In the rolling hills of the Western Highlands, Watertown is a north-western suburb of the city of Waterbury.
Watertown’s strength comes from its plentiful open space, culminating in high rocky ledges that give you the kind of views that belong in 19th-century landscape paintings.
In the two state forests within Watertown’s boundaries there are Blue-Blazed walking trails, ponds, public swimming areas, caves and waterfalls.
Also enveloped in this rollercoaster countryside is the public Crestbrook Golf Course, which has elevation changes to leave experienced pros scratching their heads.
Downtown Waterbury is a breeze from Watertown, and has a raft of restaurants, a sparkling Renaissance Revival theater and the art-rich Mattatuck Museum.
1. Hawk Ridge Winery
The vines for this winery were only planted in 2014, but the eight varietals are already yielding grapes for several acclaimed wines.
Hawk Ridge is on high ground blessed with romantic panoramas of the Litchfield Hills, and its name comes from the hawks that soar overhead.
In 2019 there was a selection of six Reds, four Whites, a Rosé, and a Port, from Pinot Grigio, Cab Sauv, Pinot Noir, Cayuga, Chamborucin and Petit Syrah.
The high-vaulted tasting room, with a Douglas fir post & beam ceiling and black walnut bar, was built in 2017 and is open seven days a week.
Tastings are $11 per person and include six wines of your choice, along with a souvenir wine glass to take home.
The restaurant at Hawk Ridge has a decadent Italian-inspired dining menu, comprising salads, pizza, flatbreads, huge sandwiches, cheese plates and charcuterie boards.
2. Black Rock State Park
There’s unfettered natural beauty in the north of Watertown at this 444-acre park on the site of a graphite mine first worked in the middle of the 17th century.
At the heart of the park is Black Rock Pond, a place for swimming and fishing in summer, walled by high rocky ledges growing hemlock pine and oak.
The name Black Rock comes from the dark outline of one such cliff-top, rewarding you with marvellous views over the Naugatuck Valley to Thomaston, as well as much of Watertown and the city of Waterbury, to the south-east.
You can venture into the park on the long Mattatuck Trail, which we’ll talk about in more detail below, and there’s a 78-site camp ground open in summer.
“The Brass City” is on Waterbury’s doorstep, and has the kind of culture you’d want from one of the ten largest urban centres in New England.
Make a bee-line for the eclectic Mattatack Museum, which highlights the Waterbury area’s 300+ years of European history, but also has a formidable art collection, with works by Alexander Calder, John Frederick Kensett, Erastus Salisbury Field and Yves Tanguy.
In The Brass City it’s a given that the city’s main museum should have a vast button collection, running to 15,000 pieces and amassed by the now defunct Button Museum.
Waterbury’s crowning glory is the Palace Theater, an extremely opulent live entertainment venue opened in 1922 and restored at a cost of $30m in 2004.
4. Fascia’s Chocolates
Crafting handmade candy for more than 50 years, Fascia’s Chocolates is a big business chocolatier, but still produces treats in small batches at a factory and shop just east of Watertown’s Oakville section.
The factory offers a hands-on “Make-a-Bar” workshop during school breaks, or a full hour-long “Chocolate Experience”. During the latter you’ll track chocolate’s journey from bean to bar and bar to box, take part in a tasting sessions, watch demonstrations, and take a peek at the factory floor via a remote-controlled camera.
Afterwards you’ll be unleashed at the store where you won’t resist Fascia’s gelato, which comes in 12 delectable flavours.
5. Mattatuck State Forest
If you’re ready for a hike in the rugged wilderness around Watertown your best bet will be the Mattatuck State Forest.
This is almost 4,700 acres, but spread across 20 parcels of land.
It was established in the first half of the 20th century, rehabilitating a landscape that had been damaged by the Naugatuck Valley’s brass industry.
You’ll find these spaces in Watertown, but also Waterbury, Plymouth, Litchfield, Thomaston and Harwinton.
Large tracts of the forest are linked by the Mattatuck Trail, a Blue-Blazed trail 36 miles in length.
In Watertown the route passes by Connecticut Route 8 and continues to Bidwell Hill Road where it enters Black Rock State Park.
Further south, in Watertown’s Oakville section you can pick up the Jericho Trail, which winds through a piece of the state forest for 3.5 miles.
The southern trailhead and parking lot can be found on Echo Lake Road, and the northern terminus is the intersection with the Leatherman Cave Trail (part of the Mattatuck Trail), which we’ll talk about next.
6. Leatherman Cave Trail
Just over two miles out and back, this hiking trail is a real joy in spring and summer when wildflowers line the route.
You’ll need a decent pair of hiking shoes as there’s a rather heavy elevation change of almost 200 metres.
The Leatherman Cave trail is a section of the 36-mile, Blue-Blazed Mattatuck Trail, and that uphill climb will be compensated by marvellous panoramas at Crane’s Lookout and a cave steeped in local history.
The Leatherman who lived roughly between 1839 and 1889 was a vagabond, believed to have been French-Canadian.
Dressed in handmade leather clothes he would walk the same 365-mile route every year between Western Connecticut and Eastern New York, staying in rock shelters.
Watertown’s Leatherman Cave is one place where the Leatherman is known to have dwelt, and you can still make out his fire pit.
7. Nonnewaug Falls
Right on the Woodbury-Bethlehem town line there’s a light, one-mile trail through field and woodland to a waterfall.
With a 3.5-metre horsetail beneath a 2-metre fan, Nonnewaug Falls isn’t large, but is a photographer’s dream for the mature deciduous trees and mossy rocks framing the river.
