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Connecticut resists generalization and confounds spinners of superlatives. It doesn't rank at the top or bottom of any important chart of virtues or liabilities, which makes it impossible to pigeonhole. The nation's third-smallest state is certainly compact -- only 90 miles wide and 55 miles top to bottom -- and while parts of it are clogged with humanity, some corners are as empty and undeveloped as inland Maine.

By many measures, Connecticut's citizens are as wealthy as any in the country, but dozens of its towns are only shells of their prosperous 19th-century selves, beset by poverty as intractable as it gets. The state boasts no dramatic geographical feature, and its highest elevation is only 2,380 feet. Established in 1635 by disgruntled English settlers who didn't like the way things were going at Plymouth Colony, it has long seemed spiritually divorced from the rest of New England -- a place to be traversed on the way to Boston.

All this hardly makes Connecticut seem an appealing vacation destination. But a closer look reveals an abundance of reasons to slow down and linger.

To a great extent, the state's personality derives from the presence of water. In addition to having Long Island Sound along its entire southern coast, several significant rivers and their tributaries slice through the hills and coastal plain: the Housatonic, Naugatuck, Quinnipiac, Connecticut, and Thames. They provided power for the mills along their courses and the towns and cities that grew around them. Despite the bucolic image that mention of the state often conjures, industry still drives most of the economy, but the pollution that industry has caused in the rivers and the Sound is being scoured away.

Development appears to have slowed, helping to preserve Connecticut's scores of classic Colonial villages, from the Litchfield Hills in the northwest to the Mystic coast in the opposite corner. These areas are as placid and timeless as they have been since the 1700s -- and, at the same time, as polished and sophisticated as transplanted urbanites can make them. A salty maritime heritage is palpable in the old boat-building and fishing villages at the mouths of its rivers, especially those east of New Haven.

Connecticut is New England's front porch. Pull up a chair and stay awhile.