For nearly a decade my family and I have been visiting Mystic, CT because it’s perfectly halfway between NYC and Cape Cod. Our routine is to stop for lunch, peek at the water, and be on our way. It wasn’t until last week that we discovered what might happen if we gave Mystic a promotion from pit stop to getaway.
Sure enough, it’s worth making the circuit of the Mystic Seaport, the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, and Mystic Aquarium, if only because they’re family-friendly sites within a couple miles of each other. But since we had already been to more seaports, nature centers, and aquariums than we’d care to remember, what was special about Mystic?
Here are the moments that stayed with us days after we returned home.
Being at Mystic Pizza: A young Julia Roberts eternally waits on customers by way of “Mystic Pizza” looping soundlessly on a wall monitor, and while the pizza fell short of a “slice of heaven,” the friendliness of what’s arguably the most famous pizza place in the world makes it worth a stop. Our server gamely briefed us about the basics: The current eat-in restaurant is an annex to the original shop, which now serves as the take-out area next door, and interiors for the movie were filmed at a set nearby. And when my son knocked over a glass of ice water, as he often does, our waitress blotted it with the gracious nonchalance of someone who waits on a lot of families.
Tommy the Owl: The nature center cares for birds that were previously injured, with an eye toward trying to release them. When my son hooted at Tommy, a 25-year-old barred owl with a damaged wing and cataracts in both eyes, Tommy charmed him by hooting right back. That Tommy had a dead mouse snack visibly tucked away on his perch made him seem all that much cooler.
The nature trails: While my kids enjoyed idling at the nature center’s magnetic habitat game as well as its turtle tank, stepping outdoors onto the trails was like emerging into full-color Oz. Walking the tame, red-markered forest loop, we passed a pond whose peaceful stillness rendered all three kids speechless, which hasn’t happened in a long time. And when the trail emerged into a meadow, they joyfully ran through it. It wasn’t until my younger daughter heard a distant car horn that she remembered we had arrived here by a highway. Hiking shoes help, as many trails are laced with tree roots, but you’ll do fine with sneakers, too.
Two museums within a museum: The Mystic Seaport is a sprawling indoor-outdoor living history museum and my kids enjoyed wandering in and out of the recreated 19th-century sea village homes and stores, complete in some cases with cranky attendants warning my son not to touch certain things, but that added to the appeal for his sisters, as did sewing room furnishings that reminded my daughter of the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” book she was reading.
A children’s museum set in a stand-alone house was a favorite, particularly because of the yard, where the kids pretended to launder clothes with a washboard and basin and hung them on clotheslines. Unfortunately the magic of helping with the laundry was gone by the time we got home.
Another Seaport highpoint is the three-story Voyages exhibit, with a staffed kids’ play space on its top floor and among the wonderful naval artifacts on the ground floor, scrimshaws – my daughters appreciated them more once they understood the pains these scrappy sailors must have taken to etch and dye the whale teeth with such precision.
Of jellyfish, sharks, and a penguin: Upon arriving in the aquarium’s large indoor exhibits area we almost immediately stumbled upon the jellyfish tanks, and both my daughters declared that it was their favorite thing even before we saw the rest of the place. They seemed to see the true beauty in the luminous pink, orange, purple, and blue jellies, as well a spotted jellyfish with cauliflower-like tentacles. Also popular were the touch tanks with stingrays and sharks, my younger daughter recalling that she was able to lightly massage shark’s head, and in so doing, she thought, put it to sleep.
The aquarium also offers various hands-on animal encounters, which from May to October include getting in the water with a beluga whale. But since you need to be at least 5-feet tall for that and my son isn’t quite there yet, we opted for an encounter with a penguin named Blue Brown. His trainer cautioned us that the penguin might be shy, but as soon as Blue Brown emerged from his holding area, he immediately – in that purposeful but amusing way penguins move – approached my son first. My son was proud of that and is still talking about it.
The big pool: The mere possibility that my kids might go swimming pre-empts most other thoughts in their heads, and they appreciated that the indoor pool at the Marriott in nearby Groton (pronounce it “Grautin” unless you want to be ostracized) was so large, permitting us and other families ample splashing room. Another plus is the on-site steakhouse, Octagon. While the ambience and menu seem forbidding to younger kids at first, both the dining room and adjacent café area were casual and laid back toward the families there, and the steaks, sliders, and mac-and-cheese were a cut above what we’d normally eat in a hotel restaurant and, who are we kidding, most other restaurants, too.
San Antonio Sweepstakes Update:
We have a winner! Congratulations to Agnes Pohl of Harrison, Idaho, recipient of a vacation package from the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau. My thanks to the San Antonio folks for inviting the Family Vacation blog to participate in the giveaway and of course, my thanks to the many other Shermans readers who entered the sweeps.