May 14, 2019
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 one of Niantic’s 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 scenic and protected Niantic River, which flows into the bay, is a busy place in summer, but well worth checking out. To get there, boaters must pass below the railroad liftbridge, which has 17 feet 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/SUP-rental center, and is a great spot from which to launch a paddling excursion. From Three Belles, you can walk or ride to the nearby 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 other migratory birds.
Niantic Names & Numbers
Niantic Bay is wide open with good depths throughout, save for a few well-marked obstacles (e.g., Wigwam Rock, Black Rock and Three-Foot Rock). The entrance to the Niantic River (where the marinas are located) is in the northeast corner of the bay. Boaters must pass below a pair of bridges to enter the river. The railbridge has a vertical clearance of 17 feet MHW when closed, while the highway bridge has a vertical clearance of 32 feet MHW. Horizontal clearance through the inlet is 100′. Once inside the river, follow the well-marked channel closely, as it is bordered by shallow mud flats.
NOTE: When navigating the inlet, be aware that the current can be quite strong, and it is possible to find yourself caught between the two drawbridges, which operate separately. Those new to the river are advised to transit the inlet at slack water or against the tide.
Dockage, Moorings & Service
- Three Belles Marina (860-739-6264): Offers transient slips and moorings, as well as repair, rack storage, pump-out, fuel, launch ramp, WiFi, kayak & SUP rentals and sales, a pool and a deli. Located just north of the bridges in protected Smith Cove, on the west bank of the Niantic River.
- Boats Inc. (860-739-6251): Offers transient dockage and repair/haulout service, rigging, painting, electrical and canvas work, along with a fish-cleaning station, cable TV and a pool and picnic area. Within walking distance of downtown.
- Port Niantic (860-739-2155): Offers 81 slips with 3 reserved for transients. Fuel dock and pumpout. Full-service boatyard and marina with dry-stack storage. Within walking distance of downtown.
- Harbor Hill Marina (860-739-0331): Offers transient dockage for boats up to 42 feet, as well as water, electric, cable TV hook-up and a patio with picnic facilities and grills. Within walking distance of downtown. B&B/inn onsite.
- Niantic Bay Yacht Club (860-739-0558): Tucked into the western side of the bay and protected to the south by a breakwater, NBYC is an informal club that is passionate about supporting sailing and sailboat racing. It offers transient slips and 2 transient moorings.
- Norton’s Auto & Marine Service (860-739-6077): Engine repair, parts, storage.
- Niantic River State Boat Launch: On the Waterford side of the river, past the Rte. 156 bridge. This is a large, concrete ramp with floats that can accommodate large boats. Lots of parking, but can be crowded on summer weekends. Also offers sanitary facilities.
- Grand Street Town Boat Launch: Provides an alternative, especially for kayak and car-top boat launching, to the often crowded Niantic River State Boat Launch. To help you reach Grand Street Boat Launch, some routes leading to this site are posted with the brown and white Long Island Sound Access sign. No fee. On-street parking.
- Boaters can also launch at Three Belles Marina on Smith Cove. Cost is $5 to launch, $5 to haul, and $5 to park. Kayakers can launch for free but must pay to park. The ramp also has a fish-cleaning station nearby.
- A good anchorage for shallow-draft boats is Smith Cove, inside the Niantic River, just south of the Oswagatchie Hills. The cove is located just above town, on the west bank of the river.
- The special anchorage area 1/2-mile south of McCooks Park and Hole in the Wall Beach, and just north of the Niantic Bay Yacht Club, offers good protection from prevailing southwest winds.
- Boaters can also anchor off Oswagatchie Hills, north of Smith Cove, which offers good depth and holding ground.
Things to Do & See
- Niantic Cinema (860-739-6929): A classic small-town cinema right on Main Street that shows new releases.
- Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut (860-691-1111): Offers loads of indoor and outdoor activities for kids who need a break from the water.
- Rocky Neck State Park: Offers camping, hiking, a nice beach and an old pavilion that’s fun to explore.
- McCook Point State Park: Located right in the village, as is Hole in the Wall Beach. Both are pleasant spots to spend the afternoon. To obtain a pass, contact the Parks and Recreation offices (860-739-5828)
- Oswagatchie Hills: Scenic walking trails just off the Niantic River.
- Sunbeam Fleet (860-443-7529): If you’d like to do a little fishing, take a dinner cruise or check out the lighthouses on someone else’s boat, ride the Sunbeam Express or one of her sister ships.