Located 50 miles from Manhattan, Norwalk is a hard-to-pin-down kind of city. Families come here for the great museums, gourmands can’t wait to try out the newest bistro on the block, and boaters wax lyrical about the numerous marinas, local fishing, and ready access to many Long Island Sound destinations.
Then, of course, there are the Norwalk Islands, located just a mile outside the harbor and offering all sorts of boatworthy activities. These 23 mounds of boulders, gravel, sand, silt, clay, and vegetation protect the harbor from high seas and inclement weather, and are one of the reasons Norwalk is so attractive to boaters.
The islands vary in size and ownership. The Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department manages Shea Island and smaller Grassy Island to the east. Both are stony, scruffy tracts of land—as removed from the mainland as the Statue of Liberty is from Manhattan. But for many locals the pebble-strewn beaches and brushy interior constitute paradise on earth. Seasonal camping is allowed on these islands by permit from the Norwalk Recreation and Parks Department.
Copps and Betts Islands are privately owned, as is perhaps the most notorious chunk of rock—Tavern Island. In the 1920s, an infamous entertainer and bootlegger named Billy Rose lived on Tavern and reputedly used the island as a depot for rumrunners.
Chimon (Chimmons), Goose and Sheffield Islands are part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Boaters are allowed on Sheffield Island, but access to Chimon and Goose is prohibited. At 57 acres, Sheffield features a hiking trail and a lighthouse built in 1868 that’s now maintained by the Norwalk Seaport Association. Visitors can access the island via the public dock, which is also used by the Sheffield Island cruise boats. It can be a busy place on weekends, when numerous people come to picnic on the island.
Thanks to their close proximity to the mainland, the Norwalk Islands are very popular among kayakers, many of who launch from Calf Pasture Beach, on the eastern side of Norwalk Harbor. From there it’s a relatively short paddle to the islands. The South Western Regional Planning Agency—a state governmental agency active in the preservation and improvement of the quality of life, the environment and the economy in southwestern Connecticut—has prepared a laminated chart and guide denoting canoe and kayak trails around the Norwalk Islands. The agency also installed informational kiosks at area launch ramps.
The islands are surrounded by extensive oyster beds, which are marked by spindly stakes. Boaters must take care not to anchor in these areas. Oystering once was to Norwalk what whaling was to New Bedford, Massachusetts. It identified the town and was one of its primary industries. Shellfishing declined in the mid-19th century, but has since been making a comeback.
As you enter the Norwalk River, you’ll see Calf Pasture Beach jutting out on the eastern side of the harbor. The 33-acre beach and park is a popular spot among beachgoers and a great launching point for kayakers and other small vessels.
The Norwalk River is roughly 23 nautical miles long, originating from swampland in Ridgefield, Connecticut. From the north the river courses under Interstate 95, the Metro North railroad bridge, past the Maritime Aquarium and under the Stroffolino Bridge—an active drawbridge that connects East Norwalk with South Norwalk—before flowing into Long Island Sound. This wider, lower portion of the river—from the bridge on down—is lined with marinas, yacht clubs, restaurants and shops. The west bank of the river near the bridges is part of the SoNo Historic District.
Throughout the warmer months, there’s generally some kind of celebration going on in Norwalk. Crowds converge for the annual the SoNo Arts Festival in August and the Norwalk in-water boat show and Norwalk Seaport Association Oyster Festival in September.
Boaters can easily access South Norwalk via the Visitors Docks, which is free for stays of up to one hour. For longer stays and overnight, the fee is $1.oo per foot. From the Visitors Docks it’s a short walk across the bridge to SoNo. You can start at the Maritime Aquarium, a former 1860s ironworks factory that was renovated in the 1980s as a state-of-the-art marine educational center. The Aquarium specializes in exhibits about Long Island Sound, features seals and sea turtles.