the beautifully landscaped property.

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15. Old Lyme is gaining traction among jazz aficionados with the opening of "The Side Door Jazz Club" at the Old Lyme Inn. Stuffy no more, the Inn has been renovated, updated and "jazzed up." Lovers of bebop, swing, fusion and improvisational music, and the musician who play it, have discovered this quiet section of the Connecticut Shoreline. With The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center Theater a two-minute drive away, Old Lyme and Old Saybrook are not so quiet anymore.