During the thick of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, I developed a habit to satiate my pent-up wanderlust. Every time I felt a pang to hit the road, I went to my computer instead, and “traveled” via online street views, looking longingly at every place from Yellowstone to Key West.
Here in New England, it’s the southeast coast of Connecticut, a regional gem I’ve always loved, that has beckoned me most. And with the arrival of spring, I’m itching to make the trip. With its laid-back seaside feel, foodie opportunities, and attractions for all ages, it’s ideal for reacquainting oneself with the joys of travel, all within a two-hour drive from Boston.
For first-timers, any trip to the area should start in either Stonington Borough or the village of Mystic. Each of these spots has a distinct character, though the eastern section of Mystic is actually part of the town of Stonington. If you’re a fan of quaint New England fishing villages, Stonington is the place for you, while those who love bustling resort communities will gravitate toward Mystic. The fact they are next to each other is part of the region’s charm: There’s something for everyone.
A good introduction to Stonington is to park on Water Street and simply start walking around the commercial center, meandering through its art galleries, antiques stores, and eateries such as Social (860-334-2819), a coffee shop that’s a favorite of mine for its local color and casual feel. For a full meal, head down a couple of storefronts to Noah’s (noahsfinefood.com, 860-535-3925), a warm and inviting restaurant that’s a great place to linger; here you can enjoy such options as steamed mussels, handmade fettuccine with pesto and scallops, and angus beef burgers.
Walking off the food is a pleasurable experience: You can stroll west to the Stonington Town Dock or continue south to Stonington Point, a glorious spot with sweeping ocean vistas. There, you’ll also find duBois Beach and The Lighthouse Museum (opens May 15; 860-535-1440), a must if you’re into maritime history. Stonington Point is a particularly special spot, drawing you in with its scenery, history, and a brand of peacefulness that makes you feel like you’re the only one who knows about it.
Much like Stonington, Mystic is best done by foot, and filled with interesting shops. A personal favorite is The Spice & Tea Exchange (spiceandtea.com, 860-245-4153), a friendly store by the drawbridge on West Main Street whose intoxicating smells will lure you in. Just up the street is Young Buns Doughnuts (youngbunsdoughnuts.com, 860-415-8372), a family-owned shop that serves up decadent treats — such as a blueberry cake doughnut — that make me wish this place were closer to Boston. If you haven’t had enough calories, head to Water Street to Sift Bake Shop (siftbakeshopmystic.com, 860-245-0541), a French bakery with everything from baguettes to croissants to macarons.
The many dining and drinking spots in the downtown area include Bank & Bridge Brewing (bankandbridge.com, 860-884-9178), a brewpub located in a former bank that’s the perfect spot for a quick drink. Next to Bank & Bridge is the famous Mystic Pizza (mysticpizzaoriginal.com, 860-536-3700), which gained national attention for its role in the 1980s Julia Roberts movie by the same name, and is now a popular tourist spot beloved for its kitschy atmosphere along with its pizza, calzones, and grinders.
For a less touristy place, walk up Pearl Street to The Harp and Hound (harpandhound.com, 860-572-7778), which feels like a rural watering hole on the back roads of Ireland. The country pub atmosphere will make you forget that you’re in a New England seafaring town, and the comfort food — including fish and chips, bangers and mash, and an upside-down shepherd’s pie — is best washed down with Jameson whiskey or a pint of Guinness.
Many of the sites in Mystic center around its maritime history, such as the Mystic Seaport Museum (mysticseaport.org, 860-572-0711) north of downtown. Here you’ll see historic fishing vessels along with a re-created 19th-century seafaring village, which open for viewing on March 27, and the museum offers classes ranging from cooking to boat building.
Back downtown is the Mystic Museum of Art (mysticmuseumofart.org, 860-536-7601), whose roots date back more than 100 years and which offers rotating art displays and permanent collections worth perusing. Outdoors lovers have many choices in and around Mystic, with Groton’s Bluff Point State Park being one of the most dramatic, with its rocky shoreline conjuring images of the Maine coast.
If you’re doing a two-day trip to the area, Mystic is a good base, located just off Interstate 95 and home to many lodging options, including the Inn at Mystic (from $99 per night; innatmystic.com, 860-536-9604), a majestic resort overlooking Mystic Harbor that’s a popular spot for weddings. Closer to downtown is The Whaler’s Inn (from $172; whalersinnmystic.com, 860-536-1506), a charming boutique hotel by the Mystic River consisting of five separate buildings. If you fall in love with Stonington and don’t mind being farther from I-95, The Inn at Stonington (from $195; innatstonington.com, 860-535-2000) has cozy, romantic rooms, including those with fireplaces and water views.
There is much more to see farther along the Connecticut coast, including a quiet little pocket along I-95 that includes Clinton, Madison, and Guilford. Clinton is a hidden jewel whose center is full of historic buildings and has a quaint Cape Cod vibe. Here you’ll find the Coffee Break Restaurant (coffeebreakclinton.com, 860-664-5066), a beloved eatery among locals. Regulars tend to come for breakfast, but my favorite is a lunch dish — a house-made egg salad that evokes nostalgia. A short ride west on Route 1 takes you to the town of Madison, which is known in part for its beaches. Hammonasset Beach State Park is one you won’t want to miss; its spectacular views and 2-mile strip of sand are particularly serene in the offseason.
Continuing west will bring you to Guilford, one of the most picturesque towns in all of Connecticut with its verdant farmland and town green surrounded by historical homes and churches, along with many shops and restaurants. I never leave Guilford without hitting Ballou’s Restaurant & Wine Bar (ballouswinebar.com, 203-453-0319), whose endless wine list includes flights in case you can’t choose just one. The crispy flatbread pizza here is so good it makes it difficult to eat anything else, though the kitchen offers up plenty of other small-plate delights such as hummus, meatballs, olives, and crab cakes. Before getting on the highway to return home, stop at Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market and Winery (bishopsorchards.com, 203-453-2338) on Route 1 to stock up on local gourmet products such as pies, produce, cheeses, and meats.
The pandemic has put much on hold over the past two years, and there’s definitely pent-up energy for travel out there. The charming southeast Connecticut coast, including a side trip to the west, feels like a getaway we could all use right now — and there’s no doubt you’ll come back for more.
Marc Hurwitz is a freelance food and travel writer in the Boston area. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.