Niantic Bay is an ideal, if somewhat overlooked, boating destination—broad, wide open to Long Island Sound and relatively free of navigational hazards. This village, part of the larger town of East Lyme, is protected to the west by Black Point, home to elegant houses that harken back to a time when wealthy New Yorkers traveled by ferry from Hartford and New Haven to enjoy summer on the Sound.
To the east, the bay is bordered by Millstone Point and its eponymous nuclear power plant, built on the site of a former granite quarry that provided material for the base of the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station and other New York City landmarks.
Railroad tracks dating back to the mid-1800s separate the village from the waterfront, giving rail passengers a spectacular view, but effectively creating a barrier to the waterfront. Over the years, tunnels and bridges were dug and built to allow access from Main Street to the water, which is how Hole in the Wall Beach got its name. Just to the west is McCook Point Park, a grassy point with fantastic views of the water, and popular McCook Beach.
In the 1990s, the town decided to further improve waterfront access and, with the electrification of the rail lines, made an agreement with the railroad to build a mile-long boardwalk along the waterfront. The scenic walk along the bay stretches from Hole in the Wall Beach to (and under) the railroad drawbridge at the other end of Main Street, offering a superb way to not only take in the sights but also to walk off a meal from any of Niantic’s many eateries, which include fried-fish stands, delis, natural-food markets and high-end restaurants.
Hole in the Wall Beach is one of those places you might never know existed in Niantic, unless you came by boat. In the summertime, boaters can anchor off the beach and swim or wade to shore. From there it’s a short walk under the tracks to Niantic’s Main Street.
Visitors must buy a pass from the Parks and Recreation office to spend time on the beach or at McCook Point Park, but both spots are well worth the price of admission.
The Niantic River, which flows into the bay, is a busy place in summer, but well worth checking out in a boat. To get there, boaters must pass below the railroad liftbridge, which has 16′ of vertical clearance at mean high water. Just past the inlet are several marinas, a day-fishing and expedition boat, a public launch ramp and a number of other waterfront establishments. The channel is deep and well-marked, but it winds initially, so pay attention to the markers. Port Niantic and Boats Inc., on the Niantic side of the river, accept transients and are a short walk from Main Street and its boutiques, classic movie theater, cute inns, beaches, boardwalk, children’s museum and more.
About a mile upriver and just south of the Oswegatchie Hills is lovely Smith Cove, home to the friendly, full-service Three Belles Marina. Three Belles welcomes transients, and it’s a great spot for boaters looking for a quiet retreat. It also has a launch ramp and kayak-rental center, and is a great spot from which to launch a paddling excursion. From Three Belles you can walk or ride to the Oswegatchie Hills preserve. Some of this property is owned by the town, and locals are working to preserve the rest of the land, where the Nehantic tribe is believed to have spent their summers before the area was colonized by Europeans.
Just west of town is Rocky Neck State Park, which offers a great beach and an imposing Depression-era pavilion overlooking the Sound. A lawn, dotted with grills and picnic tables, stretches from the pavilion to the waterfront. Here you’ll see fishermen casting into the Sound and kayakers approaching the Four Mile River on the park’s west side. Set around Bride Brook, the park encompasses an old quarry and a former dairy farm. Many families camp at Bride Brook for the weekend and hike its trails, which wind through salt marshes and afford glimpses of osprey, snowy egrets, herons and migratory birds.