The older I get -- I turned 69 on Aug. 8 -- the more I want my birthday experience to be different from traditional candles, cake and family. Last year, for instance, I had a wonderful celebration with my breakfast-time diner friends at Penny's Diner, just hanging out and getting to know them better.

This year, I called my friend Iso, who lives in Fairfield but owns an amazing restaurant, The Gelston House in East Haddam, across from the Goodspeed Opera House. I told him I wanted a different kind of birthday, and my wife and I were going up there for a great lunch. He said the menu was filled with unusual things and to come after his big pre-matinee crowd for the Goodspeed departed.

What made the day really terrific was being able to put job hunting aside and just make the little-over-an-hour drive on I-95 and Route 9 to the Connecticut River Valley. It's a really different world. It had been a long time since we'd been up that way, and the restaurant was delightful with a magnificent view of the Connecticut River.

I had never eaten at the Gelston House, which evolved, I understand, from a 1700s tavern and later a Civil War era restaurant and hotel into a fine-dining establishment. Despite the elegance of the dining room, we opted to sit on the patio, and I ordered a simple Philly cheese steak sandwich, which was terrific. My wife had a spectacular salad with everything but the kitchen sink in it.

Iso joined us for a few minutes, but we knew he was anxious to get back to the kitchen. He insisted that lunch was on him, but I think he was a bit disappointed that we didn't order a more interesting meal. I promised him we'd be back for dinner the next time -- maybe our anniversary in a few weeks.

I explained that this was a spur-of-the-moment birthday trip, and coming to the Gelston House made it a really great day. With the temperature in the low 80s, the weather was perfect. My wife and I relaxed, and there was no one but us to enjoy the beginning of my 70th year.

Iso's staff was kind enough not to put a candle on my dessert -- chocolate mousse cake. It was just quiet, delicious decadence for this chubby senior.

After lunch, we walked along the river and later peeked into the Goodspeed Opera House to see if we could hear any of the music from "Hello Dolly," the current production. I told my wife I should have purchased tickets, but I'm sure it was sold out.

We love the Goodspeed and have seen several shows. Three of our all-time favorites were "Singing in the Rain," "On the Town" and "Camelot." We both agreed that "Singing in the Rain" was the best, because, despite the smaller-than-Broadway stage, the Goodspeed did an amazing job of choreographing the title song -- water and all.

As we came out of the parking lot, my wife, of course, mentioned a quilt shop she'd read about in her quilt guide. What a surprise to find that the shop was just across the bridge from where we'd been, so we stopped for a few minutes.

Sadly, it turned out the shop had only fine yarns and no quilt fabric, but the owner said she was considering bringing back a small quilting section. She was delightful, and we learned that all the wool comes from a small herd of sheep on her family's farm. She even provided some history about the various Gelston House owners before my friend bought it a few years ago.

When we left the shop it was nearly 4 p.m., so we decided to head back to Fairfield and perhaps catch a movie.

The day reinforced my belief that every now and then it's nice to get away from Fairfield, even for a day, and take advantage of some of the other touristy things that Connecticut has to offer. The River Valley, with places like Old Saybrook, Essex -- often called Little Nantucket by natives we've met -- and Chester can be a wonderful and quaint day or overnight trips. And there's much more.

So birthday No. 69 proved to be a really nice experience and I'm really glad I could escape reality for a little while to make this another memorable one.

Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his "In the Suburbs" appears each Friday. He can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.