It helps to worry less about arbitrary rules, like when and how a thing is to be enjoyed. I did not bring an umbrella or beach body. I did not have to scramble to find space in the sand, nor did I pay for parking or admission. Maybe I even wore some white after Labor Day.
New London is hardly a ghost town outside of summer. The amusement park rides have been closed for a few weeks now, but that’s not what I came for. On a nature trail between Long Island Sound and Alewife Cove, I spot the first of several cats roaming the park. Each one — whether in the parking lot or crossing the mini golf course — stops in its tracks to give me a look of annoyance for interfering with the hunt.
While intersections tangle and detangle in late afternoon, volleyball games are being played in the sand. Young families fly kites in Ocean Beach Park. A toddler, oblivious to everyone else, zigzags his balance bike up and down and across the boardwalk. Early autumn, and there are people sunbathing. Kids still run at the small waves. An elderly couple ambles just at the edge of the no trespassing zone. Let someone go ahead and tell them they’re flirting with danger.
Consider yourself lucky to know someone in the place you will be wandering for the day. This is how I learned that Ocean Beach Park, unlike what its website seems to indicate, is actually open year-round; it’s just the touristy aspects limited to the faux summer season of Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Later, I would see some language on the site clarifying that the beach remains open; fortunately, I also missed the endless list of rules.
Before this descent into unintentional rule-breaking, my trips to New London felt limited to Bank Street area. Not that those visits left much to complain about. There is public art in every direction, including a mural of Prince. How can you not love a place that has Prince on the side of a building?
Whale imagery is everywhere, from murals to the plaques on homes over fifty years. This is not a place having an identity crisis. There is art and the sea, and if you don’t like one of those two things, then maybe it’s best to move it along.
On this day, Muddy Waters Cafe is closed by the time I arrive, yet all is not lost. The friend with whom I’m meeting knows of another place on a side street I might not have found by myself. There’s no view of the Thames River, but they have iced tea and sandwiches. We take our orders to go and sit in the plaza near the whale tail fountain. It’s simple and hypnotic.
The unchaotic busyness of the area is momentarily interrupted by some event that brings out every cop in town, a firetruck, and finally, an ambulance. Whatever it is, no crowd gathers to add tension to the situation. Cutting through New London Union Station, the waiting area feels calm. It’s where if you had to be stuck waiting hours for a train, you would opt to spend that time here.
Part of the appeal of New London is that as nice as it is to visit, it’s connected to other places by bus, train, and ferry. It’s easy to take this kind of access for granted if you are not from somewhere that feels isolated and landlocked. There is no direct public transit from Hartford to New London, but once you’re there, you can keep on moving to Long Island, Fishers Island, or Block Island; you can even do this by chartering a hovercraft. Or, you can leave town more-or-less in the meandering direction from whence you came.