With tall ships, lobster rolls, rope bracelets, a world-class aquarium, white whales, and lots of craft beer, the whole family will be singing sea shanties after a weekend in this famous New England seaport.
Words & photos by Nicole DuCharme / Feature photo by Kapstun
When you’re sitting at home in Manhattan, it’s tough to imagine that in just two hours, you can be strolling in a quintessential New England town. But book a weekend in Mystic, Connecticut, and you’ll be transported to a historic seafaring village with a lot more to offer than pizza.
Follow us for two perfect winter days in ye olde seaport—but it’s a destination that works in any season.
We started our day’s adventure at the Sea View Snack Bar for an early lunch of lobster rolls and clam chowder. The clouds were low that day and there was a light rain so the chowder hit the spot. The perfect lobster rolls were a reminder to us that spring and summer are indeed coming to the Northeast and there are certain to be good times ahead. We spent time chatting with other diners braving the rain before doubling back to tell the kitchen how perfect our meal was and trying to get some information about the seasoning of the lobster roll. While we did get confirmation that those were indeed finely chopped dill pickles, they kept the rest of their secret recipe to themselves.
After lunch, we were hosted at the Mystic Seaport Museum. After a brief discussion about the beautiful architecture of the newest building on the grounds, we were shown around the exhibition buildings and received a quick briefing on all exhibits. It left us with so many interesting options to choose from! This is really a must while visiting the area. When we visited in late March 2021, only half of the grounds were open and it was almost too much to see in one afternoon. The entirety of the museum has opened now and we are hoping to get back to see it all. Climb aboard the Charles W. Morgan whaling ship then follow up with a fantastic exhibit about whaling history.
Do not miss the Figureheads and Ship Carvings Exhibit for a fascinating history of how and why the figureheads were chosen and their meanings. At the Hilton Mystic, there are photographic collages of many figureheads. Ask your kids to identify how many of them they saw in the exhibit.
The seaport has an excellent recreation of a 19th-century village which will take you back in time and teach more history of New England. Make time to visit the planetarium and be sure to visit the Museum Store for a carefully curated and brilliant bookstore (with so many fun books for kids!), thoughtful, quality gifts, and a floor-to-ceiling wall-of-fudge that cannot and should not be resisted.
We went to downtown Mystic which straddles the Mystic River. If you’re looking for a beer on a sunny day, Barley Head Brewery’s patio welcomes adults, kids, and leashed dogs. It’s a charming place to bask in the sun. The Mystic Museum of Art is directly across the street from the Brewery (and happens to have the most convenient pay parking lot for a visit to downtown). The Museum sits right on the bank of the river and is worth a visit to see a great representation of New England art.
While downtown, grab a table at The Oyster Club in the treehouse. Take the stairs up to a windowed, canvas tent perched high in the trees. We went for happy hour and had oysters, but there is a fun children’s menu including a burger and mac and cheese options if you’d like to enjoy dinner or brunch with your family in the treehouse or main dining room.
After a walk and a rest, we were ready for dinner at Jealous Monk which is a quick walk from the Hilton. With a large, open dining room with soaring ceilings and a sprawling outdoor beer garden, Jealous Monk transports you straight to Munich for an incredibly fun experience. We chose to sit outside per our own Covid preferences and it was magical. Twinkling lights strung above authentic German beer garden tables. In the cooler weather, there were transparent, heated igloos available, but we found the evening pleasant enough to sit in the open air. Alongside the large variety of German beers, there are some delicious American craft beers available as well. We had a few of both! The same is true of the food menu as well. While the German specialties are extensive, there is more to the menu to explore. We enjoyed the chef’s daily flatbread, a salad and the very best fish and chips I’ve had on the East Coast – perfectly battered with a nice, toothy crunch! The children’s menu includes a grilled cheese sandwich, chicken options, a cheeseburger, and mac and cheese. It is a perfect place for a family gathering and sitting outside on a sunny afternoon or a clear night just can’t be beaten.
Overnight: The Hilton Mystic
The Hilton Mystic is ideally situated across from the Mystic Aquarium and the Olde Mystic Village. Sitting atop a small hill, it has unobstructed views of the area and light fills all of the hotel’s common areas. The decor of the hotel is nautical and modern. There were lots of nice areas to sit and congregate and the staff were warm and friendly.
Covid-wise, everyone wore masks and hand sanitizer was plentiful. We had stayed at a Hilton last October and we know that their cleanliness and safety protocols are both thoughtful and thorough. We happily made ourselves at home right away.
