Niantic: Visiting a Beach Town in Winter

It took its name from the Nehantic people, an Algonquin-speaking tribe who lived along the southern New England coast when the English arrived. It gave its name to several ships, including the whaling vessel that in turn passed that name on to the storied San Francisco hotel and the company that created Pokémon Go. It is a village within the town of East Lyme, with a population of just over 3,000. It’s the only place on the Connecticut shoreline with a main street parallel to Long Island Sound. In the summer, it fills with people clad in bathing suits and flip-flops. In the fall, those people drift away. In the winter, the village transforms. This is when you should visit.

Because I have close family here, I’ve spent a lot of time in Niantic. It’s usually my first stop when I need to buy a gift or when I want to walk for miles along a boardwalk beside the water. I love it in every season, but like many coastal towns, I think it’s a more interesting place in the coldest months. Niantic does not shut down when the boats are lifted out of the water and (most) people switch from iced to hot coffee at Dunkin’. Some businesses do close, but most stay open, and the beaches – now free for everyone – are blissfully un-crowded. The slightly make-believe atmosphere that hangs around every summer destination dissipates, and what’s left is a very real and unpretentious small town, one which residents know they’re lucky to have to themselves.

At just about 3.5 square miles, Niantic has a compact downtown that’s easy to explore on foot; points further out are quickly reached by car. Here are some of my favorite Niantic places.

Beaches & Outdoors

Rocky Neck State Park, 244 West Main Street. An understated coastal paradise where Bride Brook and the Fourmile River meet Long Island Sound, this gently curving beach features a boardwalk, walking trails, and striking rock formations, from breakwaters to boulders to an impressive bluff-top pavilion built by the WPA from native granite.

Hole-in-the-Wall Beach, Baptist Lane. This sheltered beach is sandwiched between the much larger McCook Point Park, which rises above it, and the Niantic Bay Boardwalk. From the parking area, walk through the “hole” in the stone wall beneath the train tracks to access the beach, a good spot to linger on a more temperate winter day.

Cini Memorial Park, Main Street under the drawbridge. This little park at the watery town line between East Lyme and Waterford is the eastern terminus of the Niantic Bay Boardwalk. It’s also a good place to hop onto the other boardwalk that runs just beside Main Street, providing a scenic and protected route for pedestrians and cyclists heading into the center of downtown Niantic.

Niantic Bay Boardwalk, between Cini Park and Hole-in-the-Wall Beach. A Niantic gem, this mile-long, newly reconstructed walkway is rarely empty; even on the coldest day, you’re almost sure to see at least a few locals out for a walk or run, as well as some visitors taking in the beauty of Niantic Bay. As Acela trains periodically whoosh by above you, a slower scene plays out below, with gulls navigating the beach and rocky shore.

McCook Point Beach & Park, Atlantic Street. This lovely parcel of land combines a hilly green open space, crossed with paved paths and dotted with typical suburban park amenities, and a pretty little beach between a rocky bluff and a neighborhood where beach houses perch along the shore.

Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve, Memorial Park Drive. Despite its focus on the shoreline, Niantic is also home to beautiful natural areas that aren’t on the coast. Slightly inland, Oswegatchie Hills covers 450 acres of serene woodland, where multiple trails wind through the forest past historic sites and scenic overlooks.

Do & See

Niantic Cinemas, 279 Main Street. An old-fashioned small-town movie theatre in the heart of downtown.

Niantic has several historic house museums, and although their off-season hours are limited to special events, visitors can explore the grounds of these preserved properties at any time. The Thomas Lee House, 228 West Main Street, is a distinctive 1660 saltbox; also on the property is the 1734 Little Boston Schoolhouse. The Smith-Harris House, 33 Society Road, is a graceful 1845 Greek Revival home with a barn and herb garden. The Samuel Smith Farmstead, 82 Plants Dam Road, consists of a c. 1685 gambrel-roof house and rustic barn in a rural setting.

If you’re feeling curious – or nosy – about daily life in an off-season beach town, one way to get a sense of it is to drive through some of Niantic’s residential neighborhoods. The small, private beach communities south of McCook Point – like Black Point, Attawan, and Crescent Beach – give a glimpse of a relaxed lifestyle you don’t see when you stick to the main drag. Another intriguing community is Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp, a 19th century camp meeting site turned quirky community. Amidst a narrow grid of streets, you’ll find a private riverfront beach with a gazebo and a hodge-podge of colorful cottages clustered around a quaint temple building.

Shopping

Grace, 46 Pennsylvania Avenue. This is the kind of casual-luxurious beachy-themed store, full of clothing, accessories, homewares, and gifts, that you find in any waterfront town – but it has something special that makes it just a little better.

Bayberries, 32 Pennsylvania Avenue. A deceptively large shop wedged into a strip mall corner, Bayberries stocks a little bit of everything gift-y, from cards to clothes. Some of it is a bit on the corny side, but there are lots of quality finds here, especially if you’re looking for items with a home or kitchen theme.

Smith’s Acres, 4 West Main Street. This garden store, gift shop, farm market, and greenhouse is a color-coordinated joy to browse. The outdoor displays change with the seasons, and the inviting indoor areas are full of surprising finds, from plants and garden decor to locally made goods and food. In winter, they’reopen on Sundays as the host of the Niantic Winter Indoor Market.

Azalea Home & Gift, 301 Main Street. With a carefully selected assortment of beautifully displayed kitchenware, candles, and other things you totally don’t need until you walk in the door, this shop is seriously tempting.

Olde Red Saltbox, 271 Main Street. A fun little shop, with a range of goods from candles to crockery to coin purses, that melds the slightly jumbled feel of a ramshackle antiques dealership with the comforting atmosphere of a rustic gift store.

Smoochie Bird and Coastal Crab, 377 Main Street. Combining two shops in one, Coastal Crab sells their locally-designed, crustacean-branded apparel (including Niantic souvenirs) while Smoochie Bird stocks small gifts, from jewelry to home decor, much of it with a local, nautical flavor.

The Book Barn, 41 West Main Street and other locations. A Niantic institution, this sprawling used bookstore occupies multiple buildings in town. The rambling Main Barn has the most books, but it’s almost less of a store than an experience, complete with whimsical installations and resident animals. The other locations have a more typical used bookstore atmosphere and are devoted to specific subjects, so if you’re looking for a certain type of book, check their website first to make sure you go to the right place.

Food & Drink

Cafe Sol, 346 Main Street. A casual and cozy breakfast, lunch, or coffee spot, where you can either grab something and be on your way or sit and linger, watching people pass by through the front windows.

Gumdrops & Lollipops, 334 Main Street. Half old-fashioned candy store, half vintage diner, this throwback of a restaurant is like stepping into the 1950s. And, if you’re a fan of ice cream in winter, theirs comes from regional favorite Salem Valley Farms.

Main Street Grille, 252 Main Street. A reliable waterfront restaurant and bar, with a calm, beachy vibe and a menu large enough that almost everyone will be able to find something they like for lunch, dinner, or dessert.

The Natural Food Store, 21 Hope Street. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the inside is another story. Not only is this the best place to stop for healthy packaged snacks (they also have a small selection of produce and refrigerated foods), it also contains what could be a separate store devoted to natural beauty products like soaps, shampoos, and makeup.

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