Wide photo of a rose garden.
Elizabeth Park at the peak of rose season; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Suitcase Confidential #5
Elizabeth Park, Hartford, Conn.

Elizabeth Park at the peak of rose season; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Outside of a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic, not many places radiate the essence of Summer like the Helen S. Kaman Rose Garden in Elizabeth Park, which straddles the line between Hartford and West Hartford, Connecticut. Although horticultural jewels are to be found in almost all corners of the 101 acres, late June and early July present an explosion of roses, with scents and hues from delicate to gaudy.

In a rare bit of turnabout, this time Jay will be our guide while Robin asks the questions. The park is free, so take yourself for a meditative morning among the blooms, take a special someone with whom to stroll under the arches, or take the whole gang and play some ball or frisbee and then listen to some great live music.

“It Must Have Been The Roses,” The Grateful Dead; Red Rocks, 1978-07-08

Photo of a rose covered arch.
The arches intoxicate with their heady aroma as they lead visitors to an intimate, ivy covered pavilion in the center of the Rose Garden, photo by Jason Velázquez.

Episode Transcript

(a very rough transcript, admittedly)

Jason Velázquez: Robin Catalano, good morning. How are you today?

Robin Catalano: [00:01:23] I am great. Jason, how are you?

Jason Velázquez: [00:01:26] I’m fine. I’m swell. And I have to tell you, I’m excited to to switch seats for for a change on suitcase confidential.

Robin Catalano: [00:01:37] I think this is a nice way to refresh the formula a little bit. And I always love hearing about what other people find on their travels, so I’m really excited to get to it.

Jason Velázquez: [00:01:46] Well, you know that I don’t actually leave my cave to too often, so when I do actually exit the house, it’s probably to go somewhere decent. And this is no exception. We’re talking today about a place that was near and dear to me when I lived in Connecticut. It’s the Elizabeth Park in both Hartford and West Hartford. It is a it is a jewel of a park. Most cities would would, you know, skill to have to be able to go back in time and set aside this much land to have for open public space.

Robin Catalano: [00:02:29] Well, we are off to a promising start because that sounds amazing. Tell me a little bit about the environment of the park. Do you find it to feel like an urban park considering it is in a city or does it have more of a rural feel to you?

Photo of a cascade of fragrant deep pink roses on a cloudless Summer day.
A cascade of fragrant deep pink roses on a cloudless Summer day; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Jason Velázquez: [00:02:43] You know, that’s that’s a good question. Like many cities in New England, the center of Hartford was very concentrated in the 1700s, 1800s, and you didn’t have to go to too far out before it became the country. It became rural. And West Hartford itself was sort of a getaway. People would leave the city in the summertime, and they would only travel five or six miles away. And they’d be in West Hartford, which was which 200 years ago was, was or even 100 hundred years ago was very, you know, country, country esque. So both there are views of the city which would not. Sunny, stop. There’s nothing for you to bark at. She knows what. I’m recording them. There are views of the city of the skyline that would not have been views 150 years ago because the buildings weren’t that high. They weren’t that tall. So now there’s some skyscrapers in Hartford that you can see over the tops of trees, which would not have been visible before. However, when you are in places such as the Rose Garden, it has a decidedly sort of country estate feel to it. And that’s because that’s what it was. It was originally a country estate.

Robin Catalano: [00:04:20] Oh, I love those. I love those. The gardens that have that kind of secret garden feel as if you stumbled into somebody’s backyard in Victorian England. I absolutely love that and I feel like that’s something we find a lot of in New England. So how does this one differ from others that you’ve seen?

Jason Velázquez: [00:04:40] Well, I would say that this one differs because of its size. Primarily, most cities don’t have 101.45 total acres.

Robin Catalano: [00:04:54] Amazing.

Jason Velázquez: [00:04:55] It’s huge. Hartford, the Hartford East Lawn is the Hartford side, and that’s 19.6 acres. The West Hartford section is 81.85 acres. There are there is, of course, the the Rose Garden. There’s a perennial garden there. It’s an herb garden. There’s a host to garden. There’s a rock garden. And it goes on and on. There’s many, many other features, including a pond house, tennis courts, baseball, diamond, softball, diamond soccer fields, and then, of course, a pond where you can watch the geese and not feed not feed the feed the geese and ducks. That used to be a thing that people did. Now they’re encouraging people. Please don’t feed the geese and ducks. Because that encourages them to stay all winter, which is not good. And there is a pond house which can be rented out for events and they also have a beautiful concert pavilion where they have music pretty much all summer long. So it has all of the things that you would expect to find in an urban space. But it also has a lot of. Very, very. Very, very sort of tucked away areas that can make you feel, can make you forget that you’re in the city.