The room was spacious and the king-size bed was made up with beautiful linens. We had a corner room with plentiful natural light. The color scheme leans navy, grey, and white and there is a comforting crispness about all of it.
To be honest, we couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning and get in line for the event that most excited us about the weekend: Breakfast with Penguins at the Hilton Mystic. This special event runs through the end of March (call ahead for upcoming dates) and we were so happy to have been able to be there for it. This offer is available to hotel guests only. Breakfast is served from 7am – 11am (get the brioche breakfast sandwich!) with penguin viewing from 9:30am – 10:30am.
Because of the close partnership and proximity between the Hilton Mystic and the Mystic Aquarium, it’s seamless and penguin safe to welcome two penguins and two of their trainers into a conference room where a socially distanced crowd of excited kids and adults can learn about the penguins, how they are named, their habits, and habitats. The trainers are patient with children’s questions and they are so at ease with their penguins. It’s heartwarming just to watch them! We did learn a lot about the South African penguins and it made us look even more forward to our visit to the Aquarium.
If you have time, be sure to walk over to Olde Mistick Village just across the road from The Hilton. There are bakeries, toy shops, a large general store, and a kite shop. It’s a very pleasant place to walk around and there certainly is something for everyone.
We jumped in our car and headed back towards downtown Mystic. We wanted to visit Mystic Knotwork to learn about the traditional sailor’s knot bracelet worn by men, women, and children all over New England. We were greeted by Matt and Jill Beaudoin. While they told us the remarkable history of the family company which was founded by Matt’s grandfather in the 1950s, Matt deftly knotted a cotton sailor bracelet custom sized to fit my husband’s wrist.
He hardly had to glance at the cotton rope in his hand. While that was happening, an employee and knotwork artisan, Megan Taylor, made a custom anchor bracelet for me! At their own calculations, they’ve done this “thousands of times”. Beyond the customary bracelets, there are housewares – plant hangers, trivets, doormats, rope bowls, and more – that would fit into many decors including Scandi, modern, and bohemian. I wanted it all!
Be sure to carve out a significant chunk of time to spend in Bank Street Books which is an amazing store for readers and dreamers of any age. We were making our way to cooking and travel sections and that route took longer than we thought due to eye-catching displays, thoughtfully written staff picks, mountains of notebooks and colorful gifts, and an amusing traffic pattern through the store that kept revealing more treasures.
If you’re feeling a little peckish, you’ll likely smell Young Buns Doughnuts before you even spot the sunny yellow storefront. The imaginative and colorful offerings are overwhelming (in a good way!), but the staff is patient and will start making your beverages while you make up your mind. I’d be happy to help you with that – get the Mystic Cream! It’s a vanilla cream-filled doughnut topped with chocolate ganache, pistachios, and flaky sea salt.
Then, it was off to the Mystic Aquarium hoping to meet up with the penguins we’d met that morning. The aquarium sure knows how to stun you when you walk in the entrance as you’re almost face-to-face with Beluga whales just as you pass through the gates. What a welcome!
Surrounded by bridged and terraced viewing areas plus a gigantic glass wall for underwater viewing, the three energetic and playful belugas can be observed from any angle. We made our way through beautiful outdoor habitats for seals and sea lions, and frogs to make our way to the penguins. We couldn’t find the two we’d met that morning. We arrived at their afternoon checkup and they were all cuddling up to and following around their many trainers. It was great to see them so lovingly doted on.
The aquarium is a leader in conservation and animal rescue and care. It shows in every little detail. From the large indoor gallery featuring eels, pufferfish, coral reefs, and sharks to the numerous interactive sites around the grounds, there is a lot to learn and see for everyone in your family.
Sadly, it was then time to leave mystical Mystic. All stocked up on fudge and saltwater taffy, we headed for home, but with plans to return. With summer coming on strong here in the Northeast, we look forward to sunny days at the many local beaches and a return to all the lovely places we were so fortunate to visit on this first of many visits.
Plus, we left without trying the famous Mystic Pizza and we won’t make that mistake twice!
Nicole DuCharme – May 2021
Living in NYC, raised in LA, born in Santa Fe, heart in Amsterdam, Nicole proves there’s no city too big, no menu too long, and no marathon too hilly.
The Hilton Mystic hosted Nicole’s family visit but her opinions are her own.
© ROAM Family Travel 2021 – All rights reserved
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