Liveaboard Barbara Schneider considers Stonington, Conn. — a quintessential coastal New England village at the eastern end of Long Island Sound — “the door to everywhere.”
“It’s just a few hours’ sail to Block Island or Long Island,” says Schneider. And there’s good ocean access for long-distance cruisers, as well as Dodson Boatyard, a full service marina. “We’ve met nice boaters from Florida, Europe, New York, all over.”
Formerly of Rowayton, Conn., Schneider and her husband base their Caribe 40 at Dodson’s between cruises to the Exumas and Maine.
Stonington Borough residents have been sailing since the mile-long peninsula was settled in the 1750s. By the late 1700s world-cruising local sealers were bringing home wealth, sophistication and a cosmopolitan world view. In 1797-’98 Stonington-born Edmund Fanning discovered what became the Fanning Islands in the South Pacific, continuing around the world in the first New York-based vessel to circumnavigate. In 1820 at age 21, native son Nathaniel Palmer discovered Antarctica while exploring the Southern Ocean aboard his 47-foot sloop, Hero. He later became a prominent clipper ship captain, designer, builder and owner.
Dodson’s, where most cruisers come ashore, is a bustling yard, as impeccably maintained as the surrounding mansions. “We’re in the middle of town and want to keep up the boatyard as well as the town,” says Robert J. Snyder, family patriarch.
There’s been a marine business on the site since the steamer to Watch Hill, R.I., docked there in the 1890s. “The business pulled itself into a going [marina] operation in the 1920s,” says Snyder.
The marina persevered and retained its excellent reputation through the devastating New England hurricane of 1938 and Hurricane BLANK in 1982 [There were no U.S. hurricane strikes in ’82. Mary checking]. During the latter storm, 50 yachts went ashore on the adjacent railroad tracks.
Those tracks, connecting New York with Providence, R.I., and Boston, separate the Stonington Borough peninsula from the rest of town. Completion of the railroad line in 1882 ended the Stonington’s prosperous days as a shipping port. Previously, the docks linked New York steamers with Connecticut’s first railroad, to Providence. By 1909, cargo and summer vacationers no longer passed through Stonington, and the hotels, bars and boarding houses disappeared. The village became a blue collar area, with a waterfront factory, velvet mill and commercial fishing docks. The factory burned last summer, but there is a plan to rebuild it as a housing and retail complex.
Artists discovered the town’s classic, inexpensive homes in the mid-1900s, followed by wealthy New Yorkers seeking weekend retreats. Now the borough is an upscale New England village with an international element: Portuguese fishermen and their traditions. Music from a marching band frequently echoes through the shady streets as a religious procession wends its way from the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society to St. Mary’s Church on Wadawanuck Square. Tourists by the thousands join locals for the annual blessing of the fleet and Lobster Feast.
Dodson’s is only a block from tiny 1735 Robinson Burying Ground and Wadawanuck Square. The public library, Book Mart and Quester Gallery (fine art) also front on the square. Quester owner Jim Marenakos sailed into Stonington 36 years ago and never left. His gallery draws cruisers who stop in Stonington on their yearly voyages along the coast.
“We’ve been focusing on museum quality works by 19th- and 20th-century maritime artists for more than 25 years — paintings and the very finest ship and yacht models,” says Marenakos, who cruised to Nova Scotia last summer aboard his Hinckley Pilot. “Nothing is too fine for us.”
He says his clients consider fine art “in the high four- to six-figures and up to be a suitable place to invest some of their portfolio.”
From Wadawanuck Square, you can stroll down Water Street to Stonington Point and back along Main Street, past 19th-century homes built when the town prospered with whaling, sealing, shipping and shipbuilding.
Draggers and lobster boats tie up at the commercial town dock, where steamers from New York once met trains from Providence. A granite tablet memorializes fishermen lost at sea, and plaques illustrate the steamer era. Their solemnity is lightened by the adjoining children’s playground.
Six blocks of Water Street are lined with tasteful boutiques, restaurants and antique shops. Shoppers come from New York just for the hand-painted French pottery at Quimper Faience. Equally enthusiastic customers recommend A.K. Dasher’s for one-of-a-kind estate jewelry at reasonable prices. The Hungry Palette has a wide reputation for locally hand-screened fabrics and clothing.
“I like shopping at Fun Company [on Water and Cutler streets],” says native Harriet Bessette, who formerly sailed the area with her husband, who is now deceased. “They carry odd lots of decorative accessories. You have to go in every day to see what’s new.”
Tom’s Newsstand has an ATM, rents videos and sells snacks and major city newspapers.
South of Water Street’s 1836 Arcade Building is Cannon Square, with its two 18-pound cannons that helped repel a British Naval attack in August 1814. You can see the hand-sewn flag that flew that day in the 1851 (Fleet) bank building. It’s said to be America’s only 16-stripe flag.
“Strolling along lower Water Street past the large homes and Lighthouse Museum is lovely and peaceful,” says Bessette. A marker at the point commemorates the 1814 Battle of Stonington. To swim at DuBois Beach or dinghy to Sandy Point you’ll need a pass, available at the beach or Wayland’s Wharf.
Returning up Main Street you’ll pass more historic buildings, many with hidden gardens and most impeccably restored.
“If you want to know what’s going on in town or buy wonderful Portuguese sweet bread, go to the Farmer’s Market [Saturday mornings on the town dock],” says Bessette. “They sell seafood, cheese, coffee, lamb, produce and pastries.”
Monhegan Aquaculture sells oysters on Fridays at their Water Street facility. You also can buy seafood by weighing your purchase and putting your money in the box at Bill and Jo Bomster’s Cutler Street home. The Bomsters own Stonington Sea Harvesters.
Borough restaurants are an easy dock-and-dine cruise from Mystic and Watch Hill, R.I. Boom, Noah’s, One South Café, Skipper’s Dock and Water Street Café vie for “best restaurant.” Boom (at Dodson’s) and Skipper’s Dock — run by the same folks who operated the famous Harbor View Restaurant for decades — feature sunset views across the harbor and complimentary dockage for diners. Locals suggest Mother’s for breakfast, Water Street Market and Deli for take-out, and The Yellow House for tea and crumpets.
The Inn at Stonington offer luxurious harborfront lodgings.
“Stonington’s a nifty town,” says gallery owner Marenakos, a sentiment echoed by many visitors.