The month of May brings Memorial Day, the unofficial start of summer. With vacation budgets shrinking, many folks are opting to use their free time for day trips or long weekend jaunts. They’re on the lookout for close-to-home destinations, easily accessible by car, that offer all the qualities of a great vacation: a little bit of history, cultural options, outdoor fun, shopping — and great places to sleep and eat. From Massachusetts to New Jersey, we’ve scouted out nearby areas that fit the bill. So pack the car and the kids, and roll out for summer fun!
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Photographs courtesy of Lime Rock Park
LIME ROCK PARK/LAKEVILLE Connecticut
“Civilized” car-racing is a big draw in northwestern Connecticut’s Litchfield County.
By Rita Ross
Picture this: You pile the kids in the car with a picnic basket, blankets, and lawn chairs to enjoy a soothing spin along picture-perfect, northwestern Connecticut country roads. After arriving at a bucolic, 325-acre park, you settle on a grassy slope, unpack your gear — and spend the afternoon scoping out Ferraris, Porsches, BMWs, and other automotive beauties as they whiz by on a circuit below.
This out-of-the-ordinary day-trip destination is Lime Rock Park, a world-renowned track that’s a mecca for car-racing enthusiasts but has a decidedly genteel air. Think well-manicured polo club instead of scruffy, greasy auto track.
“We’re definitely not your typical facility. In fact, we’ve been called ‘the Tanglewood of auto racing,’ ” says Lime Rock’s Marketing and Public Relations Manager Renea Topp.
You won’t find any packed grandstand here — hillside seating is the preferred vantage point — and no beer-swilling crowds of noisy gear-heads. “Spectators love it because the racing is a huge part of Lime Rock Park, but it’s not the only thing,” says Topp. “You’ll see families with their coolers here for the day. It’s a friendly atmosphere.”
She says the track conducted a survey a while back that asked people why they come to Lime Rock Park. “Racing was about seventh on the list,” she says. The main reason: the scenic atmosphere. “Another top one was the beautiful drive to get here.”
Auto pilots: Race car drivers come through the first turn (above left) and straightaway at Lime Rock Park as fans watch from the grassy “grandstand”
One especially cool thing about Lime Rock: You can get up-close-and-personal with the cars and drivers. “Even during the big professional events, when the drivers are hard-core and serious about the race, they still enjoy letting fans come up and touch the cars in the paddock (where cars are worked on between races) and talk to them,” says Topp. “The kids, especially, go nuts.”
The unique hillside seating arrangement offers fans a 60-percent vantage point of the 1.53-mile, roughly oval track, which was recently repaved and upgraded. “It’s not like you have to watch the race on a TV screen like at some big tracks; you can actually see the cars go through their paces. It takes something like 43 seconds per lap,” according to Topp. Admission varies from $10-$80 per person, depending on the day or event. Parking is free, and there’s no charge for kids under 12. RV and tent camping is allowed on certain weekends, and the park has three concession stands and a VIP tent for special events. “It’s unique and fun for people, even if they don’t know anything about the cars,” Topp says.
Two of Lime Rock’s biggest summer events are the American LeMans Northeast Grand Prix series (July 17-18) and the Vintage Festival on Labor Day weekend. The LeMans features top-echelon, high-performance cars driven by pros from around the world — these babies can do 180 m.p.h. down the straightway and 60 on the turns. The Vintage Festival offers a chance to check out top-of-the-line, amazingly preserved classic vehicles, some of which are worth millions of dollars.
Although Lime Rock isn’t NASCAR-oriented, they do honor all motor-heads by holding one NASCAR-sanctioned stock car event during the season. “The cool thing is that you’ll see young drivers looking to make their big break in the NASCAR circuit,” says Topp. “Then, the next year, they’re in the top-tier nationals.”
Get your motor running
The Lime Rock track is open to individual drivers at certain times. But if you catch the bug and want to race, don’t expect to just pull off the street in your muscle car and zoom around the track.