Close up shot of pink roses.
Although Jay was too dizzy from the perfect rose garden status coinciding with perfect weather to think to write the names of any of the roses down, you can bring a map with you when you go, photo by Jason Velázquez.

Robin Catalano: [00:06:20] I love that idea. I like the combination. You know, that you get a different experience depending on what part of the park you’re in. Would you say that there was one part of the park that was perhaps most unexpected for you or most hidden gem like.

Jason Velázquez: [00:06:36] Hmm. Gosh, that’s. You’re asking me to pick one jewel out of a treasure chest? Yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. I have to say, if we’re going to spend time talking about anything and this is what I have the, you know, the photos of it’s the Rose Garden. The Elizabeth Elizabeth Park is just a it is known for its Rose Garden. And I’ll see if I can’t get some facts about that period. The Helen Schoeman Common Rose Garden. It is the first municipal Rose Garden in the United States and the third largest Rose Garden in the country today. The designer of this was Theodore Wirth. He was the. This is from their website began the design of the Rose Garden in September of 1903 and opened it to the public in June of 1904. The Rose Garden grew and grew. But in the fifties, for some reason, whether it was finances or lack of interest, it began to fall into disrepair and they were considering plowing it under and just maybe, maybe making just a field out of it. And of course, the neighbors especially freaked out as as they, you know, as you would expect. And the people who love the Rose Garden and they got together and they they created the Friends of Elizabeth Park, which is now known as the the Conservancy, the Elizabeth Park Conservancy. And they raised the money to restore the Rose Garden and expand it. So that it is as beautiful a place as you could ever hope to spend a sunny, especially June and July day, because right now the roses are in full bloom and you can get high off of the. The scent of roses in the air. Truly in the sun. With all the roses. Just sort of wafting their perfume at you. With the sun and all the roses wafting their perfume at you. It’s. It’s it’s it’s. It’s almost a sensory overload.

Photo of the Robert A. Prill Annual Garden, which features a preponderance of foxglove this year in the many varied beds that make up the circular, geometric pattern.
The Robert A. Prill Annual Garden has different plantings every year. This year’s garden was designed by horticulturist Rosemary Aldridge; photo by Serafina Velázquez.

Robin Catalano: [00:09:01] Hmm. And given that we’re are now getting into sort of hot weather here in New England, would you say that the garden is a nice, shady space to visit? Maybe a little bit of a respite from the heat?

Jason Velázquez: [00:09:13] Well, not the not the Rose Garden itself, because roses do love sun. But there is in the very center of the Rose Garden, there is a gazebo that’s ivy covered and it is shady all day long. And so you can make your way to the very center of the Rose Garden and on a little a little sort of raised circle in the middle, climb a few steps and enjoy the the pavilion and sit down on some benches in the shade and just be surrounded in green as the light streams through. Now, of course, there are plenty of places in the 100 and 101 acres that that I discussed to to sit on a bench in the shade. And perhaps, you know, as I said, watch the geese swimming around to the pond or to just sit and enjoy, say, the iris garden or the Dahlia Garden or the herb garden. There are plenty of shady spots to hang out. And that’s the beauty of it, is that the winding trails that go through, they can give you a great exercise track that doesn’t that you can forget that you’re exercising, right. You can forget that you’re there to get some to get some those some of those 10,000 steps in because there’s so much to see and so much to just sort of bathe in. You know, you’ve heard of the term forest bathing.

Robin Catalano: [00:10:39] Be very trendy right now.

Jason Velázquez: [00:10:40] Very trendy forest bathing. This is I just call this, I guess, garden bathing because that’s what you’ve got. In fact, this park is. So the Rose Garden, in fact, is so amazingly. Bountiful that no fewer than 20 about 25 weddings take place during June and July every weekend.

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Robin Catalano: [00:11:09] Taking advantage of the natural blooms instead of having to buy them. I think that’s pretty smart.

Jason Velázquez: [00:11:14] Yeah, it’s it’s a great place to have wedding pictures taken, especially. And you have to be careful when you are just a member, a civilian, and not a wedding planner or a photog wedding photographer because they get bitchy when I’m just going to say that right out, they get really bitchy when you walk through a shot and you don’t realize that you’re doing. I saw these two guys, they were enjoying their stroll through the garden and this wedding photographer just got immediately snappy with them. This is my spot here. All right, run. I’m trying to take it. And they’re like, Dude, just chill.

Robin Catalano: [00:11:51] Wow. So note to self. If visiting the park, look out for irate wedding photographers.

