Mystic is a village divided. That’s thanks to a classic drawbridge. Located at the gateway of downtown Mystic, Conn. the 21-foot long bascule bridge brings its 230 tons and moveable span up every hour. Few drawbridges are as much fun to watch. When the bell rings its staccato clapper, the Mystic Drawbridge swings into action, similar to a giant cantilever lowering as it lifts the road platform up and away.
Roughly midway between New York City and Boston, the shoreline of southeastern Connecticut is studded with towns that still bear the stamp of their maritime pasts-- a string of inlets and fishing ports such as New London and Stonington. They are the historic heartland of nautical Connecticut. All three towns were major forces in the whaling, sealing, shipping and home to privateers that preyed on British ships in the 1800's. Together, they formed the economic mainspring of the region.
The nautical theme carries on today. Mystic Seaport is a 17-acre complex on the banks of the Mystic River that simulates a 19th-century New England coastal village. Some of the structures are authentic; others have been relocated, while still others are reproductions of buildings that were once there or in other coastal towns.
Stroll over to the Mallory sail loft, which was constructed in the early 19th century and named for Charles Mallory, who designed and made cloth sails for local ships. Museum workers produce and maintain sails used by the 14 exhibition vessels that are at docks alongside the village. Step down into the belly of the Charles W. Morgan (built in 1841), the last surviving wooden whaling ship, or navigating the rope walk of the working cordage factory is an educational experience, and delightful fun.
If you're lucky you'll catch the seaport staff singing chanteys as they demonstrate how cargo was moved on and off the tall ships years ago. The planetarium show tells how stars are used for navigation. On weekends in October, there are spooky guides, and you get to hear legends about sailors lost at sea.
Nearby is the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration, the latter developed in consultation with Dr. Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who found the sunken Titanic. Beluga whales -- agile, gray 2,700-to-3,500-pound living torpedoes -- cavort in an 800,000-gallon rock-furnished tank, with below-surface viewing. Sea lions, penguins, baracudas, sharks, and jelly fish -- every which way you look, there's information, guides and even personal tours that you can arrange to get the best experience possible. Take a leisurely ride on the historic steamboat, Sabino. It’s a great way to see Mystic in its entirety.
Walking down Main Street visitors find a cluster of little clothing and antique shops and trendy boutiques. Sounds and smells drift through this authentic New England coastal downtown where Chico's and Finer Line Gallery can peacefully co-exist with the Mystic Army Navy Stores and the Harp and Hound Pub. Over on Water Street is the Mystic Art Association, a multi-winged white gallery building where New England artists exhibit and sell their works. Below it, the harbor glistens.
And yes, there is a Mystic Pizza. It has been serving “a slice of heaven” since 1973. Inspired by the movie (although the picture was actually shot in a converted lobster warehouse in Stonington), the little pizzeria stamped Julia Roberts as a star in the 1980s and created for its owners, the Zelepos family, a small fortune. They still pack them in. Located in the heart of downtown, the restaurant always seems to be full, though the wait is never long. The cheesy pizza has a raised edge on its doughy crust and is nicely accompanied by a pint of Mystic Seaport ale.
The building was built in 1756 as an inn for Daniel Packer, a former square-rigger skipper who operated a rope ferry across the Mystic River. Today, the Captain Daniel Packer Inne is a quaint restaurant and pub known for its exceptional, classic food and live music. Its impressive stone foundation gives way to a cozy dark wood downstairs bar where the locals who pack the place for after-work pints will give you a friendly welcome. Try out some of their pub grub-- scrumptious calamari, plump grilled mussels, fish ‘n chips, the juicy captain burger, or the always satisfying po’ boy. An equally popular new American-style restaurant resides upstairs.
The Inn at Mystic, overlooking Mystic Harbor and Long Island Sound, has a quaint B & B feel, but has the ability to host large groups of people. A gorgeous Colonial Revival mansion built in 1905, the inn boasts a formal dining restaurant called Flood Tide, and 15 acres of lush gardens, rolling lawns to the Mansion and terraces overlooking the harbor. Canopy beds and big Japanese soaking tubs in many rooms make this place feel like you’ve stepped back in time. History abounds-- Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall honeymooned at the Gate House
Steeped in maritime history, Mystic is also celebrated for its history of delicious homemade ice cream. It first started with Randall Brown Jr. in the late 19th century, followed the early 1900's by Ebenezer Morgan with his store The Riverside Ice Cream Garden. These days Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream serves up sandwiches, baked goods and as the sign on the waterside says, “We Make Old Fashion Ice Cream.”
Their classic techniques for making ice cream one batch at a time are combined with a very modern approach to flavors such as Mystic Mud and Ginger Spice. Some of the best concoctions are the sundaes: try the Specialty Turtle, Peaches ‘n Cream and the decadent Brownie Overload. Enjoy it all overlooking the Mystic River in the shadow of that spectacular bascule drawbridge.