Silver Sands

Hikers walk the perimeter of Charles Island, which can be reache don foot from Silver Sands State Park at low tie - but not until September, when it reopens after bird nesting season. (MICHAEL KODAS / HARTFORD COURANT / June 24, 2008)

Now more than ever, we need a break — an occasional respite from our everyday lives. Yes, a "daycation" — a day spent away from the office or job site, and away from chores, just to relax and play. Once again this summer, we are taking one day a week to suggest a nearby escape. Enjoy!

Frankly, we never thought of Milford as much more than a small city and a stop along I-95. We certainly didn't think of it as a beach mecca.

But with a free day, we wanted to go beyond the usual Connecticut beach destinations — Hammonasset and Rocky Neck state parks. A colleague remembered going to the beach in Milford as a child.

We looked at the map and had our doubts. Halfway between New Haven and Bridgeport, Milford seems an unlikely spot for an attractive beach.

But from the moment we arrived at Silver Sands State Park, we were in for surprises. First of all, it was free. Yes, FREE. In a state where public beaches are scant and usually charge significant parking fees ($10 for a weekend day at Hammonasset and Rocky Neck), we almost couldn't believe we weren't greeted by a parking attendant at Silver Sands.

Instead, we found a lovely, long boardwalk crossing a reedy marsh teeming with birds. As we walked along the boardwalk, an impressively broad and long swath of beach opened before us. Work-a-day concerns fell away, as did our doubts about Milford. We expected the beach might have skyscrapers hovering nearby, but any signs of cities were too far off in the distance to notice. The beach was all sand, sky and Sound, with a bonus point of interest just offshore: Charles Island.

We had heard a bit about Charles Island — that at low tide, beachgoers can walk to it along what most call a sandbar but is actually a "tombolo": a spit that connects an island to shore. We had also read a bit about its history: that when the English settled Milford in 1639, it was called Milford Island but became known as Charles Island after Charles Deal bought it in 1657 and tried unsuccessfully to grow tobacco on it.

There is also speculation that Capt. William Kidd may have buried treasure on the island and cursed anyone who tried to dig it up. A Catholic religious retreat was opened on the island in the 1930s but closed. Its ruins remain.

All of this made the thought of exploring the island intriguing, but alas, it's closed to hikers this time of year because of nesting season for the herons and egrets. It will reopen in September.

(Should we return to hike the island, we also learned it is very important to pay attention to the tide schedule and set out an hour or two before dead-low tide. We were advised to start back from the island no later than dead-low tide and to bring a cellphone in case we somehow got stuck out there — as apparently happens a few times every year.)

With the day fairly chilly, we opted not to dive into the Sound but instead sat on the beach, absorbed the saltwater scene and watched some windsurfers.

Then, with hunger gnawing, we made our way into the center of Milford, where once again we were pleasantly surprised.

The town has a picturesque green and lots of shops and restaurants. We were directed down a hill to the harbor area, where Cancun Charlie's and a sign that says Panini Grill beckoned, along with an adorable ice-cream shop called Scooby Doo featuring original flavors such as Quicksand, which is vanilla ice cream with caramel swirl and Butterfinger pieces.

However, as we solicited ideas about where to eat, many directed us back up the hill to a restaurant called Rainbow Gardens on the green — apparently a favorite with women especially. I had crab and lobster salad, while my friend had a salad with chicken and fruit. They were delicious.

By this time, the weather was deteriorating, and we had one more outdoor stop we wanted to make: the Connecticut Audubon Coastal Center at Milford Point.

When we called for directions, the receptionist told us we'd probably get lost and to call back if we did. Indeed, it's a bit of a long and winding road to the center, and the sign at the end of its driveway was partly obscured by overgrown greenery. But we found it, and it was worth it.

Located on a barrier beach next to an 840-acre salt marsh at the mouth of the Housatonic River, the surrounding habitat abounds with a variety of birds, plants and animal life.

Inside the center, we could look out on an osprey's nest and watch the babies up close by way of a video camera trained on them.

As you look out in the marsh, you can refer to flip charts that help you identify such birds as a ruddy turnstone or a belted kingfisher or a laughing gull. A chart kept of bird sightings shows that swans, mallards and egrets were seen recently.

Back outside, we climbed a 70-foot tower that affords a commanding of view of the marsh and beach, as well as of Bridgeport, Stratford and Long Island. It's hard to believe that so much wildlife thrives so near urban centers.

By now, it was raining, and time to start our return trip. As we were leaving, a staff member told us a bit about the special programs there which include post-nesting season September tours of Charles Island. She told us to check the website for information about dates.

As we got back on I-95 east, we realized we would think differently about Milford when we passed it on the highway. And we'll come back again — hopefully for a tour of Charles Island.

For more information about Silver Sands State Park, Google the name of the park, or go to www.ct.gov/dep and then go to "outdoor recreation" and then "state parks and forests."

For more information about the Connecticut Audubon Society Coastal Center at Milford Point, check www.ctaudubon.org/visit/milford.htm.

Contact Kathleen Megan at kathy.megan@courant.com.

For a complete guide to past

"daycations" around the region, visit www.courant.com/daycation.

To see video of a 'daycation' at Silver Sands State Park in Milford, visit www.courant.com/silversands