Harkness has been my favourite Connecticut Beach for some years now. It's located along the southeast shoreline, which makes it a drive from most of the rest of the state, but it's worth it. Just south of New London in Waterford, and on the west bank of the Thames River, Harkness escapes -- barely -- subjecting its visitors to the traffic nightmares that can sour a visit to nearby Mystic or the Native-run casinos Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun. (Unless you're coming from Rhode Island, in which case why would you be going to a CT beach anyway?)
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You won't find a long, broad swath of sand broken only by the countless blankets and bodies of sunbathers (each with their private boom box adding to the noise of talking couples and playing children) here. The beach at Harkness is relatively small, best suited for strolls or wading, which is what most beach visitors seem to do. The waves, small as any Connecticut beaches' due to the protection Long Island affords the sound, lap as gently as the wind-driven waves of a lake, unless there's a storm out on the water. Rather than other public beaches or private homes, Harkness's strand is bordered on one side by a camp for special-needs children and on the other by a wildlife sanctuary, over which herons and other waterfowl can sometimes be seen flying; all this lends the beach itself an air of quiet solitude.
But the waterside is not the only attraction at Harkness. Far from it, the park also features dunes thick with beach grass (which visitors are admonished to stay off of, lest they like so many of Connecticut's dune habitats erode away); an enormous grassy field on which families frequently fly kites, toss frisbees and play other games, or simply sit and eat a picnic lunch; and a meticulously restored set of buildings which were once home to the Harkness family before the last surviving member willed their lands to the state. (Part of this land was used to create the camp and sanctuary mentioned above.) The mansion and outbuildings are of both artistic and historical interest, and worth the tour. There is also an outdoor chapel, consisting only of a brick floor, simple benches and an altar/lectern, which overlooks the Sound and is a favourite and romantic spot for weddings.
Each summer the park also hosts a series of concerts, particularly of old-time jazz, which can often draw much bigger crowds than the park's usual. Details of dates and performers change annually, and visitors are advised to call ahead in order to catch (or avoid) the music.
The park is open year-round from 8:00 A.M. until sunset, and in the off-season cold months, parking is often free; in summer, expect to pay a nominal fee.
With its peaceful setting and unique attractions, Harkness remains a favourite beach for me to visit, no matter what the season.
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