After the first frost, when the scent of wood smoke is in the air, it's time for sweaters, hot chocolate and apple picking -- and a long weekend to explore a couple of historic New England towns. But even though the summer tourists may be gone, being bumped around by hordes of leaf peepers can drain the color from an otherwise idyllic getaway. That's why you should consider visiting Stonington and Mystic, on the coast of southeastern Connecticut, about midway between Boston and New York.
By pairing these towns, you can enjoy all the advantages of Mystic, a tourism hotspot, but then retreat about five miles down the road to Stonington, an even more historic village of about 1,200 residents that has far more of the actual New England charm that visitors expect to find in the neighboring resort town.
With two superb museums and an excellent aquarium (and for those so inclined, the wildly successful Foxwoods casino), Mystic would be worth visiting even if it were not on the Mystic River, where shipwrights began building majestic tall ships in the 1600s. However, the town is becoming "olde," as in Olde Mystick Village, a mall of about 60 "shoppes" and restaurants housed in a faux Early American village.
In contrast, there's an enchanting authenticity about Stonington, the last town in Connecticut with a commercial fishing fleet. Confined to a narrow, mile-long peninsula jutting into Long Island Sound, the village is a registered historic district whose residents have barred the intrusion of fast food joints, malls and other neon forms of commerce.
One glance at "downtown" Stonington makes the point. Narrow Water Street, built for horse-drawn vehicles, is lined with small shops and the 18th- and 19th-century homes and cottages of sea captains, whalers, sealers and shipbuilders.
This is still a village where residents can do much of their daily business on foot, stopping to chat with neighbors when they go to a coffee shop or pick up a newspaper at Tom's News.
Busy harbor town
At the town docks on Saturday morning, you can buy Portuguese sweet bread, sheep's cheese and free-range eggs at the farmers' market, or pick up seafood any day or night from a fishermen's freezer by putting money into an "honor system" slot. If you are an early riser, you may walk downtown accompanied by the sound of bell buoys, a hungry seagull, a mournful foghorn or, perhaps, a faraway train whistle.
Main Street, the other principal thoroughfare, one block east, parallels Water Street and runs through one of the densest concentrations of well-maintained historic homes in the state -- primarily Greek Revival, along with Federal and Colonial -- built with the wealth amassed from whaling and sealing after the Revolutionary War. The village, a trading post in 1649, also benefited when the state's first railroad brought Bostonians to the docks to board steamships bound for New York City.
Among the Main Street landmarks is the meeting place of the Portuguese Holy Ghost Society, one of the most visible signs of the village's ethnic heritage.
But, while Portuguese seamen have played key roles, Anglo entrepreneurs laid the foundation for the region's prosperity.
The most notable was Capt. Nathaniel Palmer, who discovered Antarctica in 1820 while looking for new seal rookeries. Though he made his discovery at the ends of the Earth in a 47-foot sloop, the villagers apparently were more impressed to hear about the teeming populations of seals that easily could be slaughtered for their valuable pelts.
Palmer's grand 16-room Victorian home, at North Water and Palmer streets, is open for guided tours. The height of the tour, so to speak, is a climb up the spiral staircase into the octagonal cupola, from which the Palmer family could identify arriving ships.
Since 1873, when a New York newspaper called the village one of the most picturesque on the northern shore of the Sound, city folk have had a covetous eye on Stonington. In recent years, the cognoscenti from the Big Apple and elsewhere, looking for summer places, weekend hideaways and retirement homes, have bid up the median price of a village house to about $700,000.
The real estate boom has squeezed out many Portuguese fishing families, and groceries, hardware and drug stores have disappeared as antiques shops and chic boutiques bid up retail rents. Still, it seems as if the whole town turns out for its Norman Rockwell moments, such as the Fourth of July parade, which includes a recitation of the Declaration of Independence on the steps of the cozy 100-year-old public library, on the village green.
The newcomers aren't the type of residents who typically clamor for jobs or economic development. Many new residents are successful artists, editors and writers. Among the latter, past and present, are author Peter Benchley (Jaws), Alexandra Stoddard, writer of best-selling guides to decorating and self-help for women, and the late James Merrill, Pulitzer-winning poet and scion of a Merrill Lynch founder.