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.
RelatedView all articles
Read more stories about beaches.
9 Epic Winter Road Trip Destinations to Escape the Cold
Pack your shorts, T-shirts and sandals and head for somewhere warm that you can cruise with the top down.
Beach Road Trips from Disneyland
After you meet Mickey Mouse, relax on a Southern California beach.
Beaches Lure Travelers to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula
A rental car takes you to less-crowded stretches of sand.
Sanibel is a Treasure Trove of Family Fun
Nearby Captiva and Fort Myers also offer chances for lasting memories.
Delightful St. Andrews Offers Simple Pleasures
New Brunswick’s resort town is a great getaway for a family vacation or romantic weekend.
Anna Maria Island Evokes Memories of 'Old Florida'
The barrier island reminds us of the joy of living life in the slow lane.
A Mindful Journey in Maui
Hawaii’s natural beauty is the perfect setting to slow down.
The Road to Hana
Challenging drive leads to beautiful vistas and simple food.
On the Road — and the Beaches — in Maui with Friends
The Hawaiian island’s tropical embrace offers a memorable vacation in paradise.
Wild Mexico: In Search of Jaguars, Monkeys, Manatees and More
Road trips along the Yucatán Peninsula offer opportunities to see wildlife.
Memorable Attractions are a Short Drive from Disney World
Extend your magical vacation with these road trips from Orlando.
Surf's Up in Tofino
This Canadian hot spot welcomes newcomers all year long.
Day Trips from San Juan, Puerto Rico
See more of the island’s natural beauty at Rincón, Culebra and Vieques.
4 Top Michigan Beach Towns for Your Summer Family Trip
Each spot along the coast of Lake Michigan has a distinct appeal.
Pair a Trip to Disney World With a Beach Vacation
The Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Coast are easy drives from Orlando.
A Do-Over Honeymoon in Hawaii
A couple soaks up Oahu’s charm on a romantic getaway.
The Hidden Gems of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula
Southern Quintana Roo draws road trippers looking for adventure.
Weekend Getaway to Mexico’s Playa del Carmen
Explore the best of the jungle and the ocean by rental car.
Sanibel’s Great Scavenger Hunt
Visitors come from around the world to find seashell treasure.
Artsy Provincetown Offers an Inclusive Getaway
Everyone is welcome in this Massachusetts beach town.
Florida’s Space Coast Attractions
The Kennedy Space Center is the big draw, but it’s not the only reason to visit.
Top 5 Things to Do on Cumberland Island
From camping to biking to hiking, there's plenty to do on Cumberland Island. Check out our favorite activities.
Explore the Edisto Island National Scenic Byway
Old-world charm and exquisite landscape merge for a South Carolina drive like no other.
A San Luis Obispo County Stay, Three Ways
New California residents try camping, glamping and a destination hotel, all in one road trip.
Searching for Surf and Self Along the West Coast
Riding waves renews joy and restores confidence after a bad mountain fall.
Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway - Washington and Oregon
Traveler’s long-awaited road trip starts in Seattle and winds through the Northwest.
Explore Dry Tortugas National Park on a Day Trip from Key West
The remote area in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime spot for snorkeling and diving.
Cruising the Pacific Coast Highway - California
Road trip continues through the northern California redwoods and on to sunny SoCal beaches.
4 Florida Barrier Islands Charm Visitors
The Sunshine State’s west coast features a succession of beautiful spots perfect for a coastal road trip.
5 Great Hawaiian Beaches
Oahu and Maui both offer beautiful stretches of sand.
Prince Edward Island Inspires
The classic novel "Anne of Green Gables" is set here, but that's only part of the island's allure.
Cape Cod Drive Reinforces Benefits of Slow Travel
Massachusetts oyster farmers also recognize the value of investing time.
Rhode Island Road Trip Reveals Many Charms
Count on ocean views, stately mansions and signature dishes.
Offseason on North Carolina’s Outer Banks
In spring, you get the sand dunes and seafood all to yourself.
Prince Edward Island Beckons Lighthouse Lovers
Canada’s smallest province has the largest concentration of lighthouses.
Weekend Getaway to Half Moon Bay
Cozy beach town is a short drive — and a world away — from San Francisco.
The Beautiful Beaches of the Florida Panhandle
Relax, dine and play in the area’s charming coastal towns.
The Phenomenal Bay of Fundy
New Brunswick’s coastal communities live with the pulse of the ocean, which provides an unforgettable experience.
A Family of 14 Reunites in South Haven, Michigan
A personality fueled get-together brings out cameras, spreadsheets and Moscow Mules.
Take a Leisurely Drive Down to Key West
A road trip on the Overseas Highway brings visitors to the homes of sea turtles, endangered deer and Ernest Hemingway.
Picturesque South Haven Features Laid-Back Attractions
From beaches to farmers markets, visitors celebrate the town’s local treasures.
Start A Reservation
Enjoy fast and easy car rental bookings from Enterprise Rent-A-Car at one of our 7,200 branches in cities, airports and neighborhoods near you.Reserve Now
Don't miss an excuse to hit the road: our latest offers delivered to your inbox.Sign Up