Charmed by the Connecticut Coast
I used to joke with friends that New England should kick Connecticut out. I’m from Boston, and I’ve lived in Rhode Island and New Hampshire too, so I felt like I had some authority to make the claim: To me, Connecticut just didn’t quite belong.
New York casts a long shadow over the Nutmeg State, as evidenced by the sale of Manhattan-style chowder in some restaurants (gross) and the prevalence of die-hard Jets/Yankees fans (boo). Many of the residents in the southern part of the state commute into and out of Manhattan daily. And it’s also included in the Tri-State Area, which could make the state’s loyalty to New England highly suspect.
But I’ve been in Connecticut for four years now, and I’m starting to admit that it does have some pockets of bona fide New England charm. There’s plenty to be found in the riverside-seaside town of Mystic and its sleepier sister, Stonington. These two towns on Connecticut’s northern coast make for perfect weekend getaway in early spring.
It’s hard to escape the water in Mystic, which is most of its appeal. It’s an old whaling town that stays close to its maritime roots, and the Mystic River slices through the center of the town (which is technically still a village). A good place to start your trip is downtown: Orient yourself on the working drawbridge in the center of town, and admire the arresting views in all directions. On one side, there’s a cluster of boutiques and cafés: Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, the fragrant Spice & Tea Exchange of Mystic, Bank Square Books. There’s even the quintessential Black Dog General Store, which basically proves you’re in a New England vacation town. Take a long stroll through downtown Mystic—some stores are a little kitschy, but there are also great finds (and excellent ice cream).
Across the river is Schooner Wharf, which has less of a tourist vibe and more of a foodie one. S&P Oyster Co. abuts the drawbridge, and is a must-visit. It has a large patio with outdoor seating, massive windows and stunning views downriver. The extensive menu is focused on locally caught seafood, but many dishes are prepared with South American twist, engineered by the Ecuadorean-born head chef.
A one-minute walk away, there’s the Engine Room. This gastropub bills itself as “beers, burgers & bourbon,” which is apt, but belies the quality of their menu. They do burgers that are upscale and interesting—one features sautéed Rhode Island cremini mushrooms, Mystic Cheese Co.’s Melinda Mae and a roasted shallot Worcestershire aioli—but manage to remain comfort food. They boast 16 craft beers on tap, boozy milkshakes, a long wine list and plenty of non-burger options. All this in a cozy restored marine engine room. Prepare for a long, languorous lunch at this spot.
If you’re trying to eat more quickly and cheaply, you’ve got options. Of course, there’s Mystic Pizza, the setting of the ’80s cult classic that put the town—and Julia Roberts—on the map. The joint is still open (they’ve actually opened Mystic Pizza II by popular demand). They serve crowd-pleasing and cheap, though not life-changing, pies.
There’s also the locally famous Sea Swirl, not too far from the town center. It’s a tiny glass shack, open seasonally, that serves fried clams, lobster rolls, chowder (New England Milk or Rhode Island Broth–style but not Manhattan-style), burgers, hot dogs, french fries and soft serve, all to go. This food basically begs you to eat it at the beach.
Which is, of course, one of the main seasonal attractions in the area. Even in late summer, Connecticut beaches are often quieter than their northern counterparts in Rhode Island or on the Cape. DuBois Beach in Stonington is a small but picturesque local spot for a stroll or picnic even before swimming season. A little farther away, head to Waterford Beach Park, a secluded area that’s tucked along Long Island Sound. But the most unique natural spot in the area is Bluff Point State Park. It’s the last piece of truly undeveloped land along the Connecticut coastline. The beach on Bluff Point is more rugged and rocky than some of the others nearby, but it’s also surrounded by 800 acres of mostly undisturbed woodland. When the weather’s good, you could spend days hiking, biking, kayaking and even fishing at Bluff Point.
If you’re someone who shies away from sand and sun, there’s still plenty do in the area. Visit Mystic Seaport, which has a plethora of attractions for history buffs, sailing enthusiasts and kids. The Seaport is classified as the largest maritime museum in the U.S., and it’s really more of a neighborhood than a museum. Visit the Charles W. Morgan to see the last remaining wooden whaleship in the world, and learn about the dark, powerful pull of one of New England’s historic industries. Or go see the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard, where boats are still crafted and restored. If boats aren’t your thing, the small but ambitious Mystic Museum of Art is just across the river.
Then there’s Stonington, a short drive away. It’s not bustling, but the town, which is also on the shoreline, is picturesque in a quieter way. It has long attracted artists, including the poet James Merrill. If you’re lucky, you might catch one of the scheduled readings and lectures at the James Merrill House. If there’s nothing on the books, the hours are finicky; contact the foundation to schedule a tour.
Another main draw of Stonington is The Velvet Mill. One of the many long-abandoned fabric and textile mills in Connecticut, it’s been converted into a bustling complex of restaurants, small businesses, artists’ studios and a local brewery. The Beer’d Brewing Co. is a hyper-local craft brewery; they make tiny and coveted batches that they sell to a few local restaurants and stores, including the Engine Room. This brewery is a bit of a regional legend, so don’t miss it; they have tours and tastings Thursday through Sunday. Other highlights at The Velvet Mill include Cheese Boro Whey and Zest Fresh Pastry. The massive space also hosts farmers markets and flea markets on weekend days (depending on the season) and occasional concerts. It’d be easy to kill a whole day wandering around here.
A major draw of Stonington is also what’s around it. Drive out of the downtown area and you’ll find yourself on winding, wooded roads. Peek at the nearby houses, some of which are large and impressive enough to be called estates. And then pay a visit to Stonington Vineyards. You might not associate Connecticut with wine, but the Connecticut Wine Trail is vibrant and varied for a region that’s generally associated with cider (and cold winters). Twenty-five vineyards participate in the local wine passport, two of which are right in Stonington. Stonington Vine-yards is open daily and year-round for tastings. It’s idyllic—a babbling brook, New England foliage and some prize-winning Chardonnay (they specialize in white wines, due to the climate).
Where to stay for a weekend of adventures? The Inn at Mystic has rooms with balconies and harbor views, as well as the wonderful Harbour House restaurant. But if you want something directly downtown The Whaler’s Inn has newly renovated rooms and a fun maritime vibe. If you’d rather stay in Stonington, The Inn at Stonington is centrally located and gets good reviews. Mystic is easily accessible via Amtrak, and is also an easy drive from just about anywhere in New England. Head there for an early spring weekend, and expect to fall in love with Connecticut’s charm. TM