The falls and East Nonnewaug River are named after the Native American tribe, Nonnewaug, who is buried in the woods not far from the river.
Make the trip after a period of sustained rainfall.
8. Brass Works Brewing Company
Right on the opposite bank of the Naugatuck River from Watertown, Brass Works Brewing Company is a craft brewery drawing on more than 30 years of experience.
Brothers Michael and David Ieronimo started in their mom’s kitchen as teenagers in the late-80s and finally transferred their garage-based hobby to a fully-fledged brewery in 2015. When we compiled this list in summer 2019 there were 16 draught beers at the taproom, including four IPAs, as well as a three saisons, two stouts, three porters, an English mild ale, a blonde ale and a German-style Märzenbier.
The taproom is open Thursday through Sunday, and the outdoor terrace is visited by all kinds of food trucks serving burgers, pasta, grinders (subs) and sushi.
9. Whitestone Cliffs Trail
This looping Blue-Blazed trail was plotted by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association, and is named after the tall stone cliffs that seem to have a white tone when seen from Connecticut Route 8 and the Naugatuck River.
Almost all of the walk is within the Mattatuck State Forest, with connecting spurs shooting off to the south on Route 262, east to the trail’s parking lot and west to the Naugatuck River, heading under Route 8. The most scenic portion of the route takes in a 228-metre peak with far off vistas.
10. Bantam Lake
The largest natural lake in Connecticut is within an easy drive to the north-west in Litchfield.
Covering 947 acres, Bantam Lake comes into its own in the summer, when families flock to its two public beaches, at Sandy Beach and Morris Town Beach.
Come to swim, laze on the sand, take picnics, go camping, cook out in the open air and take part in a variety of water sports.
This is the site of the Bantam Lake Ski Club, America’s oldest water ski club still in operation, founded back in 1958. The lake’s northern banks are protected by the conservation organization, the White Memorial Foundation, and provide a rich habitat for birdlife.
11. Bantam Cinema
Carry on past the lake and what looks like a red barn is in fact a valuable piece of entertainment heritage.
This is the Bantam Cinema, claimed to be the oldest operating movie theater in the state.
It opened as the Rivoli Theatre in 1927 although the projectors were bought from Winfield Scott Rogers, Chairman of the Bantam Ball Bearing Company, who had screened free movies to his employees since 1918. The Bantam Cinema now has thoroughly modern sound and projection systems and screens critically acclaimed and international movies not normally shown at multiplexes.
A real bonus is the organic popcorn, which comes with real butter.
12. Bellamy-Ferriday House and Garden
Dating from 1760, this delightful property in neighbouring Bethlehem tells the story of two interesting historical figures.
One was the Congregationalist minister Joseph Bellamy (1719-1790), who was central to the First Great Awakening, a series of revivals in Britain and its colonies in the mid-18th century.
Much later, the house was the residence for Carolyn Ferriday (1902-1990), an actor and philanthropist who helped bring Nazi experimentation on Polish women at the Ravensbrück concentration camp to light.
Her family purchased the property in 1912 and redesigned the exterior, planting a formal parterre, while Ferriday was responsible for the glorious rose and lilac collections.
Carolyn bequeathed the entirety of the property including its furnishings to Connecticut Landmarks.
The house and garden are open for 90-minute tours May through October, Thursday to Sunday (weekends only in October).
13. Flanders Nature Center
The Flanders Land Trust looks after more than 2,100 acres of open space across seven preserves in Woodbury, Bethel, Southbury and Middlebury.
The headquarters are a little way west in Bethlehem at the Van Fleck Farm & Nature Sanctuary, which puts on exhibitions, a wealth of educational programs and workshops for adults and children.
There you’ll encounter a beautiful set of buildings scattered over a large area at the junction of Church Hill Road and Flanders Road.
At the 19th-century North Barn there are all kinds of farm animals, as well as exhibits on rural traditions in New England.
The Buz Russell Museum of Antique Tools and Farm Life has a fantastic collection of farming implements and toys collected by one Bethlehem resident, while the Studio, dating to 1928, stages lectures, meetings, art classes and nature programs.
The Sugar House, on a track off Church Hill Road, is the site of Flanders’ annual maple sugaring program and has exhibitions about the habitats and wildlife in Flanders nature preserves.
14. Crestbrook Park Golf Course
What used to be a private nine-hole course was bought by the town of Watertown in 1975 and was then expanded to 18 holes by the 1980s.
Crestbrook Park Golf Course is often mentioned among the best municipal courses in the state and is praised for quicksilver greens and sloping fairways that can catch even seasoned pros off guard.
Everything is kept in tip-top condition and there’s a five-acre practice facility, a full-service pro shop and a first-class 19th hole at the Sunset Grille.
Green fees for non-residents are $39 on weekdays and $42 Friday to Sunday.
15. Old Burying Ground
Opposite the new Starbucks at the corner of Main Street and French Street is a cemetery coming up for 300 years old.
The walls are low, and you’ll have little trouble getting in, although gravestone-rubbing is strictly prohibited.
The oldest grave is for one Hannah Richards Scovill, from 1741, and the newest internment is Martha Beardsly from 1938. You take a while to check out the centuries-old stones and their delicate carving, and also consider the fact that there are many more burials under this ground than are not recorded by stones.
By the mid-19th century the soil at the Old Burying Ground became impenetrable, so the Evergreen Cemetery had to be opened on North Street.