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Weekend Planner

A coastline of treasures

Charm abounds not far from glitz of Conn. casinos

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ted Weesner Jr.
Globe Correspondent / July 22, 2003

Once a patchwork of sleepy farming and fishing villages, southeastern Connecticut has become the Land of Large Casinos, where glitzy money palaces pull thousands upon thousands inland daily. Meanwhile, the nearby shoreline sits, beckoning with quieter, more sustaining pleasures. If the casinos are like big flashy action movies, the coast -- in its variety, subtlety, and beauty -- nourishes like an exquisite Russian novel.

Indeed, it is remarkably satisfying to run opposite the traffic that streams down Interstate 95 toward the roulette wheels and head straight for the water. There you can feed yourself in more than one way, whether with great seafood, fascinating history, or sweaty fun.

Two points of the coastline form the perfect stretch to explore over a weekend, from the melodious Watch Hill -- at the very tip of Rhode Island -- to Groton Long Point, Conn. Because both places reach far into the water, traffic is minimal. The rush of the surf, the squawk of gulls, and the clank of channel markers are more common than the sound of car engines. Between the points are a half-dozen coves, harbors, and inlets, including the storied villages of Mystic and Stonington. Viewed from overhead, the span looks like a broken-toothed comb. Were you able to fly with the gulls from point to point, you'd cover 7 miles. By road, it's about 20.

If you are in a self-dramatizing, F. Scott Fitzgerald sort of mood, Ocean House on swanky Watch Hill is the place to start a weekend. This grand old hotel, built in 1868, matches nicely with a seersucker suit and white ducks or a skimpy bathing suit. Perched above a long, gorgeous beach, painted glowing canary yellow and without TVs, air conditioners, or telephones, Ocean House is a delirious step into the past. From its huge, rambling porch, topped with tables and umbrellas, the view of open ocean is equally fine, and ideal for a gin and tonic. The food is forgettable, a basket of free popcorn is plenty. Besides, didn't the flappers only drink?

Departing Ocean House, you can choose from dining options that range from picnic tables and fried clams to white tablecloths and a veteran chef. Two restaurants featuring striking sightlines and very good, medium-priced food are worth visiting. The Up River Cafe sits over the top of the Pawcatuck River in Westerly, R.I. The bar offers a glimpse of the inky water flashing by and a perfectly balanced bar menu, whether it's the lobster nachos, steak and fries, or the dense treat of a BLT in a tortilla wrap.

Across the border in Mystic, Conn., the Daniel Packer Inne takes some finding, but it's worth the search. Again, the main dining room is to be avoided, while the cellar pub, made of stone and dark wood beams, feels Colonial and festive. The crowd runs from young hepcats to oldsters sporting bow ties, the tap beer flowing freely. Each dinner comes with a salad doused in a memorable pistachio-cranberry vinaigrette and a head of roasted garlic to spread on bread. The fish and chips are bountiful and fresh, local scallops get a Cajun treatment, and plump crab cakes pair nicely with a Cottrell ale, brewed in nearby Pawcatuck.

With so much flavorful sea air, two seafood shacks sate what will be a specific hunger for lobster and clams. Abbot's Lobster in the Rough, in Noank, is on the water, including seating on a dock and under a big red tent. Though the lobsters are a bit pricey ($19 for a 1 1/2-pounder), you can cart in your own booze. A nice bottle of Sancerre acts as an ideal counteracting measure. Not to miss is the house specialty, a hot lobster roll.

Back in Mystic, Sea Swirl is another classic of its kind, an old-school, slant-roof ice cream stand that sidelines great pints of fried clams. Another place to seek out -- worth exiting I-95 if you're passing by -- is something of a surprise: a tiny, azure-walled breakfast joint called Kitchen Little. In back, you can sit outside and take in more blue (the Mystic River), along with its spectacular namesake, the Mystic Melt, scrambled eggs with fresh crab meat, or the Portuguese Fisherman, eggs with linguica, chorizo, and jalapeno cheese and a sweet muffin.

With so much good food harvested from the nearby water, there's a number of memorable routes to burning calories on the water. Most invigorating is to rent a kayak in Mystic and paddle up one of the region's many inlets. But more peaceful and gratifying is a trip up Wequetequock Cove in Stonington. About 45 minutes of paddling brings you to Sandy Point, an island beach where you can reward yourself with a packed picnic. Along the way, you will encounter a variety of birds that barely notice a quietly passing kayak. Cormorants, herons, terns, even eagles, and a great flock of swans go about their business. If you bring along a fishing pole, several small islands are among the best spots to pull in bluefish or stripers.

Time has come for some relaxed recreation. Another boat, slightly larger at 81 feet, provides a welcome break from paddling. Docked in the Mystic River, the schooner Argia makes three trips a day into Fishers Island Sound. After two bridges open for its high mast, the Argia moves along at a good clip. The captain, with ponytail and rope anklet, is so mellow it is hard to imagine a tornado would elevate his pulse. Describing local legends and geography, he displays a steely intelligence under his Grateful Dead demeanor. Returning to stable land, the Mystic Art Association, an unremarkable sight along the river, holds beautiful treasures within. Many of the paintings are interpretations of what you've glided by on the boats. Local artists are richly represented, and most of the work is for sale. Farther upshore is the Old Lighthouse Museum at Stonington Point. Built of fieldstones, this 1823 structure embodies a strikingly spare Yankee aesthetic, as do the wonderfully dotty museum keepers. Back in Watch Hill, the Flying Horse Carousel is the perfect launch back home. The oldest of its kind, this 1883 carousel has an arm that reaches out to dispense rings, a lucky brass one among the many silver. Parents swarm the perimeter, kids stand patiently in line. As with all the coastal attractions, a little patience is rewarded with an unforgettable experience.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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