By Susan Flynn
Quaint if often the go-to word when describing seaside New England towns, but it’s hard to come up with a better adjective for Mystic, Conn., a picturesque village on Fishers Island Sound that celebrates its rich maritime history with a boatload of attractions for families.
Our family of four recently spent three days in Mystic County and still didn’t have enough time to see everything we wanted. About a 90-minute drive from Boston, this popular tourist destination may be most famous as the locale for Mystic Pizza, the 1988 movie starring Julia Roberts. But while the “slice of heaven” pizza was tasty, it’s hardly the biggest draw in town.
That honor could go to the historic drawbridge downtown, which opens hourly to let boats pass by in the warmer months. Grab an ice cream at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream and be inexpensively entertained as you watch the bridge go up and the boats navigate the narrow channel.
We would argue, however, that Mystic’s top lure is the Mystic Aquarium, a dynamic place for kids to learn about the ocean and its inhabitants and to see New England’s only beluga whales. We spent most of our visit transfixed as these 1,000-pound creatures gracefully swam back and forth in their serene outdoor tank more than an acre in size. Visitors can also go below level and watch as these whales seem to smile back at you through the glass tank.
If you want more than a look, the 90-minute Beluga Encounter (an extra $130 per person on top of admission) lets visitors at least 5 feet tall don waterproof gear and wade in waist-deep with the whales and their trainers. Whales Up Close ($50 per person) is for kids 6 and up who want to get close but not wet. While neither experience is cheap, the chance to connect with these whales in a more intimate setting likely won’t be forgotten.
We took part in a Penguin Encounter ($50 per person), an hour-long program where a specialist talks about penguins as one walked freely among us. We heard the penguin’s heartbeat and felt its soft feathers. We also learned a fun fact: Penguins are more likely to live in a warm-weather climate than a cold one. Think palm trees -- not icebergs.
Many of the aquarium’s exhibits are outside, giving children plenty of room to burn off energy. On the main exhibit floor where the fish tanks are located, all kids raced to Shark Encounters to touch the backs of white-spotted bamboo sharks as they glide by. We also loved the artistic jellyfish exhibit and watching the stealth stingrays.
Note: There are caricature artists, a gift shop and a modest cafeteria, which could put a drain on the wallet. But, trust us, the sight of the magical beluga whales is worth the trip. Your blood pressure will drop and even the most rambunctious of kids will be mesmerized.
From Ship to Shore
Another fun place for families is Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and The Sea, where you can tour tall ships, maritime exhibits and a re-creation of a 19th-century coastal village. We visited the pharmacist, the printing press, the chapel and general store, authentic historic buildings transported to the museum grounds from spots around New England.
We especially liked touring the mammoth Charles W. Morgan, America’s last surviving wooden whaling ship. Our kids couldn’t get over the cramped quarters where the crew slept for years at a time. (The longest voyage was four years and 11 months!) Visitors can also rent a row boat or catch a free shuttle from one end of the museum to the other, or grab a horse and buggy ride through the village.
Other sites worth checking out are the Submarine Force Museum in Groton to tour the USS Nautilus, a nuclear submarine, and the Dinosaur Place in nearby Oakdale, where 30 life-sized dinosaur figures are set up along 1.5 miles of walking trails.
Another highlight of the trip was nearby Foxwoods, but not at the slot machines. In fact, a quick walk through for an ice cream was all our kids could take due to the heavy smell of cigarette smoke spilling out from the casinos. But we struck it rich upon discovering the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, a nonprofit on the property just down the road from the casino and nestled in a thick cedar forest.
The museum, run by the native tribe, provides an extraordinary look into the life of American Indians, with artifacts, interactive exhibits and videos. The most striking exhibit is the re-creation of a 16th-century Pequot village, covering half an acre of indoor space. It comes complete with 51 life-size figures, 29 trees, 11 wigwams and an audio system that projects the sounds of birds, insects, animals and people. Talk about immersing yourself in history. Headsets let visitors hear recorded details about each exhibit. Don’t miss the 185-foot stone and glass observation tower, accessible by elevator, for panoramic views of the whole area.
As the name suggests, and the surroundings will confirm, Mystic Country is one of those truly magical places.
If You Go
What to Do
• Mystic Aquarium, 55 Coogan Blvd., Mystic, 860-572-5966; www.mysticaquarium.org. Admission: Adults $29; children ages 3-17, $21; ages 2 and under, free.
• Mystic Seaport, 75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, 860-572-5302; www.mysticseaport.org. Admission: Adults $24; children ages 6-17, $15; ages 5 and under, free.
• Submarine Force Musuem, 1 Crystal Lake Road, Groton, 800-343-0079; www.ussnautilus.org. Admission is free.
• The Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket, 800-411-9671; www.pequotmuseum.org. Admission: Adult $15; ages 55 and older, $13; ages 6-15, $10; ages 5 and under, free.
Where to Stay
Our family stayed at the Mystic Marriott Hotel and Spa in Groton (www.marriott.com). A short drive to downtown Mystic, the hotel offers a great kid-friendly pool, recently renovated rooms, and a spa. Other family-friendly accommodations include The Whaler’s Inn (800-243-2588 ; www.whalersinnmystic.com), the Inn at Mystic (860-536-9604; www.innatmystic.com), the Hampton Inn Mystic (860-536-2536; www.hotelmysticct.com) and Mystic Hilton (860-572-0731; www.hiltonmystic.com).
Where to Eat
• Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, 2 West Main St., Mystic, 860-572-7978; www.mysticdrawbridgeicecream.com. Homemade ice cream, sorbet, pastries and gourmet sandwiches.
• Mystic Pizza, 56 West Main St., Mystic, 860-536-3700; www.mysticpizza.com. Serves up delicious pizza and a nonstop showing of the film that put it on the map.
• The Mystic Boat House, 8 Coogan Blvd., 860-572-1180; www.mysticboathouse.com. Good seafood and a great kids’ menu.
• The Pita Spot, 25 Williams Ave., 860-415-4656; www.thepitaspot.com. Tasty and very fresh sandwiches.