Boating the Thimble Islands
August 15, 2019
The Thimble Life: Stony Creek, CT
Known for its storybook archipelago of pink-granite islands, the low-key Connecticut town of Stony Creek is the perfect place to drop anchor and unwind.
By Malerie Yolen-Cohen • Photography by Caryn B. Davis
When Ayn Rand needed to gather material for The Fountainhead, when President Howard Taft sought a summer home, when circus star Tom Thumb wished to see his lady love, they all came to this slip of Connecticut defined by its outcroppings of exquisite pink-granite islands: Stony Creek. A section of greater Branford, Stony Creek, with a civic-minded population of 1,500, is a cherished destination among many Connecticut boaters, despite the fact that it lacks a privately owned marina or even a true downtown.
Those arriving by land can only experience Stony Creek’s Seuss-like Thimble Islands for a few hours, but boaters can toss the hook in protected gunkholes and watch the singularly beautiful sunrises and sunsets that set these chunks of granite, ranging from several acres to boulder-size, ablaze with color. (Considered the ultimate romantic hideaway for New England sailors, my own parents spent their first “empty nest” weekend here.)
Yes, you’ve arrived by boat, but what exactly are the Thimble Islands? And who lives there? The Sea Mist’s Captain Mike Infantino will tell you. “Captain Mike” takes the curious on 45-minute narrated cruises around the stunning, mauve-colored islands. Named for the thimbleberry plant, the Thimbles comprise over 100 islands of various dimensions, although only 25 of them are inhabited. Some are no bigger than a car, while others are large enough to accommodate 32 houses. President Taft summered on Elton’s Island and, at the height of his popularity, Tom Thumb courted a woman on Cut-In-Two Island. Infantino loves to see children’s reactions to his tales of the pirate Captain Kidd, who supposedly stayed on High Island. A few doubloons were even found here, fueling rumors of buried treasure.
Outer Island Oasis
If you have access to a kayak or stand-up paddleboard, bring it with you. Expert paddlers who have traveled all over the world consider this spit of Connecticut shoreline one of the most scenic, diverse and unusual venues on the planet. While it’s advisable to keep a polite distance from the private islands, there is one that welcomes the public—Outer Island, now part of the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge system. From the end of May through September, visitors arriving at Outer Island by manually propelled vessels (rowboats, kayaks and SUPs) are invited to stay, tour or just share time with shorebirds, sea stars and like-minded travelers. Alternatively, if you’d like to join a kayaking group, sign up for a tour with Connecticut Coastal Kayaking, which supplies everything you’ll need for a 2 ½-hour, four-mile paddle through the Thimbles.
Other than anchoring, there aren’t any options for visiting boaters who wish to keep their boat overnight in Stony Creek, as there are no transient slips or moorings. However, the Stony Creek Boating Association maintains a dock in town where dinghies and skiffs can be tied up for free. Be aware that the water around the dock is only around three feet deep at low tide.
There’s really no “downtown” to Stony Creek, but you’ll find a few art galleries on Main Street, a small museum, a couple of market-type eateries and a library. That’s it, but that’s enough for most folks seeking escape from louder, busier places.
A perfect rainy-day hideout is the Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library, just a block from the town dock. Not only does the library contain examples of both rough-hewn and polished Stony Creek pink granite, but you’re also welcome to settle your tush into a comfy chair and read or catch up on email. There’s a small but wonderful art gallery, and the foyer showcases uniforms from the local 125-year-old (and still performing) fife-and-drum band.
Though open just a few hours a day on weekends in the summer, the Stony Creek Museum welcomes visitors to stop by and view the artifacts, photos and documents from the town’s rich past. You’ll also find a couple of antiques stores within steps of the dock, but the local gift shop, Taken for Granite, is worthy of the mile-long walk from the harbor. Offering great jewelry, home goods and unique gifts, it’s just as notable for its creative displays as it is for its merchandise.
Back near the waterfront, there are two places to grab a bite—and don’t worry about dressing up for either one. Linger long enough at the counter-service Stony Creek Market and Pizza and you might be invited to a Town Hall meeting of some kind. Yes, the market sells food and provisions, but it also serves as a de facto community center. In the morning, moms and babies hold court, while later in the day seniors discuss politics. Residents are friendly and highly engaged in the world, so between bites of freshly made chicken curry salad or pizza, or any of the market’s other scratch-made dishes, spark up a conversation with someone at the next table. It’s the Stony Creek thing to do.
The other dining option is the Thimbleberry Café, which serves creative breakfast dishes, such as the Bear Island (two poached eggs on English muffin with tomato, sautéed spinach and melted cheddar). For lunch, ask for the fresh thyme-infused New England clam chowder, along with one of the café’s terrific sandwiches. Nothing fancy, but all very good.