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Stonington Borough, Conn: a Truly Underrated New England Travel Gem

Downtown Stonington Borough, Connecticut.
Water St. in Stonington Borough, Conn.

Article, photos by Eric Hurwitz -- created for VisitingNewEngland.com
on 5/17/2021 @newenglandinfo

Thank you, Stonington Borough, Conn. for accommodating me with your small town charm, welcoming nature and safe social distancing presence during this pandemic.

I initially had my eyes set on Mystic, Conn., as well as a huge, delicious lobster roll at Abbott's Lobster in the Rough in neighboring Noank. With Memorial Day Weekend not quite here yet and the pandemic not close to being over, I thought these two destinations would yield a similar experience to our recent visit to Little Compton, R.I. We pretty much had the place to ourselves including beautiful Little Compton Beach.

Attempting to visit Mystic and Abbott's, however, resulted in completely different stories. File that one under "Really Wrong Assumptions."

Mystic yielded wall-to-wall vehicle and foot traffic that had me muttering, "I've got to get out of here as soon as possible." My day would have evolved around bumping into people and experiencing reduced visibility. Not reduced visibility because of the weather but the crowds in every direction. Plus, I suffered through COVID-19 not too long ago, never want to catch it again and am extremely cognizant with the importance of safe social distancing. I will not be considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after my May 12 COVID-19 shot so playing it safe is paramount. I am pretty much staying in the house whenever possible until May 26 but decided on this day to go somewhere scenic that would virtually gurarantee safe social distancing.

Driving into the quiet Groton neighborhood of Noank gave me hope, though, that Abbott's would be uncrowded with unobstructed views of the order window, as well as the beautiful coastal location.

File that one under, "What in the world were you thinking?"

Cars crowded the tight parking lot to the point where you probably couldn't navigate a Hot Wheels toy car through there. Lines formed at the order window that made me wonder if Jonas Brothers concert tickets somehow just went on sale at this lobster shack. I thought about just driving the hour-plus ride back home and ordering a meatball sub and flooding part of our backyard with a hose to enjoy water views but wisely opted to visit Stonington Borough as a last ditch effort.

In retrospect, Stonington Borough should have been my first day trip choice. Don't get me wrong, I love Mystic and Abbott's.
Just not when they are seemingly more populated than midtown Manhattan, though. Mystic does offer one of the more fun, lively small town downtowns (I love Mystic Sweets there!) and the spectacular Mystic Seaport Museum, and Abbott's some of the best lobster rolls in New England.

On this particular day, however, I should have followed the great, late Yogi Berra's advice: "No one goes there any more. It's too crowded."

Approaching Stonington Borough, however, immediately soothed the soul. Tree-lined Water St. with its historic homes framed by white picket fences, nearly silent surroundings and the sweet smell of spring flowers and the salt sea in the air helped lift the 1,000 lbs. off my shoulders which I previously gained in just minutes due to the steady nutrient-devoid diet of traffic and stress.

Spring flowers along white picket fence in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Fragrant flowers along a white picket fence in Stonington Borough.


I should have taken "before" and "after" photos of me -- first, the cartoon-like appearance of the exasperated guy with bulging eyes and sweat pouring from everywhere and then, Mr. Calm! Deepak Chopra would have been proud of this transformation.

In little more than one blink of the eye, a parking space awaited my car and at no cost for two hours. At first, however, I was concerned about an appreciable amount of cars parked on the street. Would I be headed into more crowds? Fortunately, the answer was "No." Some of these small towns have this odd phenomenon where many cars are parked but amazingly few people walking the streets. You could, in fact, almost hear that proverbial pin drop near the parking spot with the only sound being one family quietly talking about their day. That's quite a difference from Mystic a few minutes ago or the month before in Newport, R.I. where a restaurant dining room scene involved parties of trendy people collectively screaming at the top of their lungs to converse about about shallow things. They were so loud, we couldn't hear ourselves talk or even think, for that matter. File that one under "Lack of consideration for others."

Stonington seemed different than other places on this day, as well as on previous visits with my wife, Joan, and daughters, Emily and Katie. It gave me (and us) the chance to appreciate the moment without any travel destination loudness or obstructions. thus offering the chance to rest, relax and renew that, ironically, seems lost on many in search of, well, rest, relaxation and renewal.  

Sometimes, the non-vacation sights can create a sense of actually being on vacation. Although not my main reason for coming to Stonington Borough, the public library across from my parking space set a wonderful sense of place -- just waiting there to greet me like an old familiar hometown friend.

