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AAA World Article

Connecticut’s Coastal pearl

A quaint waterfront. Fascinating history. Inviting shops and restaurants. There’s no mystery why Mystic is an irresistible draw for visitors.

By Andrea Poe

AAA World Article

It’s a balmy night in Mystic, Connecticut, and the tang of the salt air is unmistakable. Seagulls wail as they make one last swoop along the waterfront in a bid for a final snack before the sun takes a bow. Visitors, some nursing ice cream cones, quietly scan the harbor and watch the fading sunlight. 

Sitting at the mouth of the Mystic River in southeastern Connecticut, Mystic is a small town with a big reputation. Its name derives from the Pequot tribe’s word “missituk,” meaning “great tidal view,” and it’s no wonder; the river here is deep and wide and flows directly into Long Island Sound and out to the Atlantic Ocean. The location has proved throughout history to be a logistically advantageous spot for international vessels to set off across the Atlantic. 

Mystic is the quintessential coastal town, a beguiling place filled with atmospheric nooks and crannies. Yes, it’s anchored in history, but this village is never static thanks largely to the ever-changing waterfront. One moment, it can be shrouded in fog, casting an eerie net over the river, and the next moment, the fog lifts and sunlight pings the water, setting it ablaze. 

Mystic Connecticut
Mystic Seaport's re-created 19th-centry seaside village
Photo Courtesy of Mystic Seaport

From Colonists to Commerce
In 1631, Colonists were sent down from nearby Plymouth, Massachusetts, to stake a claim and spread the Bay Colony’s reach. That inevitably meant territorial fights with the native people of the region. These early settlers were seeking the riches derived from the waterways, along with the productive land that threaded its way around it. The leaders of the successful raids upon the Pequot were rewarded with land grants to strategic islands and fertile land in the Mystic River Valley. The Colonists then developed an infrastructure using ancient Pequot trails to navigate to and around the river. 

By 1675, Mystic was firmly under the control of the Colonists. And while they had no compunction about driving Native Americans from their land, they did bring a public education system to the area. They established the first public school in 1679, which was open to anyone who wanted to learn, including Native Americans and African Americans. 

Mystic had achieved its promise as a center of American commerce by the early 1800s. Farming, trapping and hunting flourished alongside the vibrant seafaring trades, not least among them whaling. For more than two centuries, the town reigned as one of the world’s most important whaling ports, from which hundreds of merchant ships departed to harvest blubber for lamp oil.

From a Seaport to Sea Life
Today, Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea is the heart of the village, a place that draws nearly 300,000 visitors every year. Founded in 1929, it’s still the country’s largest maritime museum, boasting a massive library developed by a Harvard professor in the 1950s that remains one of the leading marine research facilities in the world. This is no ordinary museum, though. It’s actually a preserved village set on 40 acres that reflects the town’s early 1900s heyday with more than 30 historic buildings, including a church, a school and a row of handsome houses that once belonged to sea captains. The painstaking restoration of these structures shows in such details as the iron weathervane that spins in the wind above the Charles Mallory sail loft and the cedar shake siding that clads the cooper’s workshop. Costumed interpreters populate many of the buildings to explain what life was like back in the day and to demonstrate how people in this seafaring town lived.

Mystic Connecticut
Mystic Seaport
Photo Courtesy of Mystic Seaport

The real star of the museum, of course, is its waterfront. Tall masts spear the sky from the museum’s working shipyard along the docks on the river. Most are restored historic watercraft. Visitors can climb aboard the only surviving wooden whaling boat, the Charles W. Morgan, which dates to 1841, to learn about how difficult, if lucrative, life on the open seas really was. The museum is also home to a faithful re-creation of Amistad, the famous schooner aboard which slaves revolted, leading to the landmark 1842 Supreme Court decision freeing the captives. The re-created ship was used to film part of the Steven Spielberg film Amistad. There are many other vessels to explore at the museum, including lobster boats, a galleon and a racing yacht. A few, such as the Sabino, one of the last remaining coal-fired steamboats in the country, take visitors out on the river for scenic cruises. 

Mystic Connecticut
The whaleship Charles W. Morgan (center), the L.A. Dunton, steamboar Sabino (left) and the Emma C. Berry.
Photo Courtesy of Mystic Seaport

About a mile away sits the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, a family-friendly experience known for its resident beluga whales, penguins and sea lions. Last year, it debuted “Weird and Wonderful,” a fun exhibit showcasing some of the sea’s most unusual creatures, such as fluorescent corals and the Japanese spider crab, which spans 13 feet from claw to claw.

