The view from the Stonington Harbor Light is less expansive than normal. A thick fog has obscured much of the harbor, decreasing the view from what on a clear day would include three states to a mere few hundred yards. But despite and perhaps because of the fog, the view is achingly, hauntingly beautiful. Sailboats moored in the harbor gently sway as a foghorn sounds. It’s a nautical view as stunning as a picture come to life.
Located on the edge of Long Island Sound, Stonington was incorporated into Connecticut in 1662. It is impossible to escape a deep sense of history here but it’s also difficult not to be captivated by the present. The scenic town offers beaches, vineyards, restaurants and a walkable downtown that even has a beach on the Sound. Mystic, arguably Connecticut’s most popular village, is a hamlet that encompasses parts of both Stonington and Groton, but for this story, much as I love Mystic, I’m focusing on Stonington proper — a lesser-known destination with equal charm and as deep a connection to the sea.
9 a.m.: Coffee and views
Almost as soon as my wife and I pull off I-95 we fall under Stonington’s spell. The crowded thoroughfare of the interstate quickly gives way to stone walls in front of sweeping farmlands. As we get closer to Stonington Borough, or as locals refer to it, “The Borough,” we get our first view of the water, which on this overcast day has an almost blueish hue. The Borough is Stonington’s downtown area and serves as the base of operations for our explorations here. We head straight for Social Coffee Roastery, a sleek coffeehouse and roastery with a friendly atmosphere. The cold brew coffee is fantastic and the cappuccino is better than average, as are the pastries. Coffee in hand, we begin to stroll through town past a postcard’s worth of local shops, headed for the beach.
10 a.m.: Strolling and swimming
The small duBois Beach is only a few blocks outside town on the tip of the Borough, and from Social Coffee Roastery it’s a nice stroll. We take a short detour on the pedestrian public access walkway that cuts beside the water behind Stonington Commons at 32 Water St. and check out Cannon Square (also on Water Street), a small green that is home to two historic cannons that were used to fend off a British invasion in 1814 during the Battle of Stonington. It’s our first of many brushes with the town’s storied past. The beach offers a wonderful view of the mouth of Long Island Sound and the Atlantic. You can take in the view at the tip of Stonington for free. If you want to swim, it’s $10 per person. The overcast weather keeps us from getting in the water, but whether you plan on swimming or not, walking to this beach area should be part of any Stonington itinerary.
Noon: Looking out over history
The beach is across the street from the Old Lighthouse Museum within the Stonington Harbor Light. Built in 1840 to replace an earlier lighthouse, the Stonington Historical Society has owned the stone lighthouse building since the 1920s. In the 1800s, Stonington was a major port whose whaling captains were true citizens of the world. The far-ranging nature of their voyages is reflected in the museum’s holdings. We see a sprawling whale rib, harpoons, and an intricate ivory pagoda from the collection of Captain Thomas Forsyth, who obtained it during his voyages to China during the mid-19th century. There are also items that predate the lighthouse itself, including relics from the Battle of Stonington and more. However, the undeniable main attraction is the lighthouse lookout itself, the spot from which the harbor beacon once guided ships to safety. To get there you must ascend 29 narrow circular steps within a stone tower and climb up a short ladder. It’s an attraction not fit for the frail or very young, but, as noted earlier, the view, even on a rainy day, is worth the climb.
1 p.m.: Eat up
For lunch we visit The Coq & Co., a downtown kitchen and market with a beautiful outdoor seating area in a narrow courtyard bordered on each side by raised bed plants. The specialties here include crepes and waffles, and though it’s past breakfast time, we can’t resist ordering a waffle, accompanied by the housemade ice cream and topped with local maple syrup. Equally impressive is a chocolate chip cookie and a boxed assortment of coleslaw, peach salad, and smoked ribs.
2 p.m.: Mill-ing about
Just a mile from downtown is the Velvet Mill. This massive converted space has in recent years became a craft oasis. It is home to Beer’d Brewing Co., an elite brewery with a fun clubhouse feel, as well as several antique stores, restaurants and other shops. Though Beer’d is closed on this visit, previous stops have convinced us of its worthiness, and generally, we don’t travel to this area without stopping in. Another Velvet Mill must-visit is the wonderful bakery Zest, which offers an excellent assortment of breads, cookies, muffins and cakes.
4 p.m.: Early happy hour
After the Velvet Mill, we drive to Saltwater Farm Vineyard, one of the state’s most showstopping wineries. It is beside a marsh, and the tasting room is housed within an elegantly redesigned, World War II-era private airport hangar. This overlooks a 108-acre vineyard that occupies the former airport. There is one grassy landing strip in the center of the grapes that is both a beautiful design element and a nod to the vineyard’s aviatic past. A tasting of four wines for $10 is an enjoyable way to sample the vineyard’s offerings. Unlike so many Connecticut wineries, the specialty here is not sweet wines but rather more full-bodied and far drier whites and reds. While in the area, wine lovers may also want to visit Stonington Vineyards and Jonathan Edwards Winery, which is across the town line in North Stonington.
6 p.m.: Dinner on the docks
There are several waterside dining options in town, and on our next visit we will be sure to try The Breakwater. This time we head to Dog Watch Cafe, a popular seaside bar and restaurant at the Dodson Boatyard with an unbeatable view and plenty of outdoor seating. The place has an extensive cocktail list with lots of spirits produced locally and a decent selection of nearby beers. We enjoy oysters and a caprese salad special featuring freshly harvested tomatoes from a local farm. The food is good, but the true star of the place, as is the case with so much else in Stonington, is the view of the water.
Five Facts About Stonington
It fought off two British bombardments. The first was in 1775 during the American Revolution and the other was in 1814 during the War of 1812.
It was made a port of entry into the U.S. in 1842 and had a custom house that still stands on Main Street.
The Stonington Battle Flag was raised on Aug. 10, 1814, during a lull in the British attack on Stonington. The flag is considered the “little sister” to the famous Star-Spangled Banner which flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore when it was attacked by the British six weeks later.
It is home to Connecticut’s only Atlantic-facing port.
It was used as a filming location in Amistad, Mystic Pizza and Hope Springs.
Stonington is a popular destination for second-home buyers as well as traditional home buyers. There is a mix of affordable, historic and waterside homes that can go for more than $1 million.
For $290,000: A three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,881-square-foot saltbox Colonial on .85 acres on North Stonington Road.
For $599,000: A two-bedroom, three-bathroom, 1,600-square-foot, single-level home on Harbor View Terrace on a .46-acre waterfront lot with a stone boathouse.
For $875,000: A three-bedroom, 3½-bathroom, 3,500-square-foot Cape Cod on a 1.28-acre waterfront lot on Wamphassuc Road.
Mill rate: 22.98