Jason Velázquez: [00:11:56] Correct. And. And irate potential brides and bride grooms.

Robin Catalano: [00:12:01] Oh, yeah, yeah. You don’t want to.

Jason Velázquez: [00:12:02] And the bridesmaids because they will start shooting. And there was one I will admit this. I’d never seen this happen before. So this is probably a one off. But there was a shouting this this prompted a shouting contest between these two guys and the bridesmaids and the groomsmen. And it was just it was it was eventually they just left and everything returned. And but for a while, there was disharmony in the it was it was killing. It was it was a buzz kill in the Rose Garden. So I would suggest anyway, if you can at all go. Go on a weekday. If possible.

Photo of Ornamental Oregano.
Ornamental Oregano in the Horticultural Gardens at Elizabeth Park; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Robin Catalano: [00:12:41] Absolutely. Great for a lot of hidden gems, I would say, because when you get into the weekend, that’s where when you’re going to find the most tourist traffic.

Jason Velázquez: [00:12:49] Yeah, yes. If you can at all, you know, take play hooky and and skip, you know, skip work for a day. Go, you know, go on on a Thursday morning or something. Now, I will say, too, that this estate. Is one of my favorites because as a young fellow who was always looking for a in a romantic place to take dates, but not necessarily one that would break the bank. You really can’t go wrong if if you’re looking for a good romantic place. Especially like when it’s you want them to be romantic, but you want to be like low key, like, you know, no pressure, low stakes. This is a great place. So if you have a new if you’re in a new relationship and you’re looking to do a daytrip, you know, because this this this show is not all entirely about day trips, but certainly they fit nicely into here. If you want to take a day trip with a new romance, this is a great place because, you know, you can go here and then you can go get a slice of pizza somewhere and and your day is perfect. It’s a perfect day and you can’t really go wrong. And you have music that is free. Wednesday, July 6th, they have eight to the bar in concert and they have been playing since just about since I was a kid.

Jason Velázquez: [00:14:18] Eight to the bar jazz they have the 125th anniversary celebration coming up on July 13th. And that’s going to be music and it’s going to be events and it’s going to be speeches and all that jazz. Latanya Farrell in concert is also going to be there on the July 13th. Nat Reeves Quintet. More Jazz. Hartford is a big jazz town, by the way, July 16th and then Connecticut Ballet’s Ballet Under the Stars, July 30th. I knew you’d like that one July 30th Saturday 6:30 p.m.. Free Ballet Under the Stars. So there’s a ton of things to do in the park. And I will say I can’t think of Hartford and Roses without thinking of the Grateful Dead. If you if you recall any posters or T-shirts, there’s often a there’s often a rose motif. You know, there’s a skeleton wearing a crown of roses and just roses everywhere. Big hippie, a big hippie sort of theme. And the dead used to come to Hartford pretty regularly. And in the eighties, it was sort of my time. And during the eighties, the city of Hartford would allow camping in Bushnell Park. See? 2020.

Robin Catalano: [00:15:46] Immerse yourself in the natural space.

Photo of a white rose bush.
All the furiously saturated colors would seem just a degree less vivid were it not for the modest and delicate white rose bushes strategically placed; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Jason Velázquez: [00:15:49] 20,000 hippies camping out under the state capitol building in the park, occupying the park with tents and creating their little their commercial villages known as Shakedown Street, where people were selling, you know, T-shirts and jewelry and and grilled cheese sandwiches and so forth. And it used to just be this, like, sort of Woodstock esque scene once a year. And I was fortunate enough to to to do that. Now, I used to, you know, whether I had a ticket or not, I’d go there and hang out and then often would spend some time in Elizabeth Park and the way back or the way there to sort of douse myself in roses, because they went together so well. And imagine my surprise when I discovered that the latest incarnation of the Grateful Dead, Dead and Company is playing July 5th at the Xfinity Amphitheater in Hartford, which is not the same place. It’s a different location, but it’s not too, too far away. It’s downtown and it’s one of the biggest amphitheaters in the country. And they are playing and they have plenty of tickets available. So if you have some extra pocket change, you can go to visit Elizabeth Park and the the Common Rose Garden on the fifth, maybe in the afternoon. And then make your way to Xfinity Center and the Xfinity Amphitheater and see the Grateful Dead, now known as Dead and Company fronted. I was not aware of her for some time by John Mayer, who is yes, he was a new idea. Pop sensation. John Mayer was breakout album Room for Squares. I think it was launched him into stardom and he does you know he’s he’s never going to be Jerry Garcia but he does fill the the singer and guitar player role wonderfully, I think. And, you know, the old purist sticklers can can can just talk to me if they’ve got a problem with it. But I think he does a great job. So there you go.