 Public Library in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Public library in Stonington Borough.

Stonington Borough immediately welcomed and fed me, as well as putting me in the proper spirit. On this day, I had visions of enjoying a quaint small town the way they are so appealingly portrayed in those Hallmark movies. You know, the ones that take place in New England but are actually filmed in British Columbia, Canada. I always think in particular of that Hallmark movie with a folksy, wise Edward Asner sitting on a bench in front of a general store and smiling and nodding at passersby in a small country town. Wouldn't you know it, that type of exact thing happened to me in Stonington Borough! What a great way to set the tone right in front of -- you guessed it -- a general store. It wasn't his official job but this guy was greeting people better than most Chambers of Commerce.

Taking in small town life in front of Tom's General Store in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Enjoying the world pass by at Tom's News and General Store.

Carolyn Yost, owner of Carolyn Yost Estate Jewelry & Stonington Antiques Etc. at 148 Water St., then gave me great advice on where to eat, as well as supplying me with some safe bug repellent and a map of Stonington Borough. The nice folks at Noah's Restaurant, at 113 Water St., immediately sat me down at an outdoor dining table and served eight delicious mussels, four chicken wings (not fried) and three pieces of homemade bread for under $10. Wow, now that's the kind of "Happy Hour" meal I like! All this great food and service, despite Noah's expecting an impending crowd that had already signed up for reservations. Noah's definitely went of of its way to make this happen, including an attentive efficient, salt-of-the-earth waitress. They didn't have to accommodate me at all but the fact that they did speaks volumes about this quaint, humble little eatery.  I'll definitely come back to Noah's for breakfast, lunch, dinner or brunch or all of the above next time with family (they all had previous commitments on this day)!

Noah's Restaurant in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Noah's Restaurant.

No longer hungry and overwhelmed, I was ready to discover Stonington Borough a bit more from late afternoon into twilight time.

Detailing the Stonington Borough Experience

Harbor in Stonington Borough, Conn.Harbor in Stonington Borough.

The most memorable part of Stonington Borough is the entire place.

Stonington's all around magnificence was never contrived from the corporate boardroom, cold and sterile marketing plans and other generic, misguided economic development piffle ironically perceived as progress in today's society. It seems that traditional Stonington Borough never quite understood the modern concept of reckless, rampant condo development with no visual nexus to the community, strip malls, outlet stores, chain restaurants and hotels and hokey souvenir stores as the backbone of their prideful community. Quite the opposite, thank goodness, in this beautiful little village by the sea!

For us travelers in search of the "real New England," Stonington Borough indeed comes across as a blessing and true revelation. Unspoiled and thoroughly content with just being itself, this small southeastern Connecticut borough genuinely exudes a classic New England seaside community vibe with a 17th and 18th century feel every step of the way through the narrow, tree-lined streets. It is the oldest borough in Connecticut, chartered in 1801.

Tree-lined neighborhood on Water St. in Stonington, Connecticut.
Residential neighborhood on Water St.

The quiet, untouched village-like setting that scenically leads out to Little Narragansett Bay features wonderful Greek Revival, Federal and Colonial architecture, a beautiful picturesque harbor with a publicly accessible paved walking path and the historic Stonington Harbor Light and Lighthouse Museum -- the first lighthouse established by the United States federal government in the 19th century. It is a gem of a stone-built lighthouse, currently being restored. The Museum offers changing and permanent exhibits including maritime artifacts and Oriental trade, as well as the chance for visitors to climb the stairs to the lighthouse tower and enjoy a picnic on the expansive back lawn overlooking the bay. Call 860-535-1440 for more info including operation hours.

Stonington Harbor Light in Stonington Borough, Conn,
Stonington Harbor Light.

Stonington Borough also features interesting little shops, majestic old churches and municipal buildings, cozy "neighborhood" eateries (like Noah's, Breakwater with its harbor views and Indulge Coffee and Sandwich Co., to name a few) but, ultimately  a sense of peace that makes you feel like you're miles away from everything.

Habror walk in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Paved walking path along the harbor.

Not located on any main drag, Stonington Borough -- the town center of Stonington with a population of just under 1,000 -- takes about 10 minutes to arrive at from Route 95. Taking a bridge into Stonington Borough immediately feels like entering a shelter from the world yet just minutes from bustling Mystic and Westerly, R.I.

Church in Stonington Borough, Conn.
United Church of Stonington.

