A Coastal Road Trip in Connecticut
Above photo: The Steamboat Inn and the sailboat Argia light up during the sunrise over the Mystic River.
Story by Kassondra Cloos; photos by Michael Ciaglo
Kassondra is a freelance writer from Rhode Island currently slow-traveling the world. Michael Ciaglo is a freelance photographer based in Denver, Colorado.
The drive from New Haven to Mystic features abundant attractions.
Enjoyable but frustrating — that describes browsing in Hades, one of several themed structures on the grounds of the Book Barn’s main shop in Niantic, Connecticut. Each title costs only a dollar, but the books aren’t shelved in any order. Affectionate cats roaming the stacks make this literary chaos more bearable, but I am relieved that my coastal road trip in the Constitution State is better organized.
Niantic is about an hour east on Interstate 95 from New Haven, my starting point. I’m heading for Mystic, a legendary seaside resort town just 17 miles past Niantic. My plan is to take it slow and explore some of New England’s alluring tiny pockets along the way. I’m accustomed to driving six or more hours between destinations in Colorado, but here many attractions are just minutes from one another. And Mystic is only a two-hour drive from New York City, with Boston just 90 minutes away.
In New Haven, I am charmed by classic views straight out of Rory’s Yale years in “Gilmore Girls.” Downtown revolves around Yale University, where expansive green spaces are dotted with students reading and chatting with friends and visitors enjoying the grounds. New York may have a louder reputation for pizza, but New Haven threatens that crown with town favorites such as Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana. Their 600-degree pizza oven churns out their specialties, including White Clam Pizza. Nearby, Louis’ Lunch claims to be the birthplace of the hamburger. You can try one, served on toast, at the family-owned restaurant.
If you base yourself in New Haven, several great attractions are within an hour’s drive. Just 30 miles south, romantics may be enchanted by a three-hour sunset ferry tour of Norwalk’s three historic lighthouses. Hammonasset Beach State Park, 20 miles east of New Haven, is a great place to picnic or settle in with a beach read. Adrenaline junkies should drive 40 miles more to the HighFlyer Zipline, a bucket list-worthy experience. It’s the biggest zipline in the state, launching from a 33-story tower at the Foxwoods Casino.
Meandering through towns new to me is a long-held love of mine, but I’m particularly eager to reach Mystic on this road trip. Because I grew up about an hour away, just outside of Providence, Rhode Island, I’ve been there before, primarily on school field trips to the Mystic Aquarium. This time, I explore the compact downtown on foot, browsing Bank Square Books and popping in and out of boutiques.
The shops hawk everything from Polish pottery to high-end, loose-leaf teas to handblown glass sculptures. Mystic Knotworks claims to be the country's first nautical knot shop and the birthplace of those classic rope bracelets you find in every beach town. The Olde Mistick Village, a themed shopping center, is just a four-minute drive from downtown. Look for the Scandinavian market Bestemors Imports, magic shop Cloak and Wand (the bases for the custom “potions” are soda and hot chocolate) and the Alice in Wonderland-themed tea room Alice in the Village.
I stay at the Whaler’s Inn, and the attached restaurant, The Shipwright’s Daughter, turns out to be a highlight of my trip. Dining there, I discover I’ve been doing seafood wrong all my life. Previously, I’d had a bad experience with oysters (pro tip: don’t order them for the first time in Utah), but my server successfully repairs my relationship with shellfish by recommending I start with just a small squeeze of lemon juice. This enlightened practice may have led to a bit of an addiction, as I’ve ordered from the raw bar in every coastal town I’ve visited since.
If you’ve ever driven through Connecticut on a long-haul trip without stopping — as I have, far too many times — trust me: the coastal towns will exceed any expectations you may have. All you have to do is show up.
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