“The best way is to join a car club,” says Topp. Lime Rock rents the track on various days to different clubs (there are several in the region, including a mid-Valley–based Porsche club). For an average rate of $300 per car, club members can race on the professional circuit. You’re required to go out with an instructor until you feel confident, says Topp; then you’re matched with drivers of equal ability. On a given day you might run one or two 20-minute sessions in the morning, with a lunch break; then more pulse-pounding circuits in the afternoon. “There’s no typical driver,” says Topp. “It runs the gamut from men and women who are passionate about cars, who participate every chance they get, to others who might only want to drive on a race track once in their lives.”
But for the car-crazed with the time and the cash, Lime Rock has been a draw since its 1957 opening. Legendary broadcaster Walter Cronkite was there on opening day, and the late actor Paul Newman was a Lime Rock regular. “He was a member of the Sports Car Club of America; it’s the highest level of amateur racing,” says Topp. “We’ve always strived to respect the members’ privacy. Paul Newman, for instance, liked coming to Lime Rock because he wouldn’t be mobbed by fans here. People were respectful. It was like his own backyard playground where he could get away.”
The Michelin Man makes a pit stop at Lime Rock
The track is often used by the Skip Barber Racing School during the week. The eponymous school was started in 1975 by Lime Rock’s president and owner, a Harvard grad who held 32 track records around the U.S. The school has trained more than one-third of all Indy 500 competitors and one-fourth of the current NASCAR Sprint Cup racers. It’s since expanded to locations at more than 20 auto tracks nationwide.
In addition to the racing school and private club drives, Lime Rock also offers driving classes to those who don’t necessarily have Indy 500 dreams. “We get a number of younger kids whose parents want them to learn good driving techniques,” says Topp. “The instructors let people know the seriousness of driving fast — that it’s okay here at the track under a controlled environment, but out there on the road every day, you really need to know how to control your car safely.”
While some might argue that auto racing isn’t an ecologically sound activity, Topp says there’s a growing initiative to go greener in the racing world. “There’s a push to build more efficient cars, and many of them use ethanol fuel,” she says.
She adds that Lime Rock is conscious of potential sound pollution, too. It’s located across the street from an old church, and the track has catered to community wishes by maintaining a no-racing-on-Sunday schedule for 50 years; lower-decibel events, like auto shows, are held instead.
“Lime Rock is a great weekend destination,” Topp adds. “You can take the kids for the day and drive home and be back in time for dinner. In fact, our motto is that we’re ‘the fastest day-trip ever.’ ”
But some visitors stretch a visit into a two- or three-day trip, she says. “There might be a racing event on say, a Friday and Saturday. Then people might stay in the Berkshires on Sunday and go to a museum, or antiques shopping. Usually, the guys want to go to the track, and the women enjoy the museums or shopping. So there’s something for everybody. It’s a win-win situation.”
Lovely to look at, difficult to pronounce: A view of Lake Wononscopomuc, a popular swimming, fishing, and boating spot
Photograph courtesy of Interlaken Inn
Lime Rock is located just outside Lakeville and Salisbury in Litchfield County. Lakeville offers swimming, fishing, and boating on Lake Wononscopomuc; access to the Appalachian Trail; golfing; biking; rafting on the Housatonic river (with an easy stretch for novices and whitewater options for thrill-seekers); shopping; galleries; dining; and more.
Salisbury features clapboard estates, cute shops, and the nation’s oldest library. With four art galleries in the area, the region has been dubbed “Little Chelsea.” You’ll also find plenty of antiques shops along Route 7.
When it comes to accommodations, a top choice is the Interlaken Inn resort and conference center in Lakeville. The inn, with 86 rooms in five buildings, offers extensive spa services, hiking, skiing, music and comedy shows at the Infinity Music Hall and Bistro, and fine dining at Morgan’s Restaurant. Romantics delight in the various couples packages, which include massages, horse-drawn carriage rides, and picnics by the lake. Other popular spots to stay include the Earl Grey Bed & Breakfast in Salisbury, an 1850s home with two cozy rooms, one-and-a-half acres, and a barn; the Wake Robin Inn, a stately white mansion with 23 rooms, opened in 1899 as the Taconic School for Girls; and the White Hart Inn in Salisbury, with 26 rooms, located in a historic 1806 house.
Next stop: Hull-O Farms, Greene County