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The Magic of Mystic Seaport

Click to enlarge.
We sailed out to Mystic one July 4th that started out as a lovely overnight, with no major weather forecast, and quickly deteriorated into pea soup fog that rolled onto the Sound from the land. It was an eerie feeling to see the fireworks along the coast above the fog from our vantage point, knowing that the people in each of the towns ashore couldn't see a thing. Soon we were enveloped too and ended up sailing by radar all the way to Mystic from just past Norwalk. It was a long night and when we arrived, the river was still socked in. Being tired and hungry and new to Mystic, we thought it would be prudent to have some breakfast and get some rest. We anchored off Morgan Point and went to sleep. When we awoke, it was like magic had lifted us to a place far away. We were just beyond the channel and the parade of vessels going out was beautiful. The vistas along the shore were crystal clear, the sun was shining, and the day was shaping up to be spectacular. Our destination was Mystic Seaport at the far northern end of the town of Mystic and a fair distance up the river.

Mystic Seaport is one of those magical places that transport you to a different time and place the moment you enter its sphere of influence…as a boater that is.  To begin with, you must sail up the Mystic River past inviting restaurants, several modern marinas, lovely parks where people sit on benches with their sweethearts (earning high marks for the romantic setting) and under bridges.  Suddenly, past the drawbridge, the river opens up onto a lake-like area and you think you’ve been transported back in time.  The harbor is full of vessels from bygone eras, the people onshore are wearing unfamiliar garb, instead of cars there are horses, and even the language wafting down to the water has an unfamiliar lilt. 

Mystic Seaport with the Joseph Conrad built in 1882.
This is Mystic Seaport, a place where the volunteers preserve and praise the past, where everything moves a little slower, where you can feel the spirits of seafarers before you, and where the entertainment comes in tangible forms.  Forget TV screens and high tech.  Here you learn from the people.  Situated on the site of two former wooden boat shipyards, Mystic Seaport envelops you with the aura of a nineteenth century whaling village.

As we entered the harbor, we had had to pinch ourselves to call the harbormaster on the VHF for a slip assignment.  They had us tie up to the bulkhead right alongside the classic vessels that make up part of the fleet.  When we registered with the dockmaster’s office, they gave us a sign to post aboard “Private Vessel. No Boarding.”  Apparently, people get carried away and walk aboard any vessel tied up along these docks, even though our 41 footer didn’t exactly have a classic appearance.

Mystic Seaport is a working museum village.  All the volunteers are experts in their fields and doing this because they love it.  For example, the guys in the “navigation shop” know all about octants and sextants and can walk you through the proper use of a telescope.  They are specialists in time keeping devices and the problem of longitude.  The tiny shops, churches, and houses are very authentic and not at all touristy, except for the gift shop which houses all the kitchy stuff in one place.

The people in the restoration shed are really terrific.  The gentleman who walked us through one day had worked in that facility for most of his life.  He is now retired and spends his time spinning yarns about all the worthy boats they saved and sharing remarkable stories about the owners. 

All of the vessels, including the Joseph Conrad, a sail training ship, the Charles W. Morgan, the only surviving18 th century wooden whaleship, the LA Dunton, a fishing schooner, and the recently built replica slave ship, the Amistad, are all open for visits when they aren’t out sailing.  In addition, there are numerous re-enactments during the day, where the crews perform rescue maneuvers or stage races to complete various mundane tasks.  There are also parades and floats, orators in the park, shopkeepers plying their wares, and lots of other things to keep you occupied. 

One of our very special favorite things to do is to visit the planetarium.  The program we attended last was beautifully narrated by a knowledgeable and well-spoken young astronomer who presented what it was like to travel by sea in the days of old.  Along with a really wonderful accounting of the night sky and how it changes from dusk to dawn and Spring through Winter, his presentation was enhanced by ladies in the audience sprinkling water on the back rows of the onlookers as the planetarium skies produced a storm.  This was also one of the few air conditioned places to be on a day approaching 100 degrees!  We could have stayed there forever.

