New Yorker’s Private Weekend Escape
Stonington, Connecticut, New England, USA
Just two hours north of New York, on I-95, lies a charming New England village with boasting rights of having survived the British invasion in 1814. The lively 3,000 weekend residents pride themselves on keeping tourism and development to a minimum. Stonington, Connecticut appeals to visitors looking for a unique escape. A word of caution, though: It’s best to come as a houseguest, with access to the villagers’ private diversions, if you want to truly experience the neighborhood charm of this town.
Past the alleyways lined with tightly knit Colonial and Federal-style homes are an enchanting variety of harbor views. On the narrow tree lined lanes of Water and Main Streets you can hear the laughter of children playing and smell whiffs of roasted lamb or butternut squash soup stewing in residents kitchens. (The homes sit with front doors not less than three feet from the street.) Shop customers exchange friendly greetings; people tap on the window of a restaurant as they pass by, drawing a friendly wave from friends inside. During a Saturday lunch break at Noah’s restaurant small town gossip interweaves with political chatter, as customers munch on hot sandwiches or a blue cheese burger.
I come to Stonington about once a season upon the invitation of my friends Breck Perkins and Polly Spring; Breck’s family has owned property in Stonington since 1965. The town’s pleasures are not dependant on sunny warm weather. During the fall months the village’s entrance lies through a magical gate way that begins just two minutes after you leave I-95 at exit 91 and take a sharp right on N. Main Road toward Stonington: the trees bend in to touch each other’s branches creating a glowing arch colored pumpkin orange and apple red. When I arrive, in early October, I park the car and usually choose to walk.
Afternoons are devoted to sports activities: You can crew as a substitute in the J 22′s harbor lap races or take a sport fishing boat out to nearby Fisher’s Island to catch striped bass or bluefish. The areas reef architecture and hatcheries make it the only remaining commercial fishing port in Connecticut. Mooring fees are reasonable compared to the deep-water dock prices in Watch Hill; as a result the yachting community has made it their second home after Newport, RI. But on my most recent trip, the 27-foot trimaran I love to sail on, whose boat log reports travel speeds of up to 20 knots, was away in Newport for the weekend so I alternated for a Saturday afternoon of motor boating and fishing.
Capt’n Rick’s Boat and Breakfast, the only fishing tour guide in town has a variety of hourly rates and appears to charge by the quality of your loafers. (Ex. $100 an hour for Sperry Topsiders, $200 for Gucci driving shoes.) Fortunately, we had access to a friend of a friend’s 31-foot Jupiter center consol sport fisherman, with dual 250 horsepower engines and v-shaped bottom that made for a smooth twenty-minute ride to our fishing spot at the east end of Fishers Island. Stocked up on live bait, colorful lures and Caribbean rum drinks called dark and stormy’s, we were well prepared for sporty fun. In less than thirty minutes the captain caught a 26-inch bass and I snagged a 36-inch bluefish. I loved the feeling of crisp air as we moved across the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Actually, modern technology had given our fishing abilities a little boost, loaded into the center console was something called a “fish finder”, which used radar tracking to show movement of schools of fish within a five mile range. Frankly, I did not care if modern convenience helped us cheat a little. I was just anxious to get back in time for a late afternoon bike ride, an hour-long aerobic workout up and down windy hills just northwest of the village along North Main Road toward U.S. Hwy 1. I’d brought a performance road bike because there are no local bikes shops to rent from. Venerable, well-preserved farms and low three-foot rock and boulder walls made the ride not only beautiful but also historically scenic.
Within walking distance from my host home, are two of the area’s best restaurants. Boom located next to the boatyard has water views and serves classic meat and fish cuisine or Water Street, the trendy dinning spot, served Asian fusion style culinary creations. But Boom only takes prior reservations and we knew at 7:30 p.m. Water Street would be packed so we decided to eat-in instead. Sitting on hand carved teak furniture, under weeping oak trees in our host backyard, eating fresh bass grilled in butter and lime juice, we sipped a locally grown light white wine and talked about the day’s fishing as we stared off into the inlets watershed pond. For dessert we headed towards Water Street. At 9:30 p.m. we knew there would be room to move around the narrow corridor of the bar, as the dinner crowd had wound down.
My host’s relationship with the owner/hostess secured us a seat at one of the small bar’s three tables; we sat down to devour homemade pumpkin ice cream and pecan pie. Beautiful healthy looking folks wearing designer jeans and cashmere sweaters peopled the restaurant; it had a discerning attitude of weekend town and country. We ran into at least four couples I’d met through my host’s famous summer cocktail parties and was immediately greeted with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek. I started a conversation with one of the fashionably dressed women in the group and found out she was a Philadelphia based T.V. newscaster who was up for a fund-raising auction in nearby Mystic. We spent the rest of the night listening to inside details about the perils of journalistic story hunting.
And there you have what I loved about Stonington: It’s a destination town, home of established authors like Alexandra Stoddard and Peter Benchly, and a draw for eclectic cosmopolitan denizens of New York to Boston. Conversations have an air of hometown genialness, leavened with a twist of creativity. The residents’ low-key lifestyle might appear understated unless you lift the covers and see their zest for quality sportsmanship and soulful relationships.
As for the village itself, the rich colonial architecture has remained unaltered, except for bows to the need for modern conveniences, over the last three hundred years. The streets are so thickly shaded by ancient trees you can walk them safely in damp weather. Meandering along Water Street, shopping mavens will find five antique stores, three estate jewelry boutiques, and at least two high end clothiers that where once located on New York’s upper east side.
My favorite of these is Grand and Water Antiques at 145 Water Street, with its distinctive yellow and green awnings. Inside the store is a diverse collection of Chippendale furniture, tiffany lamps, French patterned china and hand painted Chinese room dividers. Most of the pieces are reproductions but bring a well-padded wallet, as it might be hard to pass up the reasonable prices. The proprietor Nancy, who has an in-depth knowledge about European colonial fixtures, has always talked me into taking home a beautiful but unessential piece for our living room.
I usually end the weekend with a soy latte at Yellow House coffee shop, arriving just before its 3 p.m. closing. Walking back towards my host home I pass by three residential property offices, located within a stones throw of each other, and usually end up popping in to collect current price sheets of available real estate. If you haven’t guessed it by now, a local address is really the best treasure I could buy. Because most appealing of all is the palpable feeling of community that you notice in this small New England village turned seaside weekend escape.