August 21, 2001 -- OK, if you tell
your friends you're spending a
couple days' vacation knocking
around New London, Conn., they
probably won't turn green with
After all, to most people this city of
about 60,000 is just another
signpost on I-95, a benchmark on
the way to Mystic Seaport, the
casinos at Foxwoods, or a
stopover before heading to the
Hamptons by ferry.
The trick lies in telling your friends that you have
discovered a sleeper destination, where a genuinely retro
mini-golf lies five feet from the beach, where an art deco
theater screens classic movies and where the natural beauty
of the seashore blends with a gritty urban setting.
Truly a sheep in wolf's clothing, New London may appear
down at the heels at first glance, but things are looking up.
The pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, just built its research
headquarters in this port city, turning polluted brown fields
into a spiffy modern complex of buildings.
Downtown, there's a renaissance of another sort, this one
artistic. Art galleries are popping up on both sides of the
city center, and there's an experimental theater, Secret
Theatre, staging shows on the weekends.
Music or movies can be seen year-round at the Garde Arts
Center, a completely restored art deco theater. Next door
is an excellent and very affordable Thai restaurant,
What's great about downtown New London is the
While other cities let loose with the wrecking ball back in
the '70s, most of the blocks in this city seem almost frozen
in earlier eras, with plenty of brick, granite and clapboards
Union Railroad Station alone is a terrific example. It's a
cool, massive brick building with a Romanesque arched
entry and eyebrow gables.
Of course, like many small cities in New England, some of
the storefronts are empty.
The old Crocker House on State Street was once a hotel
that welcomed celebrated guests such as Charles Dickens
and Eugene O'Neill's actor father, James. With its beautiful
curved glass window and ornate copper trim, it seems ripe
for a new tenant.
New London may not be for the faint-hearted, but for
anyone who likes exploring, the sidestreets hold treasures.
Right off State Street, for example, is the Dutch Tavern, a
homey joint where the burgers are tasty and patrons are
Yes, New London's most famous writer, playwright
Eugene O'Neill, hung out here, but he wasn't too particular
as long as the alcohol was flowing.
The place has character, small wooden tables worn smooth
by decades of elbows and beer glasses rubbing their tops.
Turn right outside and you'll stumble onto Antique Radio &
Television, a veritable museum of gorgeous specimens -
Philcos cased in wood, and all manner of radios large and
The place is a blast for kids age 8 and up, especially if
owner William Morse lets them try their hand at a
contraption used to test those old tubes.
Nature is never too far away. Just outside town is the
Connecticut Arboretum with excellent walking trails. South
of the city center is Ocean Beach Park where the
Long Island Sound, in all its splendor, beckons hundreds of
beach-goers, who come for the volleyball, the saltwater
and the view.
All the amenities are right there, too - ice cream, beer,
game rooms and showers.
This is also the place for mini-golf, where hole No. 7 is a
plaster whale that spouts water. You're so close to the
beach here, that water might just be the real thing.
Finally, if you work up an appetite, the place to go in warm
weather is Fred's Shanty on Pequot Avenue, for footlong
hot dogs or fried clams.
The place sits on the shore of the Thames River just before
it empties into the Sound. Sailboats and ferry boats ply the
water and so does the occasional submarine - they build
'em right across the river in Groton.
* New London is about a 21/2-hour drive east of New
York City on I-95. It is also accessible via Amtrak. Tourist
information: (800) 863-6569, www.mysticmore.com.