The historic shoreline treasure of Stonington still shines
I recently had the pleasure of joining an old-fashioned parlor chat in a lovely Connecticut home. That it included a fascinating cast—from the descendants of pre-colonial settlers to a former member of the U.S. State Department—had less to do with the circles I move in than it did the town where I happened to be.
From its founding more than 350 years ago, the commingling of people and perspectives has made Stonington, Connecticut, a curious crucible, ever changing and inimitable.
Like other shoreline locales, somewhat cliché words such as “picturesque” and “charming” certainly apply. It’s always on display, from the glorious tree-lined allée one navigates to enter the Borough of Stonington to a splendid mix of architectural styles, from early gambrel roofed cottages to immigrant-era tenements to the Federal, Greek Revival, Beaux Arts, and Queen Anne style homes that came later.
Places like this seem to come about only where the sea, sky, and land converge.
Tucked away in the southeastern corner of the state between Mystic and Westerly, Rhode Island, Stonington was a fishing entrepôt almost from the start, and still serves as homeport to Connecticut’s last fishing fleet. Sea captains were always integral, like the great mariner Nathaniel B. Palmer—discoverer of the Antarctic Continent—whose stately home now hosts tours.
The echo of Portuguese seafarers is here, too, where so many came and settled. Of the town’s social organizations, The Portuguese Holy Ghost Society, is among the most active from its grand hall on Main Street. Locals and visitors alike eagerly anticipate their fish & chips nights and joyful Feast of the Holy Ghost event.
Away from water-adjacent areas, beautiful streams, marshlands, and woodlands edge the town. These are kept pristine chiefly by the activities of the Stonington Land Trust and Avalonia Land Preserves, the area’s two conservation groups. For years these organizations have purchased surrounding lands and waters, keeping them safe from rampant development that might lessen the native enchantment.
Protection of the town’s human legacy falls to entities from the Stonington Historical Society to the Stonington Village Improvement Association, among others. That legacy is as rich and varied as the place itself.
In the modern era, Stonington’s distinctive citadel lighthouse seemed to attract the best and brightest. This subsumed people such as Truman Capote, and baroness-by-marriage Eleanor Perenyi, whose book Green Thoughts may be the most beloved gardening tome of the 20th century. Perenyi House, with its superb garden, is a must-see. Stonington’s light also shone on James Ingram Merrill, the darkly inspired poet whose works The Black Swan, Divine Comedies and The Changing Light at Sandover kept the form alive and relevant in a vulgar age. So much so that, today, writers of every stripe still journey to the late-Victorian era James Merrill House on Water Street as writers-in-residence, keeping a light on in his name.
Local businesses also pay homage to the storied past of this place, often with a knowing wink. The Inn at Stonington is suffused with the understated elegance that whispers through the town. The Orchard Street Inn has the same air, on a more intimate scale. One can walk along the most pleasant streets visiting historical homes (Stonington is on the National Register of Historic Places), browse the most attractive shops, stop by the loveliest public library, visit the offices of seagoing non-profit New England Science & Sailing, or just go sit at Stonington Point and cogitate.
If food is your empirical barometer, Stonington does not disappoint, nor do the environs. When in town, I never fail to stop into Noah’s, a local institution whose “scratch cooking” and relaxed atmosphere makes you happy (and hungry). For gourmet coffees and teas, pastries and yummy breakfast sandwiches, The Yellow House Coffee and Tea Room is a favorite (here or anywhere). In my parlor chat, there were several fans of the savory fresh seafood, mixology, and sunset views at Breakwater. It’s a wonderful spot to dine. I also enjoy the nautical sense of The Dog Watch Café.
The best Mexican food around is served, with love, at Milagro Café.
A very short car ride from downtown Stonington are other dimensions. If it’s action you crave, Foxwoods Resort Casino is only 20 minutes away. For additional seaside hospitality, Mystic is practically around the corner. It’s packed with beautiful people, wonderful restaurants, and spectacular harbor views.
For more of a hyper-local Stonington vibe, pop over to The Velvet Mill, which is barely three minutes from the borough’s center. This former textile factory is home to artists and craftsmen, from glassblowers to beer brewers. It’s a unique collective, unlike any I’ve seen. Back in town, La Grua Center is another venue converted from industrial use for the pursuit of arts and cultural activities. Its exhibits are delightful.
In winter, the tourists depart and the town gets a little quieter, which locals love, as do a smaller wave of visitors who bask in the glow of this captivating place when draped in snow. When summer comes, Stonington swells like all coastal towns. The marina and yacht clubs rev up again, and the shoreline energy is renewed.
Stonington is in a constant state of renewal, but it’s subtle. Unless you’re really paying attention, you won’t notice. Like the famous “Wolf Stones” at nearby Wequetequock, it’s as if Stonington exists to preserve an idyllic coastal realness that each year gets a little harder to find…unless you know exactly where to look.