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Niantic: Beaches and Books

This village is full of things to do when you feel like doing nothing.

Niantic, a waterfront village of the town of East Lyme, is lazy in the best sense of the word. While many once-quiet beach communities have been taken over by tackiness and slick commercialism, Niantic remains a relaxing throw-back.

Most attractions are concentrated in a walkable stretch of Main Street (Route 156); others are just a few minutes’ drive away. And it manages, remarkably, to appeal to pretty much everyone: stroll around for a few minutes and you’ll see groups of teenagers, families with small kids, couples, and people enjoying their solitude.

Niantic beaches, like T-shirts, come in small, medium, and large. At the small end is Hole-in-the-Wall Beach, tucked between a stone jetty and a grassy park (more on that below). It is also the Western terminus of the Niantic Bay Boardwalk. The Boardwalk runs parallel to the train tracks, with a view of the Bay and Long Island Sound. A number of benches face the water. You’re fully connected to the outside world here, between the Millstone Power Station and passing Amtrak trains, yet the walkway feels sheltered and calm.

McCook Point Park, of which Hole-in-the-Wall Beach is technically a part, is a roughly 20-acre park with walking trails, picnic tables, a playground, and shady trees. Its high bluff provides a view across the Sound to Orient Point on Long Island. At the bottom of the hill is McCook Point Beach, with a decent-sized swath of white sand and convenient parking lot.

And then there is the expansive Rocky Neck State Park, where hiking trails wind through the salt marsh, and you can grill and picnic by the waterfront beneath a dramatic stone Pavilion. The complex geology of the Park is unavoidable; even the casual observer can’t help but be impressed by the ancient stone outcrops. There are restrooms and a concession building nearby, but the beach itself is unspoiled: just a boardwalk, a curved stretch of smooth sand, and calm blue water meeting blue sky in the distance.

Another uniquely Niantic way to while away your hours is to visit the Book Barn. This used-book store is really three bookstores, at least. There’s the centrally located Book Barn Downtown, where you’ll find classics, cookbooks, and many other categories. Nearby is the Midtown store, which includes, but is certainly not limited to, a children’s room. Up the road is the original location, where books are housed in, yes, a large barn, but also in tents, miniature houses, and other structures that have to be seen to be fully appreciated. While searching for a novel or some nonfiction on any imaginable topic, you’ll find the store’s approachable cats and goats, and scores of other creatures - not living but full of personality nonetheless - planted in the grass or perched up a tree. Kids can roam the property, amusing themselves with unexpected playthings or just discovering the winding paths that lead from guidebooks to thrillers to poetry.

The Book Barn doesn’t only sell used books, they buy them too. For a bag full of titles you’ve outgrown you’ll get cash or credit, and if you can’t spend it all in one visit, you’ll just have to come back another time. Good thing there are other leisurely diversions nearby, to make it worth the trip.

If you go:

Hole-in-the-Wall Beach

Parking lot on Baptist Lane. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, passes (available at the parking lot or the Parks and Recreation Department on Society Road) are required. For more information see this page or call 860-739-5828.

At the time of this writing, the Eastern half of the boardwalk is closed for construction of the railroad bridge. The Western half is open. The Eastern terminus is at Cini Park, under the drawbridge. Although this entrance is currently closed, the parking lot is open, as is the small park with a view of the Bay. From Cini Park a walkway provides a pleasant link to downtown.

McCook Point Park

From Main Street (Route 156) take Columbus Avenue to Atlantic Street to reach the parking lot. Day passes, required between memorial and Labor Day, can be purchased at Hole-in-the-Wall Beach or the town Parks and Recreation Department on Society Road. For details, see this page or call 860-739-5828.

Rocky Neck State Park

Located off Route 156, west of downtown Niantic. Weekends and holidays, residents $13, non-residents $22; after 4pm residents $6, non-residents $7. Weekdays, residents $9, non-residents $15, after 4pm residents $6, non-residents $7. Details can be found here,  or call 860-424-3200 or 866-287-2757.

The Book Barn

Main Barn, 41 West Main Street. Downtown store, 269 Main Street. “Midtown” store, 291 Main Street. Open daily 9am – 9pm. For more information about selling your used books and the different locations, see their website.

Should reading and beach-going leave you with a few hours to spare, there are many other stress-free ways of entertaining yourself in Niantic. The compact downtown area offers a small, independent movie theatre and a variety of authentically beachy restaurants and shops.

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