In the town of Stonington you’ll need to divide your time between two old maritime settlements, both charming and brimming with history.
Huddled onto a narrow peninsula, and still home to a small commercial fishing fleet, Stonington Borough will win your heart with its clapboard houses, local shops, old lighthouse and a museum at the Victorian home of explorer Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer.
But the Stonington town line also extends west to encompass half of Mystic, a tourist pick for its bascule bridge, superlative Seaport Museum, aquarium and the historic whaleboat Charles W. Morgan.
Hiding in the countryside are vineyards like Saltwater Farm, which has been planted on a WWII-era airfield.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Stonington:
1. Stonington Borough
The old core of Stonington is an archetypal New England maritime settlement, but with the extra advantage of almost no road traffic.
Packed tightly onto a mile-long peninsula, Stonington Borough has walkable streets, tree-shaded sidewalks and genteel houses with neat gardens.
On an easy ramble down Water Street you’ll find chic cafes, galleries and eclectic shops, many old-time canvas awnings in front.
Come out for a meal on a summer evening and the sunset over the harbour from Stonington Point may leave you lost for words.
2. DuBois Beach
Shielded by seawalls on the west side of Stonington Point, the little DuBois beach has a few qualities that place it among the best in New England.
The first thing you’ll notice is how light the surf is, just right for children, but there’s also a view to bask in, out to Fisher’s Island in Long Island Sound and across Stonington Harbor to Wamphassuc Point.
There’s a shaded gazebo at the back for picnics, a little dock and jetties where families can try their luck at crabbing.
DuBois Beach is open from Memorial Day to Labour Day, and the summer schedule begins in earnest at the start of the school summer break, when there are lifeguards every day.
A daily fee of $10 applies for non-residents.
3. Stonington Lighthouse Museum
This granite-built lighthouse at the tip of Stonington Point was only in service for 50 years between 1840 and 1889. But 130 years after it was decommissioned the building looks as it did in its heyday, as a perfect example of a mid-19th-century beacon.
Outside take a look at the octagonal tower, and its decorative cornices above the doorway and below the lantern.
The Stonington Historical Society is based inside and displays portraits, navigating equipment, period furniture and other pieces relating to Stonington’s compelling past.
One exciting piece is the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens, installed in 1856 to replace the original oil lamp.
Scale the tower for a panorama that takes in three states.
4. Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer House Museum
Exploring Stonington you’ll be dying to see the inside one of the old properties, and you can do this at the Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer House, which was built in 1852-54. Palmer (1799-1877) had an eventful life as an Antarctic explorer, seal hunter and noted designer of clipper ships.
Antarctica’s Palmer Land, which he discovered and explored in 1820, is named for him.
The Stonington Historical Society saved his house, a blend of Greek Revival and Italianate, from demolition in the 1990s and opened it up as a museum.
The interior is decorated as it would have been in Palmer’s day, and has a model of Hero, the sloop he sailed to Antarctica.
On show are many model ships, as well as clothing from the period and dollhouses.
On your way you’ll pick up interesting details about domestic life for the Palmers, as well as their involvement in shipbuilding and international trade.
5. Mystic Seaport Museum
Up the Mystic River on the Stonington side is the largest maritime museum in the country, dropping you into a working 19th-century seafaring village.
There are more than 60 historic buildings at the museum, transported here from across New England and lovingly restored.
In the village you can discover the many tradesmen and women who powered a port like Mystic, from riggers to blacksmiths, coopers and woodcarvers.
The museum even has its own working shipyard, restoring a fleet of historic vessels using time-honored techniques.
The star of the fleet is the whaleboat, Charles W. Morgan, which we’ll cover next.
There’s a planetarium where you can learn the history of maritime navigation, as well as important exhibitions at the striking Thompson Exhibition Building.
When we wrote this list in autumn 2019 there was a display of J.M.W. Turner watercolors on loan from the Tate.
6. Charles W. Morgan
Essential to any visit to the Mystic Seaport Museum is the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving wooden whaleboat in the world.
Launched in 1841, the 32.5-meter vessel once belonged to an American whaling fleet numbering more than 2,700. It had a whaling career that spanned 80 years (up to 1941) and set sail 37 times, each voyage lasting for up to three years.
You can go below deck to see how the crew of 35 lived and worked during these long expeditions, and it all helps to bring the Mystic Seaport’s Whaling exhibit to life.
You’ll witness the cramped sleeping quarters and the space where blubber was rendered into oil.
7. Mystic Aquarium
Thousands of maritime creatures await you at this enormous aquarium, with indoor and outdoor habitats.
This is one of only two attractions in North America where you can see Steller sea lions, and they’re joined by a big colony of African black-footed penguins, harbour seals, beluga whales, Northern fur seals and California sea lions.
There are some extraordinary creatures to be encountered inside, from colourful tropical fish like blue tangs and clownfish, to octopuses, jellyfish, sea turtles, sand tiger sharks, unicorn fish and Japanese spider crabs.
Mystic Aquarium offers a range of interaction programs, or you can simply make for the Ray Touch Pool or Shark Encounters, where you can feel a bamboo shark’s back as it swims past.
Don’t forget to catch a show at the Blue Theater and 4-D Theater, while there’s a fun live sea lion presentation at the Foxwoods Marine Theater.
