June 5, 2011

Once Upon a Mystic Weekend...

DAY 1:

MYSTIC, CT: This adventure started on a rainy morning. I had just taken the ferry, Mary Ellen, across the Long Island Sound and was looking over my itinerary when the skies just opened up, pelting my windshield with sheets of water. I felt a little bit downtrodden; I always want to have beautiful weather while on vacation. I still had several hours to go before check-in time at the hotel, so I decided that Mystic Aquarium, a mostly indoor experience, would be my first stop.

It was a great choice. I strolled around the premises, impressed not only by the various aquatic animals that they have on display, but also by the architecture of the building. Large round tanks filled with all kinds of sea creatures could be circumnavigated and viewed from all sides; quite amazing really and the vantage lends for an almost underwater experience. It is lovely. Most of the building is dimly lit, except, of course, for the tanks themselves which are very vivid and bright, leaving no question that the sea life is the star of the show. The outdoor areas feature pavilions dedicated to sea-lions, penguins, beluga whales; they even have bridge set up that spans an authentic marshland. One has to look very closely to pick out the frogs and turtles that are hidden there.

I think that my favorite feature at the aquarium is the stingray pool. The pool is only about 3 feet high and guests are prompted to lean over and "pet" the stingrays. I was a little taken aback by the idea at first; a stingray is a creature that is at once startling in appearance, with its flat body and its long stinger. It glides through the water almost like a bird in flight. I decided that I was game for the whole stingray-petting experience and I stuck my hand in the pool. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that stingrays have a gentle disposition. They are eager to greet the hand of a curious guest, rubbing against the skin with a personality akin to that of a purring family cat. Their flesh is very silky, in a somewhat slimy way, and you can feel the raw muscles pulsating within their bodies. It was such a wonderful experience that I left the aquarium citing the stingray as my new favorite creature of the deep. :)

It was still overcast and drizzling at this point, so I decided to make the Submarine Museum in Groton my next stop. A beautiful building dedicated to the history of Naval Battle, it is the home of the Nautilus, a retired nuclear submarine. I took the tour aboard the Nautilus, seeing its cramped quarters, climbing through its narrow hatches, seeing all of the parts that make a submarine move. I imagined myself in the heat of a battle at sea, deep underwater in such a confined space, depth charges exploding all around from the belly of an enemy battleship. It must have been a very frightening thing to experience. The museum on the whole is a lot of fun. I got to sit at the navigational controls of a sub, view various torpedoes and rockets, and even see my car in the parking lot through a periscope. Very cool!

From the sub museum, I went to the hotel: checked in, unpacked, changed my clothes, and went straight out again. This time, the destination was Mohegan Sun! It is advertised as "A World at Play" and it is easy to see why. The complex is the biggest, most ostentatious casino/shopping mall/playground that I have ever seen. Absolutely exquisite in architecture and design. Everywhere my eye turned, I saw planning and careful attention to detail; amazingly lavish and comfortable surroundings. I found a great restaurant on one of their concourses called the Summer Shack. I stopped there for dinner and enjoyed a steamed lobster and a local microbrew. I walked around for the rest of the night as if I were in a lovely dream! Oh, it was just a fabulous evening and I felt wonderful! :D

DAY 2:

Now, I always have one problem when I am on vacation and it has to do with my internal clock. Year round, I work the early morning shift; I arrive to my first job everyday at 5AM, which means that I am up and out of bed by 3:30. My body is completely adjusted to that schedule and I usually get up early even without an alarm clock to jar me awake. It is no different just because I happen to be in a hotel room in another part of the country. By 4AM, I was showered and ready to go for the day, but none of the area attractions would be open for another 5 hours; even the continental breakfast would not be served until 6:00. With nothing else to do, I sat in an armchair, listening to my iPod, and waiting for day to break.

Weather-wise, Day 2 was nothing like its predecessor. I watched through the drawn curtains as the sun emerged from the horizon, illuminating the crystal-clear blue skies and spreading its warmth across a world just beginning to open its eyes. It was to be a majestic day and I was happy just to be alive (and on an adventure, no less!) :D

9AM -- Mystic Seaport! Ah, has there ever been a place more serene and charming? I passed through the gates into a world rich with nautical romance, a place of whaleboats and salty lobster traps, of sailboats bobbing gracefully on river swells, of rusty anchors, tall masts, and lighthouse lanterns. Oh, the wonder of it all... I ambled around slowly, a placid smile on my face, allowing the enchantment of the place to seep into my soul. A piece of history, Mystic Seaport is a turn-of-the-century fishing village, all of its building still intact and basically unchanged by time: the one-room school house, the chapel, the chandler, the oyster house. It is also home to the world's last original wooden whaleboat, the Charles W. Morgan. One could tour the ship, visiting the forecastle, the captain's quarters, the blubber room, the tripots--an amazing visit into the past.

I stayed at Mystic Seaport for hours, seeing all of its sights. It seemed that every corner housed another fascination, another tidbit of marine history, another discovery. It is the type of place that one could visit over and over and never get bored. Its magic is such that it creeps into the heart and stays there. By mid-afternoon the sun was blazing on high and I was very content to simply sit in the grass, sipping lemonade and listening to the jazz band that played on the gazebo, wondering if life could get any better than this...