African Penguins
African Penguins, Mystic Aquarium
Photo Courtesy of Mystic Aquarium

Downtown: The Other Side of Mystic
Once you’ve explored the waterfront, drive or walk across the Mystic Drawbridge into downtown. Wander the quaint streets past historic markers that identify the homes as belonging to sailmakers or sea captains. With its historic brick storefronts, Main Street looks very much as it did in 1900, though today streets are coated in asphalt, not dirt, and a bouquet of coffee and ice cream shops has blossomed. 

Along this side of the river, you’ll find the Mystic Museum of Art, which grew out of an artist colony founded by American Impressionist Charles H. Davis, who was inspired by his time spent studying painting in Paris. Today, the waterfront museum houses a permanent collection of works spanning the past 100 years as well as changing exhibits that make this a place well worth visiting time and time again.

It’s also from this side of the bridge that you can rent a kayak or paddleboard from Adventure Mystic, which affords an opportunity to explore the shoreline and get an up-close look at lush marshes, historic boats and beautiful waterfront homes.

All Kinds of Local Finds
In addition to the town’s historic attractions, shopping is a big draw, especially for New England residents in search of special purchases in the many retail outlets. 

Top shops include the museum shop at Mystic Seaport, its vast space brimming with nautical-themed gifts, toys and jewelry along with seafaring pieces (think deck prisms and compasses). Next door, inside a charming white clapboard building, the Maritime Gallery houses ship models, scrimshaw and contemporary art that reflect the seascape.

Mystic Connecticut
Shopping at Olde Mistick Village
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism

Nearby, Olde Mistick Village, a re-created historic village, is home to 60 shops that sell everything from hand-harvested tea (at Tiger Lily Tea) to fantastic fudge (at Franklin’s General Store). There’s even an only-in-Mystic space helmed by a man who learned the knot-making trade from his seafaring grandfather and today creates unique dog toys, lanyards, bottle stoppers and more (Mystic Knotwork).

Sauces at store
Franklin General Store
Photo Courtesy of Mystic Seaport

For “shop-local” fans, downtown Mystic is a magnet because of the independent stores that flourish there. Mystical Toys is chock-full of toys and costumes. Bank Square Books has a large maritime section that’s matched by its well-curated kids’ section. Mystic Supply Co. sells clothing and home goods, many made in the Northeast. Salt, owned by a local artist, offers goods such as pottery, canvases, soaps and candles.

From Water to Plate
If shopping and touring make you hungry, have no fear. The town with fresh seafood at its doorstep is known for its dozens of New England seafood restaurants. While it’s hard to go wrong, there are a few favorite spots where you’re most apt to rub shoulders with locals. The Captain Daniel Packer Inne, which retains original 1756 details such as exposed beams and stonework, is the best spot to order classic clam chowder. The Oyster Club is prized by area watermen for its robust raw bar that serves fresh-off-the-boat clams and oysters. And at the retro-chic Engine Room, you can pair your river view and scallops with produce such as yams and mushrooms sourced from the Mystic River Valley.

Mystic Connecticut Pizza
Mystic Pizza
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism

Also, you can—and should—get a “slice of heaven” at Mystic Pizza, which rose to international fame when the movie Mystic Pizza debuted 30 years ago. This staple for locals remains a worthy selfie spot for visitors. The pizza parlor serves delicious personal pizzas to order, including a tasty Greek variety with pepperoncini, feta, tomatoes, black olives, garlic and oregano. 

And no visit to Mystic would be complete without an ice cream cone from Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, which flanks the bridge. This small family-owned shop serves homemade ice cream, including such flavors as maple nut crafted with Vermont-made syrup.

Mystic Connecticut Ice cream
Getting ice cream at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream is a must.

Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism

The charms of Mystic have attracted more people than its early Pequot and Colonial residents could have ever imagined. But despite its popularity, this lovely coastal village hasn’t been stripped of its inherent character. Yes, there are more people, shops, galleries and restaurants than ever before, yet the vibrant waterfront still defines life in Mystic. Planting your feet at the edge of the harbor and taking in the briny air as you watch boats bob atop the gentle waves, you’ll be swept under her spell like so many generations before you.


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of AAA World.

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