I’m not usually a spontaneous traveler. I like to plan, and I like to do it in advance. Weeks are good; months are better. But the other day, I was walking past a certain lighthouse in my neighborhood – something I have done semi-regularly for years – and I suddenly got extremely annoyed that this lighthouse, this beautiful and significant symbol of the city’s historic ties to the sea, was on private property, making it off-limits to visitors not on an organized tour. I was so annoyed, in fact, that I went home and spite-booked an organized tour.
So there I was, two days later, cruising down the Thames River on a catamaran named Cecelia Ann on my way to see not just that lighthouse but seven others, all clustered within a short distance of downtown New London. There are several ways to tour the lighthouses in this area, but I chose a Classic Lighthouse Cruise with Cross Sound Ferry.
The route plies the watery corner where Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York meet. It passes the New London Harbor Light (the tall white lighthouse that prompted me to book the cruise), the New London Ledge Lighthouse (my favorite, a red French Second Empire confection that’s said to be haunted), Race Rock Light (a fairy-tale structure on Race Rock Reef), Plum Island Lighthouse (a pretty granite house on an infamous piece of land), Little Gull Light (a simple stone cylinder with a dramatic past), North Dumpling Light (large, brick, and standing next to an odd replica of Stonehenge), Orient Point Lighthouse (black and white and cutely nicknamed the Coffee Pot), and Avery Point Light (which we did not get to see on this trip, though I didn’t mind because there was a good reason and Avery Point happens to be the easiest lighthouse in the area to access by land.)
It also passes other historic sites like New London’s Fort Trumbull, Groton’s Fort Griswold, and “The Ruins,” a rocky islet once home to a lighthouse and fort and now home only to seabirds and seals. And of course, there is plenty more to see on this two-hour tour. Ferries and sailboats travel to and fro, gulls skim over the surface of the waves, and shorelines come into view and then recede.
Along the way, a (live) narrator provides commentary. It’s primarily lighthouse-focused, starting with some history going back to the Pharos of Alexandria and leading to tales of the lighthouses, lighthouse-keepers, and maritime adventures of the region. But it also encompasses other points of interest, from state parks to military installations to the homes of local celebrities. There are a few tidbits of trivia, too: for example, did you know that North Dumpling Island was owned by the inventor of the Segway, who once declared his island home a kingdom and seceded, ostensibly jokingly, from the United States?
The narration is informative and thankfully not corny, but if you know a bit about the region and its history, you don’t need to take in every word. Just hearing the names of the waters you’re sailing through – Long Island Sound, Fishers Island Sound, Block Island Sound, Plum Gut, the Race, Gardiners Bay – will evoke thoughts of pirates and privateers, rum-runners and vacationers, tourists and explorers.
Cross Sound offers several lighthouse cruises, and uses two different vessels. Our boat had two climate-controlled cabins, an outdoor deck, and a separate upper viewing area, plus a “deli” serving food and drinks, including alcoholic ones. There was also a small store with souvenir shirts as well as themed gifts, some from local vendors.
The captain sped up between lighthouses, then slowed and turned the boat at each one so everyone on board could get a look – or take a million photographs.
As the tour neared its end and we sped back towards the mouth of the Thames, a submarine, escorted by small US Navy boats with lights flashing, was heading out from the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton to points unknown. Its black hull was visible, for now, above the blue water. (This, it turned out, was why we couldn’t get closer to Avery Point.) It was another reminder of the past and present significance of these waters – and of the value of getting away from land for a while on occasion, and seeing what you can see.
-If you go on a Cross Sound lighthouse cruise, I recommend making a reservation beforehand and adhering to their recommendations to arrive early.
-If you arrive too early, there’s a lot to see – and eat – on Bank and State Streets. The waiting area at the ferry terminal is also pleasant, with food, restrooms, and indoor and outdoor seating areas.
-Traffic into downtown New London can be congested, so allow plenty of time. The ferry parking lot fills up early in the summer. A convenient alternative is the Water Street Garage, just across the street, which is very affordable for short periods of time. There’s also street parking downtown, both free and metered, just read the signs carefully as some spaces have time limits.
-The New London ferry terminal is located right beside the train and bus stations, so if you’d prefer not to drive, those are also good options.
-If you want to sit outside on the boat, keep in mind that even on hot days with little wind, it gets quite chilly on the water.
See the Cross Sound Ferry website for up-to-date information on cruise options, schedules, and prices.