Much like coastal Newport, New Bedford, Mass. and Portsmouth, N.H., many of the stately homes are tightly-packed next to each other and virtually right up front on the sidewalk. That type of layout lends a feeling of close-knit, what-you-see-is-what-you get neighborhoods.

Side street in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Side street in Stonington Borough.

Stonington Borough, however, comes across more as the quiet sibling compared to places like Newport, New Bedford and Portsmouth, preferring to keep more to itself. Stonington might be the brother or sister that chooses to read a good book by candlelight in a cozy corner while listening to soothing music. It is Piano Concerto in A Minor by Grieg as compared to, say, Deep Purple's hyperkinetic Highway Star.
 
As previously mentioned there's something so exciting about the understated element in travel as it often allows for unobstructed pathways to instant memories. For many, a return to the comforting look of another place and time creates the most special travel. If that sounds like you, Stonington Borough is definitely your place. Nothing is forced or phony here. It seems so real and delightfully old school.

Some of the older residents can be seen sitting on their front porches reading the newspaper, most likely returning from a leisurely stroll at the jam-packed, aforementioned Tom's News and General Store at 133 Water St. Tom's follows all the earmarks of a local general store selling grocery items, newspapers and magazines, apparel, office supplies, home goods, toys and a lot more.  Tom's isn't the only shopping option in town, however -- from from it. Antique shops, boutiques, jewelry, clothing and consignment stores and classy gift shops grace Water St. It's rare to find such an impressive array of shops that isn't collectively self-conscious about its greatness. Everyone here seems so nice!

Another view of Water St. in Stonington Borough, Conn.Looking north on Water St.

Sometimes later in the day, the streets are virtually empty which allows residents and visitors to feel totally at peace. It's just you, the fresh coastal air, and many birds but fewer people chirping.

DuBois Beach -- with its small sandy stretch of beach -- serves as a wonderful example of quiet in the downtown district.

Dubois Beach, Stonington Borough, Conn. Approaching DuBois Beach (it seems to have two different spellings, depending on what you read).

DuBois Beach is a place where stone walls lead to sand to solitude.

Peaqce and solitude at duBois Beach in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Late afternoon brings beautiful scenes like this at DuBois Beach.

From this viewpoint, the beach looks much larger than when passing by in a car...


Dubois Beach in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Stretch of sand.

East Lawn, right across the street from DuBois Beach, is also an ideal space to relax --great for a picnic or just gazing at the coastal splendor.

Eats Lawn with view of the water in Stonington Borough, Conn.
East Lawn.

The village-like setting offers other New England treasures like the traditional town green with its open space surrounded in grand New England style by historic buildings and homes.

Town green in Stonington Borough, Conn.
Town green in Stonington.

Yes, this town green appears to be more modest when compared to all those expansive greens that are part of the historical fabric of many Connecticut towns and cities. This one, however, has a distinct advantage over most: It's located right across the street from the water!  Better yet, by the water and a historic place to stay: The Inn at Stonington (60 Water St). We haven't been to the Inn at Stonington but reviewers rave about the historic charm that combines with modern elements and amenities.

Inn at Stonington, Stonington Borough, Conn.
Inn at Stonington.

Conclusion


Water St. looking south in Stonington Borough, Connecticut.
Heading south on Water St.
 
If you have visited more high profile New England communities and were disappointed by the commercialism and crowds, then Stonington Borough is the perfect New England getaway for you. Once the first time visitor crosses over the bridge and enters peaceful Water St., it's easy to understand that those who know Stonington Borough regard it as perhaps as the best representative of true New England living and traditional village preservation.

A most pleasing view in Stonington Borough, Conn.
A most pleasing view.
 

When leaving Stonington Borough on this particular visit, I noticed an elaborate event going on at an outdoor function venue that looked like some kind of nautical or possibly military-related change of command event. It was beautiful to see, even from a far distance with its elaborate grandeur and traditional formality including speeches, music and salutes. During the reception, a vocalist sung a famous Eagles song with the memorable words, "You can check out any time you want but you can never leave."

In Stonington Borough, those Eagles' lyrics took on an entire different meaning than the original menacing, apocalyptic nature of the song. At that moment, the words could be construed as to forever embrace the memories in a place you might not live in but somehow feels like home.  And that you can return, anytime.

File that one under, "Here's to checking back into Stonington Borough very soon!"

Coastal view in Stonington Borough, Connecticut
Marveling at the coastal scenery.

For more on Stonington Borough, click here
 
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