As you enter Clinton Harbor from Long Island Sound, slipping behind the low-lying crescent of sand called Cedar Island, you’d be forgiven if you thought you had arrived in Block Island, circa 1957. Weathered shacks and docks and a collection of mostly modest power- and sailboats share this protected harbor with shorebirds that thrive in the sprawling salt marsh of Hammonasset State Park. It’s idyllic in that decades-old way in which lingering over a lobster roll and beer while watching the boats go by is a high point of the day.
Though Clinton lacks the urban throb of Milford or the yachting-life flavor of Essex, this little Connecticut town between New Haven and Saybrook holds some happy surprises for the visiting boater. One of these is Cedar Island Marina, a most welcoming place for transients, especially those with families.
The marina offers the usual dockside amenities and services, along with bathrooms, showers, laundry, a large pool and sun deck, a clubhouse, a picnic area, a bocce court, a playground, a hot tub and a small snack bar. There’s also a well-regarded restaurant, Aqua, on the premises, as well as a tackle shop.
On certain summer weekends, the marina hosts live bands around the pool. Parents can catch some rays while their kids participate in supervised arts and crafts projects. Cedar Island Marina even houses its own marine research lab, which employs budding scientists from local colleges who run water-quality tests, grow shellfish for the Department of Agriculture and monitor the presence of invasive Asian crabs, while offering educational programs for camps and schools. The marina provides a shuttle to various local attractions, including Clinton Crossing—a high-end outlet center—and Chamard Vineyards.
Clinton Harbor is really the terminus of the Hammonasset and Indian Rivers, which thrust northward from either end of the harbor. You can rent a kayak or SUP at the secluded Indian River Marina to get a feel for the beauty of the area. The marina also supplies a laminated map indicating a variety of route options. A paddle up the grass-lined Hammonasset will give you a good view of egrets, herons and osprey.
Indeed, it’s easy to get the impression that, save for a few working lobster boats, Clinton is a nature preserve surrounded by marinas. There are, in fact, at least 7 marinas in Clinton, including the town dock, though most are small and several are located up ribbons of water where access is iffy at low tide.
Inside the harbor, weathered cottages line the sandy shoreline of Cedar Island, actually an extension of larger Willard Island. Visitors can take a small boat to the island to explore and enjoy the beach, but be forewarned that the wooded interior is dense with poison ivy. A small town beach and the Old Harbor Marina make up the eastern portion of the harbor.
Adjacent to the town dock is the Lobster Landing, one of the last (and best) authentic lobster shacks in Connecticut, if not the whole Eastern seaboard. Twelve bucks will get you a toasted roll bursting with chunks of lobster drizzled with butter.
Once ashore, it’s an easy one-mile walk to Main Street. There is no “downtown” Clinton in the boutique and bistro sense—only a quiet study in American history. Colonial homes, like the 1630 House used as the Visitor’s Information Center, line the road. In 1701, Yale College commenced classes here, before money was endowed to build a permanent campus in New Haven. And Benjamin Franklin, as emerging postmaster general, placed a milestone on the “Post Road”—now Main Street—in the 1750s.
The mostly municipal Main Street is lined with churches, antiques emporiums, coffee shops, a stately brick town hall and a firehouse. Banners spanning the road and many signs along the sidewalks advertise blood drives, bingo nights, block parties, Coast Guard navigation classes, classical concerts and budget referendums. As if to punctuate the town’s patriotic bent, American flags fly from every telephone pole. You can grab a coffee at Malone’s (housed in a former brick library), a funky café and showcase for local artists, then amble down the street to reflect on the environs from a bench atop the stone Indian River Bridge.
In Clinton’s historic district, it seems as if every structure has a pedigree. The 3 Liberty Green Bed & Breakfast is a renovated Colonial home built in the 1730s and situated on a triangle of grass that was once a Revolutionary War muster field. During the War of 1812, residents of Clinton thwarted British raids on the harbor, and a Navy cannon remains on the green as a reminder.