As it nears the end of its 400-mile journey from the Canadian border, New England's longest river wends beneath majestic hillsides before emptying into Long Island Sound. Its unspoiled nature, its verdant and steep banks, and the historic small towns that grew up beside it make the lower Connecticut River estuary a national treasure. Indeed, it is one of 40 areas in the world that the Nature Conservancy included on its list of "Last Great Places" worth protecting.

The Connecticut is the nation's largest river without a major city at its mouth. Here is where the Connecticut Shore – locally called the Shoreline – spreads out along the Sound in two directions. The western section is the more populated toward New Haven. The eastern section is more rural (except for the urbanized New London area) and stretches to the Rhode Island border.

The river and the Sound give the region much of its heritage and character.

BRANFORD

Branford is a busy New Haven suburb and an early seaside vacation colony. Sightseers depart for the Thimble Islands, just off shore from Stony Creek. Thirty-two of the privately owned islands are inhabited, ranging from three-quarter-acre Dogfish Rock to seventeen-acre Horse Island (one of the nearly 100 cottages is a 27-room mansion). Three small excursion boats give narrated cruises through the islands from mid-May to Columbus Day.

>> Branford Dining Suggestions

Le Petit Cafe, 225 Montowese St., Branford. (203) 483-9791. Pesce, 2 East Main St, Branford. (203) 483-5488.

GUILFORD

Guilford, settled by a Puritan congregation that followed the Rev. Henry Whitfield from England in 1639, is one of Connecticut's oldest and most attractive towns. About 500 houses from the earliest settlement to 1876 have been preserved, many of them in the area around one of the state's largest greens. The 1660 Hyland House and the 1774 Thomas Griswold House Museum, both east of the green on Boston Street, are open to the public. The green is the site of the excellent Guilford Crafts Festival every summer. That and the Guilford Handcraft Center at 411 Church St. have given the town a wide reputation for crafts. Guilford and neighboring Madison also have cachet as prosperous year-round shore communities.

Henry Whitfield State Museum, 248 Old Whitfield St. Connecticut's oldest house (1639) – also New England's oldest stone building – was built for the town's founder and served as a parsonage, fort and meetinghouse. The National Historic Landmark, restored in the 1930s, incorporates what remains of the original structure and looks suitably old with its thick walls, small windows and two enormous fireplaces in the main chamber. Visitors view furnishings from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, glean insights from knowledgeable guides and admire the herb gardens. (203) 453-2457. Open February to mid-December, Wednesday-Sunday 10 to 4:30. Adults $3.50, children $2.

>> Guilford Dining Suggestions

Esteva, 25 Whitfield St., Guilford. (203) 458-1300.

The Stone House Restaurant, 506 Whitfield St., Guilford. (203) 458-3700. Stuzy's Restaurant, 965 Boston Post Road, Guilford. (203) 453-6780.

MADISON

>> Madison Dining Suggestions

Café Allegre, 725 Boston Post Road, Madison. (203) 245-7773.

WESTBROOK

>> Westbrook Dining Suggestions

Café Routier, 1353 Boston Post Road, Westbrook. (860) 388-6270. Click here to read capsule review.