8. Downtown Mystic
Take a while to potter around Mystic’s lovable Main Street and the little wharfs on the water.
Fitting for Mystic, the shopping scene is twee, upscale and maritime-themed.
You’ll come across galleries, home design stores, a handful of jewellers, women’s boutiques, an adorable independent toy store, antiques stores, a vinyl record shop, not to mention a big helping of eateries.
Of course, New England-style seafood is front and centre in Mystic, but there are also ice cream parlours, cafes, cosy taverns, bakeries, microbreweries, spots for fine dining, tacos, pizza, noodles, burgers – whatever you fancy, really.
9. Mystic River Bascule Bridge
Mystic wouldn’t be the same without the hulking drawbridge carrying Route 1 over the river, opening every hour and by demand during the summer months.
It’s a monument that rewards a closer look, as all of the moving parts are on the outside.
This design was patented by New York engineer Thomas E. Brown in 1918, and the bridge was realized by New London’s J. E. FitzGerald Construction in 1920. Electric motors drive two large bull wheels attached to two plate girders to lift the 66-meter-long span.
Overhead are the two humungous concrete weights that serve as a counterbalance.
You can watch the mechanism in action at the 40-minute mark every hour during daylight between May 1 and October 31. Mystic River Park, to the south on the east bank has a satisfying view of the bridge from its boardwalk.
10. Saltwater Farm Vineyard
Even the most travelled oenophiles could never claim to have seen a wine destination quite like Saltwater Farm Vineyard.
The tasting room is on the mezzanine level of a restored aircraft hangar and outside, framed by vines is a preserved landing strip, 500 metres long and laid down in the 1930s.
This old private airport is fringed by marshland on Wequetequock Cove and has a farming heritage dating back to Stonington’s earliest years in the mid-1600s.
As for the wines, these are small production, estate-based varietals like Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Franc Rosé, as well as a Cabernet Franc-Merlot blend.
The tasting room is open seven days, April to December (reservations are needed on Saturdays), and provides cheese, crackers and a program of live music.
11. Stonington Village Farmers’ Market
If ever there were a fitting location for a farmers’ market it’s the town dock in Stonington Borough.
Here the last remaining commercial fleet in Connecticut still brings lobster, flounder and scallops ashore.
The Stonington Village Farmers’ Market sets up here on Saturday mornings from the end of May to the end of October, and then moves under cover for the rest of the year.
At least 25 local farms and producers trade at the market, selling organic fruit and vegetables, artisan cheese, eggs, farm-raised meat, bread, baked treats, flowers, milk and pickles.
There are also craft vendors for antiques, cosmetics and jewellery, as well as a selection of prepared food like wraps and pizza to whet your appetite.
12. Stonington Vineyards
One of the first stops on the CT Wine Trail is in Stonington’s sun-kissed uplands.
Stonington Vineyards is open seven days a week, year round, and conducts tours every day at 14:00. The vines in these gentle hills were planted in the early-1980s and the winery was constructed in 1989 and then brought up to date in 2014.
Stonington Vineyards’ high reputation comes from its barrel-fermented Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Franc and blends like Triad Rosé (Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay and Vidal Blanc). The winery is open for tastings from 11:00 to 16:30, with extended hours in summer on Fridays for an outdoor concert series in July and August.
You’re encouraged to bring a picnic, take your wine outside and enjoy this country idyll.
13. Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (DPNC)
Deep in the Stonington countryside is a nature preserve in 350 acres, with picnic areas and more than 10 miles of trails for walking and birding.
As well as hosting a nature pre-school and educational programs for people of all ages, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center has a natural history museum with interactive displays detailing the woodland, wetland and meadow habitats of South-eastern Connecticut.
You can check out live animals too, at terrariums and aviaries for rescued birds of prey, reptiles and amphibians.
There’s also a nature store, open seven days a week and selling birding guides for the region, as well as feeders, nest boxes, hand-crafted jewellery and local specialty foods like hickory maple syrup.
14. The Velvet Mill
The company A. Wimpfheimer & Bro. , Inc. manufactured velvets at this grand brick-built factory from the late 19th century until a few decades ago.
At the factory’s peak in the middle of the 20th century there were about 300 broad looms and a staff of 450 here.
After the company moved out a community of small businesses set up shop in this evocative space.
Something special about The Velvet Mill is its wild diversity: For a sketch, there’s an artisanal baker, a roastery, an espresso bar, a nano-brewery and the farmers’ market in winter.
These are combined with arts and crafts studios, design shops, antiques dealers, a bike restorer and a whole line-up of alternative health practitioners.
15. SUP and Kayaking
Coastline Surf & Paddle at Don’t Dock Marina in Stonington Borough provides paddleboard rentals and tours around quiet Stonington Harbor, Lambert’s Cove and Quanaduck Cove, as well as lessons if you need to learn the basics.
Board, paddle and lifevest are all included in the price.
Mystic is also made to be seen from the water, and in summer you can view the wharves, old brick mills, cute old houses and the famous bascule bridge under your steam.
Adventure Mystic is a short walk from the bridge on the east bank and rents out paddleboards and kayaks (single and tandem) for anything from an hour to a whole week.
The staff will be happy to give you advice on tides and some of the sights you can check out.
Adventure Mystic also offers guided paddles throughout the summer, as well as SUP yoga and SUP fitness sessions.