People don't necessarily think of the greater New Haven are as a beach town—I imagine the label university town is much more widely used—but in the summer, it is. And I don't mean beach town in a snooty, country-club way. New Haven is a beach town the way that many of the towns on the Jersey Shore and Long Island are beach towns: In the summer, the place cranes its neck toward the Long Island Sound, and the skinny stretch of sand in front of the water becomes wonderfully overpopulated. I should admit right here that I am a huge beach person, a trait I inherited from my mother. I am one of those people who could—and does—sit on the beach all day, alternating between reading, napping, taking walks, and watching the water. I've told my parents that staring at and swimming in the ocean is one of the closest things I have to a religion, and I'm only half joking. So after living in New York for years (too far from Brighton Beach and Coney Island to go as often as I wanted to), learning that New Haven had beaches was a revelation. In the seven years that we've lived here, my family and I have split our allegiance between two beaches: the shore of West Haven and Lighthouse Point, in New Haven proper. They are right across the harbor from each other; you can see one very clearly from the other.
Parts of the shore of West Haven are surprisingly untouched for a town beach. A lot of smart things happened in the course of its development, the biggest one being that they kept large areas of the dune intact. (Oceanography 101: If you keep your dune, the beach can replenish itself. Take away the dune and, even worse, build a seawall, and the ocean starts to take away the beach. Which is why so many beach towns end up building a line of jetties along the coast and still have to get the Army Corps of Engineers to dump tons of sand on the shore at the beginning of every summer. Also, the dunes protect the inland from all but the big storms. Build your house behind the dune, and you're reasonably secure. Build your house on it or in front of it, and hey, you take your chances.)
Aside from being smart, the dunes in West Haven give the beach there a real sense of wildness, making the houses huddling along the beach road and the stacks of the water treatment facility rising in the middle distance almost surreal. But in front of Chick's, my favorite fish fry place—because of their lobster rolls, vats of mustard for the french fries, and also their free beach parking—West Haven's beach is a town beach, complete with dozing lifeguards, rioting children, casual swearing, loud reggaeton coming out of tinny speakers, and guys trying to catch blues off the pier and coming up mostly with sea robins. It's great.
Lighthouse Point is in some ways a more civilized place than West Haven's beach. It's a well-maintained park, complete with playground, water park, concession stand, ranger station, multiple bathrooms, a gorgeous old pavilion with an even more gorgeous old carousel inside (people looking to get married in the summer, take note: That pavilion would be a truly awesome place for a party), and, of course, the lighthouse itself. But in other ways, Lighthouse Point is crazier. No matter how crowded West Haven's beach gets—and on Saturday afternoon, it's pretty crowded—it never manages to kick off that sleepy vibe that all great town beaches have. Lighthouse Point isn't a town beach; it's a city beach, bursting with summer camps and the children of multiple extended families running amok, on the sand, in the water, on the swings, across the lawns, all over the rocks. A dozen big barbecues scent the air while multiple large sound systems compete with each other for dominance of the park's groove—hip hop, merengue, reggaeton (again), bachata—and combine in the air. Charles Ives (who studied composition at Yale) would be proud.
Both West Haven and Lighthouse Point have their quiet times. People who like their beaches cold, on the off season, will find what they want at either place. And I'm lucky enough to be able to go on weekdays. But even on the busiest weekend, both parks have their secluded coves and stretches of shore with only a few people, or none at all. The days when I get both are when the religion hits me hardest. One minute there's just the sand and rocks, sea and sky. The next, it's people at their best, playing, relaxing, having fun, just being with each other. It's bliss.