With much more of Connecticut still to visit, I left Mystic Seaport by late afternoon and headed to an attraction called "The Dinosaur Place." It is several acres of wooded hiking trails that surround a lake. Riddling the path are life-sized dinosaur replicas, set up as though they were simply living out there prehistoric lives, unaware of the guests walking through their territory. At one point, you come across a volcano. The volcano erupts once every hour; the earth rumbles and smoke and lava spew from the peak. Quite exciting! :)

You emerge from the path to find a maze. Walls of tan and white meander in all directions. I got lost in the labyrinth for nearly twenty minutes, getting slightly nervous at one point, before I finally emerged from the mouth of a giant dinosaur. There is also a water park on the premises, but I didn't have the proper attire with me for any watery mayhem. Overall, the Dinosaur Place is a bit touristy, but still a fun place to visit.

Then it was officially dinner time! I set my GPS for Mystic Pizza, the establishment made famous by the film of the same name, located in the heart of downtown Mystic. A large screen TV mounted on the wall of the dining room played the movie on an endless loop. I imagine that all of the workers know the script verbatim. LOL! The pizza is very tasty. The buffalo wings are better. No Julia Roberts, oh well...

As day began to turn dusk, I found my way to Olde Mystick Village, a community of artsy shops, quaint gazebos, duck ponds, pristine gardens... I fell in love with a shop called Silk Road Importers, specializing in arts from around the world. I strolled around the village as the sun began to set, feeling a warming joy with a subtle undertow of sadness, for I knew that Day 3 would be the last day of my journey into Mystic Country...

DAY 3:

My heart weighed a little heavy in my chest as I checked out of the hotel and loaded my luggage into the car. I knew that even though I still had plenty of sights to see for the day, by evening I would be aboard a ferry back to NY. Choking back a moment of gloom, I bid farewell to my hotel and drove off into the arms of another radiant Connecticut morning.

First on the day's agenda was the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, a large preserve featuring miles of hiking trails, a calm pond, idyllic campfire locations, a butterfly house, owl cages, as well as several scenic lookout points. I sat beside the pond for a long time, staring into its mirror-like waters, taking in the beauty of the reflections of the trees as they swayed in the cool morning breeze. The Center itself is a building dedicated to the study of the surrounding forest and its wildlife. The highlight is the "Night in the Meadow Theater." As you step into the theater and close the door, you find yourself in a dark room no bigger than a large walk-in closet. You hear the delicate song of crickets as stars twinkle in skies all around you, followed by the gentle incandescence of fireflies. A narrator's soothing voice takes you on a trip through the meadow at night. Frogs take up a duet with the crickets and soon the meadow is alive with sound. Then the creatures begin to emerge from the walls: frogs and foxes, snakes and hares, an owl with prey grasped in its mighty talons, saucer-like eyes staring off into the night...

My next destination was the Mashantucket Pequot Museum. It is located adjacent to the Foxwood Casino; a shuttle bus runs from the museum to the casino once every half hour. I highly recommend this destination if you are ever in the Foxwood area. The tour starts with a visit to the observation tower; this offers a panoramic view of the casino complex as well as all of the surrounding area. Though the sheer height of it causes a moment of vertigo, the vista is as grand as one could ever imagine. From this point forward, cameras are strictly prohibited in the museum, which is quite unfortunate as the interior is visually stunning. The tour takes guests on a journey through the history of the Mashantucket people, from earliest recorded memories to modern day. At one point, you find yourself in a football-field sized room set up to look like an authentic Mashantucket Village of old: wigwams, campfires, fishing streams, woods, etc. Life-sized wax figures stand frozen in moments of everyday Pequot life (hunting, fishing, cooking), appearing so real that one has to do a double take to be sure that they aren't actually breathing. In the distance, you can hear the sounds of native drums and pipes, as well as ceremonial chants being sung in their original tongue. It is an incredible experience and you can easily become absorbed into the village, feeling as though you just joined in on a moment of a Mashantucket day.

I left the museum with a rumble in my stomach and decided to have lunch in a traditional Irish pub/restaurant called the "Harp & Hound." The interior design of the place made me feel as though I had just stepped out of Connecticut and into a small town in Northern Europe. The menu consists of dishes such as Shepherd's Pie, Bangers & Mash, and Pulled Pork. For the truly authentic Irish experience, I opted for the Shepherd's Pie and a pint of wheat ale. I was very satisfied, to say the least. :)

With only two hours left before ferry check-in time, I decided to return to my favorite place: Mystic Seaport. I bought a ticket for the Steamboat Sabino and took a cruise down the Mystic River. It was a pristine day and I sat on my wooden bench, feeling relaxed, drinking in every last detail that Connecticut had to show: its bridges and tall wooden ships, its Old-World charm and history, its green grass and azure skies. The thought of leaving such a place made me feel a bit dejected, but a smile still managed to creep across my face. I know that God has created a vastly beautiful and exotic world and the next adventure always waits just beyond the horizon...

"He giveth power to the faint;
and to them that have no might
he increaseth strength."

~Isaiah 40:29