Imagine walking to a island. You can do this twice a day to Charles Island, a small island in Connecticut. A twice daily phenomenon, a tombolo, allows access from a state park. But time your visit well!
Free in Connecticut – an island walk
Off the shore of a small New England city sits a little island with a storied history that’s filled with the makings of a thrilling movie – pirates, buried treasure and even curses.
But beyond that, Charles Island in Milford, Connecticut, is a fascinating place where birds nest and visitors flock to. The lush greenery of Charles Island forms a crescent on the water in summertime, practically inviting beach goers to walk to its sandy, reedy and sometimes rocky shores. Perhaps that’s why whenever the water is warm, the area between the beach and the island is flooded with people of all ages.
And yes, I said walk to the island.
This 14-acre island is located about a half-mile off the shore. At low tide, twice every day, it can be reached by foot via a tombolo – a rocky sandbar-like formation that is only visible when the water recedes. Visitors begin their walk at Silver Sands State Park, a public beach. But as locals well know, that walk must be well-planned and timed.
Caution and planning are absolutely key when visiting the island. This isn’t something to do on a whim, but rather to research (when is low tide?) and prepare for. With a window of only about two hours where the tombolo is fully accessible, many a visitor has discovered just how strong the tidal currents get once the water begins to cover it as the tide comes in. On one journey as a teenager, I thought flip-flops would work fine – until the straps snapped in the current.
Still, the allure of the island is strong. On warm, blue-skied days, the island is surrounded with boats and people stream onto its shores. Sitting on the beach at Silver Sands, the island looms large and beckoning. Signs, warning of the tidal changes and current, are often ignored.
But the island is more than just a curiosity with its unusual proximity and connection to the mainland. Captain William Kidd, the infamous pirate who was hung –twice, actually – in 1701, is known to have stopped in Milford during his last voyage as a free man. Modern scholars say that Kidd wasn’t really a pirate but a privateer who was wrongfully convicted, but that doesn’t quiet the legends that Kidd buried his vast treasure on the island while passing through the Long Island Sound town on his way to Boston. Many a metal detector has beeped its way across the island, in hopes of finding the riches – though no one ever has.
Besides its pirating history, Charles Island is also said to be a cursed land that cannot be inhabited for long – and history seems to underline the point. In its earliest known history, it was inhabited as a summer home by the Paugusset Tribe of Native Americans. Somehow in the 17th century, the island, then called Poquahoag, along with the mainland that now forms Milford, became the property of European settlers. It was later renamed for onetime owner Charles Deal, who wanted to create a tobacco plantation there. That never came to fruition. Since then, it’s housed a private home, a resort, a monk’s retreat, a fish fertilizer company and now a bird sanctuary. In the 1960s there was even talk of creating a power plant there – but plans failed.
The curses – and there are many – are said to come from the Paugussets who were angered when the Europeans took control of the island, as well as Kidd who swore no one but him could touch his treasure there. Other sailors are said to have brought more bad luck as well.
Campers who’ve stayed overnight on the island’s shores tell stories of voices, mysterious lights and other strange occurrences – though it is likely more hype than substance. But just in case, you should probably keep a watchful eye on the tide so you don’t accidentally find yourself overnighting on the island.
Charles Island, located off the shore of Silver Sands State Park. Park Way, Milford, CT