A trip to Mystic can result in a sore neck, resulting from the nearly endless parade of classic vessels that’ll keep your head swiveling during a visit this salty and historic town on eastern Long Island Sound. By Malerie Yolen-Cohen; Photography by Tom Richardson
At the heart of it all is the Mystic Seaport, founded in 1929 and arguably the best-known attraction in Connecticut. Containing nearly 2 million artifacts and the world’s largest collection of boating-related photography, the Seaport is without question the leading maritime museum in the U.S. It’s also home to the last wooden whaling ship in existence, the Charles W. Morgan, plus a working shipyard and an extensive collection of vintage wooden sail and powerboats. The museum‚ much of it a re-created village populated by “interpreters” in period costume, attracts some one million visitors per year, among them transient boaters who can tie up alongside restored schooners and catboats and wander the cobbled streets and wooden docks after closing time.
But Mystic lives as much in the present as the past. The Mystic River flows through the heart of its charming and accessible downtown, which features trendy boutiques, art galleries, restaurants and a wooden walkway that skirts the river. And of course there’s the thoroughly modern Mystic Aquarium, where families can gawk at a quartet of beluga whales and tour the interactive, multimedia Titanic exhibit.
For boaters on Long Island Sound, Mystic makes an ideal daytrip, weekend destination or jumping-off spot for trips to Block Island, eastern Long Island, Watch Hill. and other Connecticut ports. At least eight marinas service this boater-friendly area, and there’s convenient trailerboat and kayak access nearby as well.
Getting there by water is relatively easy—as long as you pay attention and don’t stray from the channel, which is bordered in many places by shallow flats and the occasional rock pile. As soon as you hook north from the Sound and enter Mystic Harbor at Ram Island, you’ll begin to see the myriad marinas, starting with the Noank Shipyard and the smaller Noank Village Boatyard to port.
On a small point on Masons Island, just south of the railroad bridge, is the full-service Mystic River Marina and home of the beloved Kitchen Little, a tiny but popular eatery that recently relocated from its longtime home north of the Seaport. Patrons can tie up at no charge while they grab a bite to eat and fuel up for the day’s aquatic adventures.
Just north is the Mystic Shipyard’s West Yard and, on the east side of the river, the Safe Harbors Mystic Marina. Both are full-service facilities that can accommodate large vessels and offer every boating amenity imaginable.
Should you wish to tie up in the shadow of the massive cogs and cement counterbalance weights of the fascinating Rte. 1 bascule bridge, book one of the 11 upscale rooms at the spectacularly located Steamboat Inn, which owns 120 linear feet of dock space along the most exciting and constricted section of the Mystic River.
If you intend to cruise farther north, you’ll need to negotiate the railroad swing bridge, which opens every 40 minutes from 7:40 a.m. to 6:40 p.m. and on demand afterwards in season (hail the bridge tender on VHF 9 or 13). Just past the bridge is Seaport Marine, on the east bank, and Fort Rachel Marina, on the west. Both are within easy walking distance of downtown. A few steps away from the latter is the 250-year-old Daniel Packer Inne, a purportedly haunted restaurant and cellar tavern within a restored sea captain’s home that has been serving pints to old salts since 1983.
Hungry? Then you’re in the right spot, as downtown Mystic has an amazing array of restaurants from which to choose, from fresh-off-the-boat seafood at the Oyster Club to brick-oven gourmet pizza at Pizzetta to cosmopolitan fare at Bravo, Bravo. Afterwards, you can cap off dinner with a cold and creamy home-churned scoop at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream.
Daytime shoppers can join the crowds meandering in and out of myriad galleries and boutiques. And of course, there’s the famous Army Navy Store, where you can pick up anything from an authentic surplus pea coat to night-vision goggles.
For many boaters, scoring dock space inside the Mystic Seaport Museum complex is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. North of town, the river opens into the peaceful cattail-lined vista celebrated by American Impressionists and made even more romantic by the wooden ships docked at the Seaport and the classic wooden sailboats and rowboats gliding about on nice days. This is ideal paddling water, and you can rent a kayak nearby at the Seaport or Mystic River Kayak.
Pull into your slip (reservations a must) and you may very well be serenaded by a wandering chanteyman. Take a horse and carriage ride, amble around on the boardwalks and cobblestone streets, or enjoy a beer at Spouter’s Tavern while listening to live jazz‚ all within view of your boat amid a vintage fleet. It’s an experience your children and grandchildren will remember all their lives; a boater’s bucket list item for sure.