Summer hits a high point in East Lyme

Weston Smith, 6, of Niantic packs sand in a mold for another tower while his father, Sam, works on making the staircase while they build a castle during the Celebrate East Lyme sand castle competition at Hole in the Wall Beach in Niantic Saturday, July 21, 2018.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Weston Smith, 6, of Niantic packs sand in a mold for another tower while his father, Sam, works on making the staircase while they build a castle during the Celebrate East Lyme sand castle competition at Hole in the Wall Beach in Niantic Saturday, July 21, 2018. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

East Lyme — Saturday’s beautiful weather also meant it was a perfect day to Celebrate East Lyme.

Thousands flocked to Niantic's Main Street to take part in and enjoy the town's 18th annual summer celebration — one that marks the pinnacle of the season for those who live in East Lyme and beckons visitors to enjoy the beauty and serenity of its seaside location.

Lining Main Street were hundreds of food trucks and vendor stands, encouraging passers-by to play games, buy a souvenir or feast on a medley of foods, including everything from corn on the cob to gyros.

While standing under a giant rotating shark, Matthew Martone and his family cheered in delight as the 6-year-old threw red beanbags into a cornhole game to win a free fishing trip from Niantic’s Blackhawk Sport Fishing, a local party boat that takes groups on fishing tours on Long Island Sound.

“East Lyme has always been my happy place and a place the kids enjoy coming to,” said Matthew’s mother, Janet Martone of Garden City, Long Island. She and her family come to Niantic every weekend to spend time at their summer home, she said, as well as to visit her parents who live in town year round. This is their ninth year coming out to Celebrate East Lyme, she said.

“I love seeing the whole village come together,” Martone said. “This really shows what a great town this is."

"It's developed a lot over the years," she said of downtown.

Of those recent developments, East Lyme celebrated the opening of its newest oceanside park Saturday morning. Located at Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street, the park now welcomes visitors driving into downtown Niantic and offers sweeping views of Niantic Bay. The park is just one of many efforts, which have included rebuilding the Niantic Bay Boardwalk in 2016, recent streetscape improvements and a new Bandshell stage at McCook park, to evolve Niantic’s downtown area.

Such developments hadn't escaped Martone's notice.

"I love the boardwalk, that’s my favorite part. The beaches are beautiful and the town is very family-oriented. It’s really a great place to be."

Though many out-of-town food vendors came to the event, there were also dozens of East Lyme-based businesses and groups lining the streets.

At the East Lyme Agriculture tent, curious children and parents stopped to observe chickens, a beehive display case and, earlier in the day, a goat. “He couldn’t stay all day,” laughed Mark Christensen, an East Lyme-based Christmas tree famer, referring to the visiting goat. “I guess it was getting too hot.”

For Christensen, and other farmers in his group, the annual festival provides an opportunity to connect with local residents and visitors about the importance of local farming.

“The animals are certainly a very popular sight here. And we’ve been able to hand out at least 500 brochures so far,” he said.

Not far behind his tent, a live salsa lesson was taking place in front of the Arthur Murray Dance Center. A dozen women, along with two dance instructors, swayed their shoulders and hips to the cadences provided by their teachers. Behind them, an emcee encouraged others passing by to join in.

Watching her two cousins take part in the fun from the sideline was Alzira Ribeiro, a Danbury resident who often comes to visit her daughter who lives in Waterford. Originally from Portugal, Ribeiro said that Celebrate East Lyme reminded her of the festivals that would take place in her native country. Her favorite part of Saturday's event? The food.

“I like the fried dough," she said smiling. "Fried dough is my weakness."

Earlier in the day, as Main Street buzzed with pre-festival excitement, the annual sand-castle-building competition took place at Hole In The Wall beach. Of the half-dozen traditional castles that were built in the nearly two hours allotted, a sea turtle and a dog head also were constructed — more avant-garde renditions, perhaps, of the quintessential sand structure.

Despite already placing second in the competition, East Lyme resident Sam Smith and his son Weston, who was competing for the first time, continued to add to their dragon-inspired castle.

“I asked him what he wanted to do before we started and he said he wanted something with dragons,” Smith said while Weston continued to detail one of the towers built into the dragon-guarded moat.

“You can’t beat this town. It’s the best in Connecticut. What other town has a state beach, its own town beach, another beach, another beach, and a huge park?" he continued. "It’s good times. You don’t see this in a lot of towns. They keep it small and that’s how it should be.”

m.biekert@theday.com

From left, Matthew Martone, 7, his brother, Chase, 9, and their mother, Janet, all of Long Island, N.Y., and Ryan Dubrule of Blackhawk Sport Fishing in Niantic, react after Matthew tossed a beanbag in the hole of the cornhole game to win a free fishing trip with Blackhawk during Celebrate East Lyme on Saturday, July 21, 2018.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
From left, Matthew Martone, 7, his brother, Chase, 9, and their mother, Janet, all of Long Island, N.Y., and Ryan Dubrule of Blackhawk Sport Fishing in Niantic, react after Matthew tossed a beanbag in the hole of the cornhole game to win a free fishing trip with Blackhawk during Celebrate East Lyme on Saturday, July 21, 2018. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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