Robin Catalano: [00:18:06] Not I did not know that John Mayer took any sort of inspiration from the Grateful Dead. And I like the connections that we’re hearing here. You know, we’ve got some history in the park. We’ve got some modern inspiration nearby. Beautiful flowers, of course, which is one of the main reasons to see a park like this. What else can you tell us? Are there opening hours? Is there an admission fee? Parking fee?

Jason Velázquez: [00:18:30] No, nothing. Nothing like that. It’s it’s one of those great, great for the good of the common person kind of parks. It was really designed for the people. And, you know, we don’t get enough of that these days. If somebody were to build such a thing today, I’m sure they would probably charge admission and, you know, not to knock the Berkshires. But I think about the fact that you have the Berkshires Arboretum, is it? I guess it’s the arboretum and it’s I think it’s over 20 bucks now for an adult to get in. And, you know, they’ve got some beautiful things. They have costs. I realize they have costs. But if you’re looking for a lovely garden exploration, this is free. Ours are pretty much dawn to dusk. I mean, nobody’s going to kick you out of there before dawn by an hour or after dusk, though, you know, if you’re parking there, you’ll probably get a ticket after dark. But the parking is free, so it’s just limited.

Robin Catalano: [00:19:42] Got it. Okay. Well, that’s a good argument for going early and getting your time before other folks show up. I love the idea of this. I think it sounds like a fantastic day trip, you know, and take an afternoon, whether it’s by yourself with your honey or with the kids. Go out and enjoy some beautiful green space, appreciate the flowers, smell those roses and, you know, see if you can maybe connect with some live music or performance while you’re there.

Closeup photo of a rose covered arched trellis.
The archway trellises give support to the ancient climbing roses, some varieties of which have been in place for many decades; photo by Jason Velázquez.

Jason Velázquez: [00:20:08] Perfect. And just, you know, and of course, I have photos from my most recent trip there just just a week ago. And I’ll put those photos online. I’ll put a link to the park itself where you can find out so much more. I’d go into it, but why? I mean, it’s all here. And they have a very cool map. It’s a satellite image that you can you can really zoom in on. It might actually have been a drone, a drone image. So and it has the little little markers for for what you can see and do. So yeah, that’s that’s it. I would say also if you’re looking for Connecticut style pizza known as New London Style Pizza not too far away, look at George’s George’s Pizza, which is New London style pizza, something most people on here are not familiar with. There are the park is a very close to Farmington Avenue, a lot of great restaurants, a lot of great shopping there as well. So, you know, there’s always stuff to do and and I would say make a day of it. And if, you know, if you’ve got the means and you’ve got the time, who knows? Maybe, maybe find an affordable motel and spend the whole weekend there because there’s enough in Hartford to do that. You could easily spend a weekend and not see it all.

Robin Catalano: [00:21:35] Absolutely. That’s an excellent plan. And you feel like cities like these perhaps don’t get enough love in travel publications. So it’s great to hear that we’re looking into places that are under-appreciated. As always, we’ve got an eye out for the places within places that are maybe something you wouldn’t expect. And this has the makings of all of that the unexpected, the beautiful, the memorable. And you know, I love that you’ve come across this one and I love that you’re sharing it with us.

Jason Velázquez: [00:22:05] Well, I do hope that, you know, I kept the spirit of suitcase confidential securely in place. It was definitely in the forefront of my mind. And so I try to do justice. I hope this is a genuine suitcase confidential. Do you have any of your own places that we’ll be hearing from, hearing about from you in the future?

Robin Catalano: [00:22:30] We will definitely be hearing some very cool upcoming stuff. I have some stories on tap for you from Iceland, from Newport, Rhode Island, from New Brunswick, Canada, and maybe even down the line from Australia. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so we’ll focus on what we’ve got now. We’ll put together some more great episodes for you and we look forward to having everybody back with us again.

Jason Velázquez: [00:22:55] All right. Well, Robyn, thanks so much for letting me the microphone for this suitcase confidential. We’ll talk again soon.

Robin Catalano: [00:23:02] Sounds great.

Robin Catalano

Robin Catalano believes in the power of storytelling to connect communities and cultures. She’s applied her creative approach to writing for magazines, books, blogs, websites, and a wide variety of marketing projects, and has published more than 75 articles and 1,000+ blog posts. As an editor, she has worked on more than 350 books for publishers including Penguin Random House, Workman, and Simon & Schuster. She has also served as a book coach for independent authors, helping them take their ideas from concept to print. An avid traveler and travel writer, Robin lives, reads, and writes voraciously in upstate NY.

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