First come the pirates, a scruffy bunch firing their muskets as they make their way down Stonington Borough’s Main Street. “Love what you’ve done with the town since we’ve been gone,” says one black-bearded marauder as he passes the crowd gathered in the town square. Next come the members of the Colonial Fife and Drum Corps, followed by the bagpipers from neighboring Mystic’s Highland Pipe Band. There are local kids “wearing” cardboard boats around their waists like life rings, a Saint Peter effigy atop a float decorated with fishing nets and starfish, a few thundering hot rods from Rod Benders Car Club and a fire engine, courtesy of Stonington Borough’s Volunteer Fire Co.
It’s a hodgepodge of a parade for sure, but one that holds the same significance year after year in this Connecticut fishing village. Upon completing their lap around the square, the pirates, pipers and hot rods, along with the spectators, move en masse the short distance to the Town Dock for the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Typically held in late July since 1955 (this year, the blessing will take place on July 28), it’s a custom long observed by fishing and boating communities, in which they pray for a bountiful harvest and for the safety of the men and women at sea. Fishing is one of the most dangerous ways to earn a living: In 2016, the fatality rate was 23 times higher than for all other workers, according to government figures.
Once the crowd settles down on the weathered docks of Stonington Harbor, the local bishop sprinkles some holy water in the direction of the gathered fishing draggers and lobster boats. There is a boat parade, which culminates in a ceremonial release of a wreath shaped like a broken anchor, in memory of the fisherman who lost their lives at sea. The wacky jubilance of the small-town parade gives way to a solemnness, captured in a lone bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.”
As the spectators disperse, some wander over to the food tents, lured by the smells of clam chowder and the chorizo sandwiches. Several head in the direction of Water Street, hoping to score a table at Noah’s, a local standby since 1979, or engage in a little retail therapy at one of the shops that dot what is essentially Stonington’s main drag. And others keep walking to what natives call “the Point.” There is a wee public beach and an old stone lighthouse, and, because Stonington is a peninsula, the waters of the Long Island Sound stretch in every direction. It’s features like these — the picture-postcard scenery against the backdrop of a vibrant and working waterfront — that make Stonington a Rockwellian picture of a New England coastal town, and an idyllic respite from the summer mobs that descend upon places such as nearby Mystic, Martha’s Vineyard or Bar Harbor.
I’ll wind my way to Hancox Street, where my parents, Connecticut Yankees both, have kept a weekend home for more than 30 years. My father, who had grown up just 20 minutes away in New London, was already familiar with Stonington; he and his friends would drive there to sneak onto a golf course that was fancier than the public courses where he lived. But even though my mother was from West Hartford, an hour to the northwest, she had never been to Stonington, which is one exit south of Mystic Seaport, the place I spent every junior high field trip standing on the deck of the Joseph Conrad, a 19th-century sailing ship.
As my parents explored the 18th-century architecture, wandering past the former homes of Edmund Fanning, the first American captain to circumnavigate the globe, as well as the childhood home of James McNeill Whistler (son and painter of what is popularly dubbed “Whistler’s Mother”), stopping at Cannon Square to see the two cannons used to repel the British navy during the War of 1812, my mother was sold. A real estate agent took them to see one of the nine identical wooden houses built by Zebulon Hancox in 1866, all still standing today on the east side of Hancox Street. My mother stepped through the front door and turned to my father. “Buy it,” she said.
Today, much of Stonington has changed, and many of the homes along Hancox Street have additions (including, in our case, a widow’s walk where in the evenings we can watch the sun disappear into Narragansett Bay). An influx of affluent second-home owners from Manhattan has displaced most of the original Portuguese settlers (a story line captured in “Mystic Pizza,” much of which was filmed in Stonington and starred a young ingénue by the name of Julia Roberts). The Holy Ghost Society, located on Main Street, is an active reminder of their long ties to the community. It throws raucous parties such as the one that celebrates the annual feast of Queen Saint Isabel. The event includes a coronation of a new queen and a parade through town, and it culminates in a heated auction of the famed, locally baked sweetbread that can also be purchased outright under the food tents after the blessing and during many of Stonington’s fairs and church bazaars.
Just over the viaduct, change also has come to the American Velvet Mill. Instead of huge looms and dye vats, the 1888 building houses artist studios, an artisanal bakery, a local cheese shop, an always-crowded brewery and a wood-fired pizza restaurant. There are small shops, too, organized around an open space where kids run wild and adults sit to relax with their coffee.
The blessing and its reason for being, too, have evolved. What once was a way of life for this little village has literally sailed out to sea. “We don’t have enough fish coming through the door,” said Mike Gambardella, whose family owns one of the last packing facilities and wholesale fish houses in Connecticut. Gambardella Wholesale Fish has been in Mike’s family for generations. But with catch limits put in place years ago by federal and state agencies to grow depleted stock, Connecticut’s commercial fishermen say they can’t land enough fish to make a decent living (the fish, they contend, have rebounded). When my family first started attending the blessing, there were at least 30 ships taking part in the ceremony in Stonington, which is the state’s last commercial seaport. Last year, I counted eight. “My family has been in the business for over 100 years,” Gambardella told me then. “And it might all end with me.”
The biggest change to the landscape for me is my mother’s absence from it; she passed away five years ago. It’s been hard to weather. I’m grateful that some of her touchstones remain: Zuckermann Harpsichords is still producing historically accurate instruments (clavichords, virginals and spinets in addition to harpsichords). The Hungry Palette is still at 102 Water St., where it has stood for more than 41 years, full of candy-colored, hand-screened clothing and fabrics. And Tom’s News and General Store is still where everyone goes for copies of the Day and the latest small-town gossip.
Of course, there’s still that spectacular view, whether from the waterside tables at Breakwater, the back bar at Dog Watch Cafe, the maze of well-traversed docks at Dodson Boatyard, or, in my mother’s opinion and mine, from the outermost tip of the Point, with the water surrounding us and calling us home.
Alter is a writer based in the District. Her website is cathyalter.com.
More from Travel:
Inn at Stonington
60 Water St.
One of the most romantic places to stay in Connecticut (and the only place to stay in the Borough), the 18-room inn was featured in “Hope Springs,” starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Seaside rooms begin at $320 during summer months and include complimentary parking and continental breakfast.
113 Water St.
The oldest continually operating restaurant in Stonington has had the same ownership since its beginning 36 years ago. Entrees start at $9.
66 Water St.
Enjoy uninterrupted views of Stonington Harbor and Fishers Island Sound over dinner for two and a bottle of wine. Open Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Entrees start at $14.
Dog Watch Cafe
194 Water St.
The outside bar, called the Dog Pound, offers views of the boats in the harbor. Entrees start at $9 .
American Velvet Mill
22 Bayview Ave.
The mill’s first looms arrived by tugboat in 1892. Today the mill is home to artist studios, local crafts, fitness classes and more. Hours vary for individual shops, restaurants and businesses.
Old Lighthouse Museum
7 Water St.
Abandoned in 1889, the lighthouse now serves as a museum with access to a rolling backyard where visitors can picnic while enjoying views of the water. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Wednesday. Admission: $10 adults, $6 children 6-12.
Stonington’s small beach owes its existence to the 1938 hurricane that washed away the homes closest to the water. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Buy day passes for $10 per person through the beach gatekeeper upon arrival; children 18 and younger free.