CONNECTICUT | MYSTIC
This week, we’re crossing to the Northeast of the country and heading to New England to visit a town defined by the river and sea. Today, we’re taking a closer look at Mystic, Connecticut!
Though I *personally* first heard about Mystic because of the movie Mystic Pizza (thanks a lot, Julia Roberts!), upon research, I realized that this town played a crucial part in early American history! And, in actuality, it isn’t *legally recognized* as a town at all (gasp.) Mystic is instead a village and designated zip code, combining parts of Groton and Stonington that are closest to the river. Locals, however, typically designate “Mystic” as their home- it is a much better name after all ;)
The area’s name derives from an older word than our common understanding of the term “mystic” today. Here it is derived from the Pequot term "missi-tuk," describing a large river whose waters are driven into waves by tides or wind. “Mystic” as a village is named after the Mystic River, which flows through town and out to the Atlantic ocean.
The Pequot were the original inhabitants of this area before the 17th century, and sadly this area was claimed by the English rather brutally because of its value as a merchant port. The Pequot War profoundly impacted this area from 1636-1638, culminating in the Mystic Massacre on May 26, 1637. On September 21, 1638, the colonists signed the Treaty of Hartford, officially ending the Pequot War. From then on, Mystic was settled and developed as a critical port of call first for those initial settlers and some 140 years later, for first-generation Americans. This would be just the beginning of Mystic’s longstanding maritime tradition.
THIS TOWN IN HISTORY: Mystic Seaport
As time passed, Mystic developed into a prominent seaport and ship-building locale for the East coast. Records indicate that more than 600 ships were built here in the 135 years after 1784- a monumental feat given the manual processes at the time. It is this craft of building vessels and testing them on the seas that is honored to this day at the Mystic Seaport Museum, the largest maritime museum in the world.
What really impressed me about this museum is that it’s more than one sole building; it is an entire waterfront complex near the heart of the town. Though its main exhibition hall is nothing to scoff at (and currently features “Folk Art of the Sea,” figureheads, and ship carvings that I’m dying to check out), this seaport has much more than that to offer. It also includes not only a planetarium, recreated 19th-century village, and boats you can rent (for no additional fee); its crowning jewel is a fleet of historic vessels you can tour at your leisure.
Four of these vessels are this marina’s claim to fame: the Dunton, the Sabino, Emma C. Berry, and the Morgan- the oldest surviving merchant ship in the world and the last remaining wooden tri-masted whaling vessel (built in 1841.)
If you want to get in on the action yourself, the site also offers classes teaching traditional boating and shipbuilding techniques. Their full-service shipyard has even undertaken historical recreations like that of the Amistad, which was rebuilt from the water up and later used in Steven Spielberg’s film of the same name.
Whether your interest is in the craft of building watercraft, the history of maritime trade in early America, or you just want to get out on the water in a smaller vessel- the Mystic Seaport Museum complex is a must-see part of the living history of this area. The waterfront must-sees don’t end there, though.
TO SEE & DO: Mystic Aquarium
The Mystic Aquarium has one thing that alone would make it noteworthy in my book- it hosts a pod of beluga whales in one of the largest aquarium tanks in the nation. Their belugas were rescued from a theme park in Canada and brought to Mystic for better care and living conditions, all while being kept in their same pod (which is *essential* for such social animals.)
This aquarium is also home to seals, sea lions, tuxedo penguins, and even artistically-inclined manta rays! They host various interactive experiences with each different animal type, and all programming is designed to keep ocean conservation and ethical standards for animal captivity at the forefront of the conversation.
Mystic Aquarium also has an Animal Rescue Program (ARP) that has been rescuing, rehabilitating, and releasing sick, stranded, or injured marine animals since 1975. With as many waterways as this location has access to, and how many boats & people are active on them, this is a vital initiative for marine life care in the area.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS: Denison Homestead
If you’ve had enough of the fresh sea air by now (though I can’t imagine how ;)) but still want to get out and explore Mystic’s natural beauty- this next location is just the place for you! Denison Homestead is a private farm and residence that has been owned and maintained by six generations of the Denison family for over 300 years straight! The Manor on the property was built in 1717, is open to the public daily for tours, and shares insights on how they maintain and care for this historic building regularly.
Of most interest to me is the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center- a nature reserve and system of miles of hiking trails through the rest of the 160-acre property. These trails take you through meadows, farmland, forest, and even some rocky cliffsides, all within relatively short & stable footpaths. It sounds like an excellent place to get lost to me ;)
And last but not least, in keeping with its history as an agricultural property, the Homestead hosts a farmer’s market every Sunday, from June through October each year. Here you can pick up a few of the 100 herbs grown in its colonial garden, as well as fresh produce, honey, and craft goods to bring some history into your home (or, as would be my case, hotel room!) Altogether, these are just a few of the reasons the Denison Homestead has become a great gathering place in Mystic- not to mention, admission is totally free to the public.
PLACES TO STAY: House of 1833
After an eventful tour of what Mystic has to offer, we all need a warm and comfortable place to rest our heads at night. Because of this area’s historic nature, there are several cozy restored homes available to rent on a visit to Mystic. But this one, in particular, stood out to me the most.
The House of 1833 was built in, you guessed it, 1833 by Elias Brown (of the Brown University Browns), a banker and relative of one of the current owners. This mansion is in the 19th-century Greek revival style and sits on three well-manicured and beautifully wooded acres of gardens.
Of all the places to stay I looked into in Mystic, the House of 1833 felt the most impressive and, dare I say it, opulent of the options available. The entire home is filled with early 19th-century furniture and ephemera, from unique bedroom sets (individual to each room) to the massive Renaissance revival mirror here purchased from the Boston Ritz Carlton! Every room has a large sitting area, fireplace, and its own unique theme and color palette.
Of course, my curiosity got the best of me, and I *had* to see what this place’s nightly rates were for, say, my upcoming birthday? I’m pleased to report that despite the appearance of living in the lap of luxury, this beautiful BnB has not outpriced this meager small town enthusiast. Next time I can find an excuse to head to Connecticut, you best believe I’m finding a way to spend a night or two in one of these ornate four-post canopy beds!
Altogether, Mystic, Connecticut, is a small town (not quite! sorry!) with a living history that is very much still visible. From its preserved and internationally-recognized seaport museum to centuries-old historic residences and caring for its marine life neighbors, this is one area that is deeply rooted in its unique environment. Through all of this research, if I could sum up Mystic in one thought, it would be… it is so much more than just Mystic Pizza ;)
See you again soon as we head south along the East Coast to the First State- any guesses what town we’ll visit in Delaware?
"It is not the going out of port, but the coming in, that determines the success of a voyage." - Henry Ward Beecher