The bascule railroad bridge over the Connecticut River lies just south of the Old Lyme Dock Co. shown in the foreground Photo by Caryn B. Davis

The 27 square miles of Old Lyme occupy a triangle of land, water and a marshy bit of both at the mouth of the Connecticut River. A thriving art colony and birdwatching paradise (Roger Tory Peterson once lived in Old Lyme) inlaid with gentle rivers, the town is a peaceful boater’s haven. On hazy summer days, the coastal landscape of the lower Connecticut looks like the tableau of an impressionist painting. And that’s appropriate, as Old Lyme is considered the birthplace of American Impressionism.

Old Lyme Chart

On days ashore, curious visitors can learn about this aspect of local history on a visit to the Florence Griswold Museum—Old Lyme’s premier attraction. In the early 1900s, Griswold, alone at age 50, faced a challenge that spurred many women to greatness.

SAT map

Destitute and in danger of losing the home that had been in her family since it was built in 1817, she opened it up as a boarding house for artists drawn to the brilliance and clarity of light in Old Lyme (they called it “Lyme light”). Childe Hassam, Henry Ward Ranger and dozens more moved in, and they painted on everything in sight, including Griswold’s cupboards and doors.

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Florence Griswold’s boarders spurred a quiet revolution in Old Lyme. The artists needed a place to show their work, so members of the newly established Lyme Art Association built a gallery next door that opened in 1921. A weathered New England structure on the outside, it’s still a marvel of sky-lit rooms where impressionist art can be shown to great effect. These days, the association ensures that the shows and programs continue to change and evolve. Down the street, around 200 students from all over the world attend the accredited Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts, which was established in 1976 in the basement of the Lyme Art Association building.

The Florence Griswold Museum’s gardens and art gallery make it a major Old Lyme attraction. Photo by Caryn B. Davis

The Florence Griswold House is but one structure on a 13-acre campus that also encompasses the Kreible Gallery, a striking silver building that grandly displays the Hartford Steam Boiler Collection of American Art. There’s also a restored “grandmother’s garden” that figures prominently in turn-of-the-last-century paintings and a studio building where each visitor is handed a pallete with oils, a small canvas, a brush and a smock and instructed to “go to the river and paint.” You can easily spend all day at this one museum, and, with galleries, a guided house tour and a take-home oil painting included, it’s one of the best bargains in the Northeast at $7 (kids get in free).

Beachgoers gather at the bustling edge of Long Island Sound at Sound View. Photo by Caryn B. Davis

Across the street from the Griswold House is the Old Lyme Inn—a live-in art museum of sorts, with spacious antiques-filled rooms and a library redolent of fine cigars. Here one can dine by candlelight amid impressionist oils from the turn of the last century, on sale for tens of thousands of dollars.

Visitors arriving by boat will get to see all that Old Lyme offers, and there are 3 marinas from which to choose. (The Old Saybook side of the river also hosts several large marinas.)

The small Old Lyme Dock Company, run by Dave Peterson, is the first Old Lyme marina you’ll encounter as you make your way up the Connecticut River from the Sound. The marina is located between the Saybrook Railroad Bridge and Interstate 95, about 3 miles from the Sound. With only 25 slips, 2 moorings and no repair facilities, the Old Lyme Dock Company was once a private landing for car-dealership mogul Herb Chambers. In the early 1980s, Chambers offered to lease the boatyard to Peterson, who would run it as a privately owned marina. The place may be small, but it’s hopping during the summer, especially its fuel dock, which offers discounted sales.

A catboat in the foreground and Old Saybrook’s inner lighthouse in the background bracket the marshes off Smith Neck. Photo by Caryn B. Davis

Opposite the marina, at the base of the I-95 overpass, is the Baldwin Bridge state launch ramp. This ramp offers excellent big-boat access to the lower river and the Sound, as well as ample parking.
Just north of the I-95 bridge, in the shelter of Calves Island, is the Old Lyme Marina, which offers full service with 25 slips, 65 moorings, haulout and repair facilities. Transient moorings and slips are available.

The third Old Lyme marina—the Black Hall Marina—is located up the shallow Black Hall River. This marina is best suited for boats under 25 feet. It’s also a great place to launch (for a fee), or rent a kayak or PWC for the day.

The smell of fresh baked goods lures families summering at Sound View to the Beach Donut Shop. Photo by Caryn B. Davis

Most of the small inner rivers in Old Lyme offer limited access at low tide (some are only a foot or two deep), which makes them perfect for small skiffs or kayaks, but not for cruising boats. Better to dock or pick up a mooring on the Connecticut River and rent or bring along a self-powered vessel to explore the backwaters.

One of these is the Lieutenant River, the mouth of which is located just south of the railroad bridge. As you wind deeper into the marshes, the towering reeds might make you feel as if you had somehow been transported to the Everglades. Birds are everywhere: egrets, herons, cormorants and terns. They vanish and reappear, dipping and diving for food. Dozens of osprey nests dot the landscape.

It’s easy to see why Old Lyme’s Smith Neck is a hit with birders. Photo by Caryn B. Davis

Given all this birdlife, it’s no mystery why Roger Tory Peterson settled in Old Lyme. After his death in 1996, Great Island was renamed the Roger Tory Peterson Wildlife Area. In order to preserve the habitat and not disturb the birds, landing in the area is prohibited, but you can still see plenty of wildlife from a small boat, kayak or canoe. Small-boaters can follow the Lieutenant River Cut south to the Back River, and then on to the Sound.

Older maps and charts of the area often show a piece of land just south of Great Island at the mouth of the Connecticut River called Griswold Point. Boaters used to be able to run out the Black Hall River and hug Great Island to the Sound, but that part of Griswold Point washed away a few years ago. Now there’s no clear or marked channel, so use caution.

Summer homes crowd the shore of Long Island Sound at Hawk’s Nest Beach. Photo by Caryn B. Davis

Once in the open Sound, boaters will get to experience a different side of Old Lyme. As you run east along the Old Lyme beaches on Long Island Sound, you’ll pass rows of genteel homes along Griswold Point Road, followed by the serene Old Lyme Beach Club. Hawks Nest—an array of rental homes right on the sand—is next, followed by Sound View Beach.

Sound View looks a bit like the Jersey Shore, with suntanned bodies and colorful umbrellas dotting the sand, not to mention a rocking beach bar called the Pavilion. On shore, this part of Old Lyme boasts narrow streets lined with small homes flying American flags, T-shirt shops, pizza joints and the Pavilion nightclub on the beach. In the morning, the sidewalks fill with kids riding bikes while parents wait in line at the Beach Donut Shop.

Ken Dorros of Glastonbury, Connecticut, paints during a workshop on the grounds of the Florence Griswold Museum. Photo by Caryn B. Davis
Benches outside the Old Lyme Ice Cream Shoppe & Cafe invite passers-by to stop and cool off on a warm summer day. Photo by Caryn B. Davis