The people of Stonington Borough never had much choice. Given their location, on a peninsula jutting into Fishers Island Sound and Little Narragansett Bay, the events of their lives were destined to be shaped by the sea.
From Stonington Point, the southernmost tip of the Borough (which is part of Stonington but also has its own government) you can see where the borders of three states (Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York) meet on the water. Beneath a wind-blown American flag, there is a monument to local residents who held off the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. (It wasn’t the first time; tiny Stonington also forced a British retreat during the Revolutionary War.)
Above Stonington Point is the Harbor Light, the first U.S. lighthouse established by the federal government. It now houses a chronicling the daily lives of Stonington’s past inhabitants. Some items (wooden rolling pins and woven baskets) are familiar, and others (a whirligig and a worn-out shoe once hidden in the walls of a house for luck) are delightfully strange. Artifacts of the Battle of Stonington are on display, including a British rocket launcher and cannon balls of various sizes, one still embedded in a section of stone wall. And, since this is a lighthouse, you can climb a winding staircase and metal ladder to reach the small glass-paned cylinder with 360-degree views.
Heading north up Water Street, you’ll come upon Cannon Square, where the two 18-pound guns used to defend the town from the British in 1814 are proudly displayed. They were recently fully restored.
Water Street resembles a smaller, quieter Newport. Cozy shops sell antiques, jewelry, gifts and housewares. Restaurants, some with water views, serve everything from coffee and ice cream to seafood. Take a few mini-detours down the side streets for a glimpse at the Colonial, Federal, and Greek revival houses. The Borough is a National Historic District, and its buildings have been lovingly preserved.
Main Street, parallel to Water Street, is also an enchanting place to stroll. Amid the historic homes, look for the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society. Portuguese fishermen came here during the height of the whaling industry, and their culture lives on in traditions such as the annual Blessing of the Fleet.
At the end of Wall Street, you’ll find the Dodge Paddock and Beale Preserve. A circular trail winds through blooming flowers and tall grass, ensconcing visitors in a pocket of protected wilderness and providing watery views that extend all the way to Rhode Island.
The town docks, home of one of Connecticut’s last commercial fishing fleets, are located off Pearl Street. Though the technology is modern, the smell of fish and bobbing boats tied up to the piers evoke images of how Stonington has sustained itself throughout history.
At the Northern end of the Borough is the 1852 , home of the discoverer of Antarctica and his equally impressive seafaring brother, Captain Alexander Smith Palmer. After unwittingly finding what is now known as Palmer Land on a seal-hunting voyage at the age of 21, Nathaniel went on to a prosperous career sailing clipper ships to Europe and Asia. A guided tour of the 16-room mansion illuminates the lives of the family who lived here for generations. Up in the octagonal observatory atop the house, with the breeze rattling the windows, you can almost imagine that you too are at sea.
The lure of Stonington Borough is that it feels closer to the water than the land. But despite all that it offers to visitors, it never broadcasts its appeal. A day here feels less like a trip to a tourist attraction and more like sneaking onto a private island – one that just happens to be located a few hundred years in the past.
If you go:
May – October Daily 10am – 5pm (In June, July and August, open Thursdays till 8pm)
Adults $9, Children $6 (includes admission to the Palmer House)
May – October, Wed – Sun 1pm – 5pm
Adults $9, Children $6 (includes admission to the Old Lighthouse Museum)
Free to the public from dawn to dusk