NORWALK, Conn. – To people who live here full time, Norwalk may not be an obvious summer vacation hot spot. But attractions, beaches and proximity to New York City all make Fairfield County an attractive destination for others.
"It's absolutely a place people come to visit in the summer," said Janet Serra, executive director of the Western Connecticut Convention and Visitor Bureau, which promotes tourism in Fairfield County and Litchfield Hills. "What's interesting to me is, with Fairfield County, we get to promote hills, lakes and coast."
Of the two regions that make up the Western bureau, Serra said Fairfield County is probably the most attractive summertime destination. Litchfield Hills sees more visitors in the fall, she said.
The biggest attractions in Fairfield County are the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk and the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Serra said. Other big draws include Norwalk's Sheffield Island, Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, SoundWaters in Stamford, the Philip Johnson Glass House in New Canaan and the Stamford Museum & Nature Center.
Felix and Julie Wamburu of Milford, Ma., spent Monday through Wednesday visiting Norwalk for the first time, more or less by chance. Julie found the "surprise vacation" through Groupon, and the couple thought they'd have a "last vacation" before their baby girl arrives in the fall, Felix said.
They went to the Maritime Aquarium, the beach, shopping center and Greenwich. "I would definitely come back," Felix said.
Connecticut's major tourism market is from within the tri-state area, Serra said, and Fairfield County's greatest strength is its accessibility.
"It's so easy to get to Fairfield County by train, and the towns are generally walkable," she said. "Norwalk, for example, is very walkable, so in many cases, people can just get out off the train and walk around. It's harder to do that in other parts of the state."
Although it's difficult to track numbers of tourists coming and going, Serra said that last year, the Fairfield County tourism website had the most page visits of any regional website, including Mystic Country.
So far this year, Serra said there's a 15 percent to 20 percent increase in website activity and inquiries. "Since Fairfield County is such an important part of Connecticut tourism, we're certainly delighted by this increase," she said.
Day trippers aren't the only ones attracted to the area. Vera Ruud, a senior agent at William Pitt Sotheby's International Realty in Westport, said the availability of summer vacation homes throughout the region draws longer term visitors.
Coastal towns with beach access are the most popular rental destinations. Westport and Fairfield in particular, Ruud said, are historically popular. In Westport, about 35 homes have been rented for the season so far.
"I think people like to be here versus a place like the Hamptons because there's more for families to do," she said. "Here in Westport, there's a lot of resources available for small children, like the library and a variety of summer camps. Plus, we have the Levitt Pavilion and Longshore."