The museum itself, spread among several buildings, has fascinating exhibits, among which have been famous seadogs, women seafarers, and the Rosenfeld photograph collection, prints from which are on sale in the museum store – a two-story nautical books and collectibles treasure trove. What you cannot see is the treasure trove that is stashed and inaccessible to visitors.  The new Collections Research Center houses over a million maritime photographs dating back to 1840, the world’s largest collection.  The Center’s archives also hold over 1.5 million feet of film, more than 1000 paintings, 100,000 ships plans, 2000 ships models, thousands of figureheads, and  countless carvings, tools and other nautical items.

The real adventure begins for boaters after the seaport closes to day trippers, when the busloads of tourists leave with their screaming kids and when the volunteers close up their shops and go home.  This is when it is truly special for those privileged to be tied up with the ghost ships and legends. If you're lucky and head there in the Fall, perhaps you can chance upon Nautical Nightmares, an annual fall production at Mystic Seaport.

All in all, it’s a great experience for children and adults.  With a museum membership, which by the way offers reciprocal benefits with lots of other maritime and museum establishments, you get discounted rates at the marina.  The rate is $2.50 per foot for members and $3.50 for nonmembers, which includes dockage, museum entrance, after hours access, showers and toilets, and shore power. We encourage you to spend at least two days, and more would be even better.  We also suggest you check the schedule for the planetarium and work everything around that as the shows do fill up mid-summer.

Lunch at the cafeteria-style restaurant, The Galley, was actually pretty good albeit awfully crowded.  They serve hamburgers to lobster roll and have lots of tables that turn over rather quickly.  For dinner, we did not venture far from the water as the gates do close at night and visitors staying in the Seaport itself need to find the exits that permit access to the outside world.  Boaters are given the keys to the kingdom, and this is a unique experience that the otherworldly visitors will never know. The Seamen’s Inne, right next to the Seaport has an outdoor seating area and reasonable fare.  We had a lovely dinner there and it was a good thing not to have to walk too far back to our boat after a very full day. The walk back was, well, “mystical” in the dark quiet night amidst all that history.   Then we sat in our cockpit and enjoyed the privacy of our special berth while reflecting on the “place” with a celebratory cocktail. Yes, it was a very special day in a very special place indeed.

Outside the Seaport

There are plenty of other things to do in Mystic besides visiting the Seaport. Next time we want to spend some extra time so we can visit the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.  And if you have non-nautically-inclined crew, perhaps the shopping at the trendy designer shops, art galleries, and craft stores downtown or the 60 specialty shoppes at Olde Mystic Village will excite. 

Food is also plentiful and the choices varied.  From the Sea View Snack Bar and Kitchen Little closest to the Seaport, to the famed Mystic Pizza (Julia Roberts 1988) and Anthony J’s Bistro, there is bound to be something to please every palate.  Some other noteworthy mentions include the S&P Oyster Company with great views, the Harp & Hound Irish Pub, and the ever popular Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream Shop with a great view of the vessels awaiting passage under the bridge as it opens.

There are also numerous marinas in Mystic outside of the Seaport and South of the drawbridge: Noank Shipyard, Noank Village Boatyard,  Mystic Shipyard, Mystic Downtown Marina, Brewer Yacht Yard, Mystic River Marina, and Mason’s Island Marina. 

For more information, refer to the Mystic Boater’s Guide published by the Chamber of Commerce. Click here for a map of the town and a few useful links.

The Planetarium

Getting there

The drawbridge opens at 40 minutes past the hour from 0 7:40 to 18:40 daily May 1 through October 31.  After hours and off-season, the bridge opens on request by calling the bridge tender on channel 13.  Mystic Seaport monitors channel 68 (860-572-5391). Be sure to reserve well in advance as there are very few slips available. 

Left: drawbridge up and boats passing through.

Right: Bridgetender's quarters, with ice cream shop next door.

Below: The Joseph Conrad towering over the sheds dockside.

Left: Visitors rafted up along the docks

Right: Mystic lighthouse

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