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Secret splendor

Off the beaten tourist trail, seaside village offers its own attractions

The town beaches and a state park are popular destinations. A railroad underpass known as the Hole in the Wall offers safe access.
The town beaches and a state park are popular destinations. A railroad underpass known as the Hole in the Wall offers safe access. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kathleen Burge
Globe Staff / March 5, 2008

POPULATION: 3,085

DISTANCE FROM BOSTON: 116 miles

WEBSITES: discovereastlyme.com, eltownhall.com

ODD FACT: Katharine Hepburn, who lived a few towns over in Old Saybrook until she died in 2003, used to catch movies at Niantic Cinemas.

Niantic is the kind of town that usually gets overlooked in the come-by-the-busloads tourism of southeastern Connecticut, where crowds are lured by the neon glare of the casinos and the modern re-creation of 19th-century Mystic seafaring life. But Niantic, a seaside village of East Lyme, is a calming antidote to the sites that get prime play in the guidebooks. It's a quiet town on Long Island Sound, with a few good places to stay, a few to eat, and lots of chances to play along the water.

Do
Most recreation in town comes courtesy of the Niantic River and Long Island Sound. The town's most central waterfront property lies around McCook Point Park (off McCook Place, which is off Main Street), a large, grassy bluff overlooking the water between two beaches: McCook Point Beach, west of the bluff, and Hole-in-the-Wall Beach, to the east. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, town beaches require passes bought from the town's Parks and Recreation Office (41 Society Road, 860-739-5828, eltownhall.com). The town beaches are relatively small, but the beach at the 710-acre Rocky Point State Park (see STAY) doesn't require you to sidle up quite so close to other sun-worshipers. Go early, though; the parking lot fills quickly in summer. The park also includes some caves that once hid Tories during the American Revolution and bootleg liquor during Prohibition. The Niantic Bay Boardwalk, part synthetic "boardwalk" and part gravel path, stretches a little more than a mile along the sound. You can park for free at both ends of the boardwalk, which ends on the west at Hole-in-the-Wall beach. The Niantic River Estuary Canoe/Kayak Trail (a map is available at eltownhall.com/Maps/Kayak%20Trail.pdf) leads boaters past the sites of old shipyards and historical spots in town, including the former home of the Golden Spur Amusement Park, where in the early 1900s the World Famous Diving Horses leapt from a 20-foot tower. As you paddle along, you may catch a glimpse of a bald eagle, an osprey, or a seal. If you're happier on land, hike through the Oswegatchie Hills Nature Preserve (main entrance at Veterans' Memorial Park, off Pennsylvania Avenue, oswhills.org), where trails circle through 400 acres above the river and the sound.

Stay
An elegant and unusual bed-and-breakfast, Fourteen Lincoln Street (14 Lincoln St., 860-739-6327, 14lincolnstreet.com, $195-$250) was built in 1879 as a Congregational church. The building, which lost its steeple to the Hurricane of 1938, was privately purchased in 1996 and renovated into an inn with leaded glass windows and pressed tin ceilings. In summer, Fourteen Lincoln serves elegant dinners ($125 per person) in the rose-garden patio. The Inn at Harbor Hill Marina (60 Grand St., 860-739-0331, innharborhill .com, $135-$255) overlooks the water and, as the name suggests, the town's marina. In warm weather, the owners will loan you their kayaks or take you down the Niantic River on their 26-foot boat. Downtown, the Niantic Inn (345 Main St., 860-739-5451, thenianticinn.com, $89-$149) is a bit larger and simpler, with 24 rooms and efficiencies that have kitchens. Rocky Neck State Park (244 West Main St., ct.gov/dep/cwp/view.asp?A=2716&;Q =325258, $15 per night, plus a reservation fee), two miles from downtown, is a true budget option, renting out 160 campsites all within walking distance of the beach.

Party
Niantic is quieter at night than the nearby tourist meccas, although there are a few local bars. In the summer, look for the music series Cookin' at McCooks (860-739-9018, cookinatmccooks.com), concerts held in McCook Point Park, overlooking the sound. Last year's performers included Soulshot and Delta Moon. Niantic is also home to a rare family-owned movie theater, Niantic Cinemas (279 Main St., 860-739-6929, nianticcinema.com), once a haunt of the late Katharine Hepburn.

Play
The Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut (409 Main St., 860-691-1111, childrensmuseumsect.org) aims to please with a two-person research submarine, a pipe organ, and a 7-foot-tall doll with removable organs. Another educational stop is the Thomas Lee House (228 West Main St., 860-739-6070, eastlymehistoricalsociety.org), built about 1660 and one of the oldest wooden-frame houses in the state, and the Little Boston Schoolhouse, which was relocated to the property after its last students left in 1922. A barn on the property also displays artifacts from the Western Nehantics, the Native Americans who gave the town its name. They spent their summers in the area, fishing and gathering shellfish.

Fuel
La Belle Aurore (75 Pennsylvania Ave., 860-739-6767, labelleaurorebistro .com, dinners $19-$26) serves lunch and dinner in an airy bistro filled with artwork by locals. The restaurant tries to stay local in other ways, relying on locally grown produce and organic meat and poultry to fill out its menu, ranging from butternut squash lasagna to striped bass in red curry. Illiano's Ristorante (228 Flanders Road, 860-739-7017, illianospizza.com/niantic/) is the most formal location of this small chain of Italian restaurants and offers such traditional fare as pizza and shrimp scampi. A new deli, The Eclectic Chef (281 Main St., 860-739-3960, members.tripod.com/ec_cuisine), serves sandwiches, soup, and homemade cookies. It's mainly a take-out place, but also has a smattering of tables. Frank's Gourmet Grille in East Lyme (135 Boston Post Road, 860-739-0600, franksgourmetgrille.com, dinner entrees $17.95-$31.95) has a wide-ranging menu, from grilled flat breads and pasta to veal and Coquilles St. Jacques.

Spend
The Book Barn Downtown (267 Main St., 860-691-8078, bookbarnniantic.com) is jammed with volumes and a few resident animals, including a cat named Frank, guinea pigs, and turtles. But for still more books, head to the store's rambling sister complex at 41 West Main St., a collection of buildings - including the Haunted Bookshop (mysteries, thrillers, horror novels), the Last Page (sports, travel, and nature writing, among other genres) and a reading garden. Also make time to poke around Russia on the Sound (369 Main St., 860-739-0067, russia onthesound.org), a store devoted to all things Russian, from nesting dolls to paintings of St. Petersburg. The shop also has a small tearoom. The Mystic Clock Shoppe (273 Main St., 860-691-3331, mysticclock.com), which has been around for 30 years, sells and repairs timepieces, from wall clocks to grandfather clocks. Tumbleweeds (325 Main St., 860-739-9018, tumbleweedsct .com) is a funky shop that lives true to its roots as a '70s record store. The shop is packed, floor to ceiling, with CDs (new and used), records, clothes, and jewelry.

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