Norwalk Seaport Association has strong ties to area happenings
By Kim Knox Beckius
As you might expect of a suburban city merely an hour from Manhattan by car or train, Norwalk has hip hotels, a vibrant arts scene and destination restaurants helmed by some of Connecticut's top chefs. This once industrial shoreline town has a surprising side, though—one that's a source of deep-rooted community pride. Discover why you should make Norwalk your launch pad for an island escape this summer.
Not just for the birds
Migratory birds don't have GPS apps, yet thousands of ospreys, egrets, herons, terns, gulls, cormorants, American oystercatchers and piping plovers instinctively fly to the Norwalk Islands each spring to nest. Humans, however—even many lifelong Connecticut residents—are less acquainted with this chain of more than two dozen islands just about a mile from Norwalk's shore. Encouraging more people to explore, cherish and protect these unspoiled wildlife habitats is a key aim of the Norwalk Seaport Association, a non-profit founded in 1978 to own and operate the Sheffield Lighthouse, revitalize the city's waterfront, and foster public awareness of Norwalk's maritime heritage and environmental riches.
Imagine: You wake up in the concrete jungle, the sounds of car horns and sirens reverberating in your head. Or in your quiet town, with nothing more exciting than mowing the lawn on your weekend agenda. The Norwalk Seaport Association offers a solution right at your fingertips—ferry tickets will rescue you from urban chaos, or worse: boredom.
Pack a picnic and hop a train to South Norwalk station: Sheffield Island Dock is about a 10-minute, half-mile walk away. Or, set your GPS for 4 North Water Street in Norwalk, where you'll find easy parking in the Maritime Garage, across the street from The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk—one of the Northeast's best family attractions. Before you know it, you'll aboard your getaway vessel: the 49-passenger C.J. Toth catamaran. Enjoy the view on your way to Sheffield Island.
So much beauty, so close to civilization
The Norwalk Seaport Association owns Sheffield Island Lighthouse and the acreage surrounding it on this emerald jewel. Cool, salt-scented breezes invigorate your senses, as you first cruise past its sibling islands. They're tiny compared to, say, 7,000-acre Block Island, but they are not just rocky outcroppings in the bowl of gently churning blue water that is Long Island Sound. Sheffield is the westernmost outpost, and, at 52 acres, one of the chain's largest islands.
Colorful stories of pirates, rumrunners and more local history—including Norwalk's enduring oyster industry—make the 40-minute excursion fly by. Isn’t this better than car horns and lawnmowers? You'll also learn that some of these islands are incorporated within the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge.
As the stone lighthouse that has stood guard on Sheffield Island since 1868 comes into view, you'll feel a world away from life's pressures. Guided tours of this maritime landmark are a highlight for island first-timers. Feel whisked back to a day when lighthouses played a critical role in keeping sailors safe when you see the 19th-century furnishings in the lighthouse; hear fascinating tales of lighthouse keepers' devotion to duty and their lives on this remote patch of land.
Journey and destination
You'll have about 90 minutes on this magical island. Will you picnic and poke around on the beach, searching for unusual shells? Or walk the signed Nature Trail, keeping your eyes peeled for wild birds and animals? The Norwalk Seaport Association's small staff and legions of volunteers have worked tirelessly, in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to combat invasive species and restore habitat for the shorebirds that use Sheffield Island as a nesting, feeding and resting stop along the Atlantic Flyway. Join Master Wildlife Conservationist Larry Flynn for early morning bird watching trips on select dates. He'll show you where the chicks are hatching; it's like stepping right into a show on Animal Planet.
In addition to daily daytime trips during peak summer months, there's an enticing schedule of specialty cruises and on-island events throughout the Sheffield Island season, which runs from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day. Wednesdays are Acoustic Nights: Live music makes time on the water even more relaxing. For the ultimate treat, reserve your spot at a Thursday Evening Clambake. There's nothing more New England than feasting on clams, lobster (or your choice of several other entrees) and all of the fixings on a lighthouse's lawn. Sunset Harbor Cruises on Fridays relieve work-week stress. Check the Norwalk Seaport Association's calendar for popular events including barbecues and Pirate Weekend, a family favorite. And, if stories of phantom foghorn sounds and chilling cries for help intrigue you, you'll want to brave the island in August during the annual Haunted Lighthouse Weekend.
Two festive days with a big, big purpose
Each ferry boat fare supports the Norwalk Seaport Association's environmental preservation and education efforts. But the organization's most successful fundraiser takes place the weekend after ferry service ends—September 10 and 11 in 2016—when Norwalk's Veteran's Park becomes Connecticut's coolest place to be. The annual Oyster Festival—a 39-year-old tradition—is a food fiesta featuring oysters galore and so much more. From carnival rides to more than 100 crafters, a lumberjack show to this year's headliner—Connecticut native Sawyer Fredericks, 2015 winner of NBC's The Voice—activities abound for all ages. As you're admiring handcrafted nautical jewelry or sipping craft beer, notice how many local organizations have a presence at the city's signature event. These two days enrich many Norwalk nonprofits that provide vital services throughout the year.
The oyster slurping competition may make you ponder: "How much do I really know about oysters?" Connecticut's official state shellfish isn't cute or cuddly. But these hardworking filter feeders, cultivated in Norwalk since the 1800s, pump 50 to 100 gallons of water a day, purifying Long Island Sound in the process. Each mollusk's efforts matter. And your actions make a difference, too. Luckily, the Norwalk Seaport Association makes environmental stewardship remarkably fun.
Discover more about Sheffield Island and plan your Norwalk getaway.