Photo by Robert L. Drake
As you cruise from Long Island Sound up the river to Mystic, Conn., you’re following in the wake of well-known yachtsmen and ordinary boaters headed for Mystic Seaport Museum, a must-see treasure trove of New England maritime history for more than 70 years.
The serpentine six-mile Mystic River channel is well-marked and lined with marinas, especially above the railroad swing bridge, which remains open unless a train is expected (VHF channel 13). Above the railroad bridge to port stands the craggy bluff that protected colonial Mystic. Patriots erected a stone barrier there to prevent British invasion during the War of 1812. Local lore says the barricade was named for “Aunt Rachel,” who provided water and other favors to the militia.
A half-mile upstream, the iconic downtown bascule bridge connects Mystic’s western side (part of Groton) with the eastern (Stonington) side. Openings are 40 minutes past the hour, 6:40 a.m. to 7:40 p.m., from May 1 to Oct. 31, and offseason by reservation. Use VHF channel 13 for contact. As you pass through (boats with the tide go first) you’ll get enthusiastic waves from tourists crowding Mystic River Park to watch the 1920s bridge and its twin 230-ton counterweights operate.
You can anchor here and there or tie up in a dozen marinas between the bridges, but the most fun place to overnight is the Seaport. Reservations — (860) 572-5391 — include admission. In a sense, your boat becomes part of the waterfront display, along with the Grand Banks fishing schooner L.A. Dunton, the training ship Joseph Conrad, the steamboat Sabino and others.
You also can dinghy to the north dock. Awaiting you there are exhibits, the extensive nautical library, conversations with “re-enactors” in the re-created 19th century village and a chance to watch shipwrights restoring the 1841 whaling ship Charles W. Morgan. Best of all, as a dock customer you can wander the deserted 17-acre grounds after hours, peopling the historic ships and boats, homes and businesses with your imagination.
About 600 vessels were built in 18th- and 19th century Mystic yards. Many local boats fished inshore, although some sailed to Key West, Fla., and beyond for winter fishing. Others sailed the Seven Seas, bringing back profits and exotic goods for their owners and captains. You can stroll past the impeccably maintained homes of those adventurous seamen on Gravel Street’s “Captains’ Row.”
Wherever you tie up you can walk downtown or dinghy to a public dock (in Mystic River Park, on Water Street below the bascule bridge or just south of the seaport). West Main Street’s vintage buildings contain boutiques, art galleries, souvenir shops and about 30 restaurants that should assuage any culinary craving or thirst for a cold brew.
Free loaner “Mystic Community Bikes” (available at local businesses and marinas) are fun, especially on the relatively level mile or so to the Olde Mistick Village shopping and dining complex. You can also board a trolley to those 60 shops, restaurants and the world-renowned Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration. You’ll delight in the aquarium’s marine mammal shows, penguins, New England’s only beluga whales and discoveries by Robert Ballard’s teams.
Festivals enliven most weekends, among them the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival (Aug. 13-14) and the Taste of Mystic (Sept. 10-12). Many seaport events feature a boat parade.
With information from the Chamber of Commerce Welcome Center (the Amtrak station off U.S. 1, east side, (860) 572-9758), and maybe the Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau’s discount “Mystic Pass Cards” (from area businesses and online), you’re ready to enjoy Mystic’s historic and modern charms. www.mysticchamber.org, www.mysticseaport.org, www.mysticaquarium.org, www.mystic.org
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This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.