The first time I saw a beluga whale, he smiled at me and winked. I stood in front of a glass window peering into the green depths of an exhibit at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut. As I watched the 2000-pound whale and his two companions circle the perimeter of their spacious pool, I wondered what they were thinking.
Soon I would meet Inuk, the largest of these gentle giants, stroke his smooth while skin, and look into his dark eyes for a clue to what lies beneath.
During a recent trip to Mystic, meeting a beluga whale was the highlight of a visit full of amazing experiences. Besides learning about sea creatures at the aquarium, I also explored Mystic Seaport, the restored village along the edge of the Mystic River. I stayed in the cozy Inn at Mystic, dined on luscious seafood, perused quaint shops, and hiked across picturesque meadows and through old-growth forests.
After visiting this quaint coastal region the second time, I’m convinced that Mystic is the ideal destination for anyone who harbors a love for the sea, especially families seeking a vacation that combines learning and hands-on fun.
But landlubbers, beware. After navigating Mystic’s many attractions, you too might find yourself falling under the spell of the high seas.
Secrets of the Deep
Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration began as a dream conceived by Kelvin Smith, an industrialist and philanthropist from Cleveland, Ohio. A chemist by training, Smith had a strong interest in marine biology and chose Mystic as the site for an aquarium because of its scenic shoreline and rich maritime history. The aquarium opened in 1973. Twenty-six years later the aquarium joined forces with Dr. Robert Ballard’s Institute for Exploration and reopened after a $53 million expansion.
Today its goal is “to inspire people everywhere to care about and protect our oceans.” State-of-the-art educational exhibits teach visitors about beluga whales, penguins, and sea lions. You can also learn about the Amazon rainforest as well as deep sea exploration. One area showcases expeditions by world-renowned explorer, Dr. Robert Ballard, offering insight into shipwrecks from Roman times to today.
But the beluga whales draw the biggest crowds. Each weighs over 1000 pounds and measures between eleven and thirteen feet in length. Belugas are found in the Arctic and sub-Arctic waters off the coasts of Alaska, Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway. They’re not currently on the endangered species list, but several of their populations are dwindling, due to loss of habitat and increased pollution.
One of Mystic Aquarium’s most popular programs is The Beluga Whale Contact program. For an additional fee, you’re allowed to meet a beluga whale up close. I experienced the program during my visit, and it was amazing. First we put on thick waders to keep us dry. Then, accompanied by the whale’s trainer, we made our way to the edge of the pool. Inuk swam over, knowing the trainer carried a bucket full of tasty little fish. Sure enough, Inuk was pleased to do all sorts of tricks in exchange for these delicious morsels.
After petting Inuk’s smooth, rubbery skin, we took turns rubbing his tongue, a favorite sweet spot for beluga whales (who knew?). Then the trainer showed us a few simple commands, which we repeated. To our delight, Inuk obeyed our requests and completed simple maneuvers, one of which was to douse us all with a huge splash of water.
Getting up close to such a large animal is a memorable experience, one I will treasure. While Inuk never shared any “secrets of the deep” with me, he gave me a final wink of farewell as I walked away from the pool—as if to say, “Keep trying and one day you just might figure it out.”
Cool River Breezes
Another place families can learn about sea lore is Mystic Seaport. Here on the shores of the Mystic River, shipbuilding has been a tradition since the 1600’s. Billed as The Museum of America and the Sea, Mystic Seaport has three different areas, highlighting the lives of seafaring men and women.
You’ll enjoy strolling through a recreated 19th-century village with dozens of real New England buildings. Inside historians, musicians, storytellers, and craftspeople bring the past to life. You can also view historic tall ships and boats, including the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last surviving wooden whaleship. Kids love the children’s museum, where you can dress up in sailor’s garb and have your photo taken.
Mystic Seaport is also one of the nation’s leading maritime galleries. Its collection contains an astonishing 2.5 million artifacts and historic documents. For example, a gorgeous display of authentic figureheads awaits visitors in a dimly lit room. Intricately carved, painted, and restored to their original beauty, these artifacts depict patriotic figures, national heroes, as well as beautiful, mysterious women whose eyes seem to seek something they will never find.
A third component of Mystic Seaport is its preservation shipyards. Visitors can watch skilled boatbuilders and craftspeople using 19th-century tools to preserve and restore historic wooden ships and boats.
If you get hungry during your visit, stop in Seamen’s Inne Restaurant and Pub. The menu features local seafood including award-winning New England clam chowder, local oysters, and fisherman’s stew. Choose to dine in the candlelit dining room with its 19th-century ambience or al fresco on the lush green lawn, where cool river breezes blow.
Braving the Elements
Besides Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, the region offers lots of other activities for families. For a unique experience, visit Clyde’s Cider Mill, the oldest steam-powered mill in the U.S., which is open from September through December.
When I got out of the car during my visit, I noticed clouds of steam rising above a rustic wooden building. Then it hit me: the pungent smell of crushed apples. Inside the mill I watched as old-fashioned presses squished thousands of apples into a pulp as golden-brown juices ran down troughs funneled into tanks from which gallon jugs would be filled. Later I sipped hot cider from the mill, the perfect refreshment for a cool fall day.
Another outing I recommend is a visit to the town of Stonington, which was settled in 1649 and incorporated in 1801. Facing the Atlantic, the town features an old-fashioned Main Street with shops and galleries housed in historic buildings. As I walked through the town, I imagined what it would be like to live there. Something about New England has always appealed to me: its proximity to the sea perhaps, its history, its overall sense of coziness.
I found myself at the Old Lighthouse Museum, which features a tower you can climb for a birds-eye view of the Atlantic. It was a windy fall day when I visited, and angry-looking waves churned beneath me. I thought about the many generations of sailors and seamen who’ve braved the elements to seek fortune in the sea. I sure wouldn’t want to be bobbing around in a boat on a day like this, I decided.
If you’re a nature buff, you’ll want to explore The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Cener back in Mystic. This education center and wildlife sanctuary offers programs year round. You can explore woodland, wetland, and meadow habitats as you hike along trails throughout the 300-hundred acre preserve. Make sure you experience a “Night in the Meadow” in the museum’s intimate theater.
Sense of History
With all these opportunities for sightseeing, you’ll want to find accommodations that are comfortable and relaxing. Skip the chain hotels and enjoy an authentic New England experience at The Inn at Mystic, where owner and innkeeper Jody Dyer will make you feel like family.
Perched on a bluff overlooking Mystic River, the Inn is known for its charming décor featuring four-poster beds and working fireplaces in most of the rooms. I stayed in the east wing, and from my balcony, I had a lovely river view. Rates include a full breakfast buffet and afternoon tea.
Also not to be missed is The Floodtide Restaurant adjacent to the Inn. Specialties include steamed lobster, savory tarts, classic Caesar salad prepared tableside, baked salmon, local scallops, and (my favorite) gorgonzola-crusted grilled rack of lamb. The cozy ambience will make you feel like a native, even if your southern drawl doesn’t quite fit in with Yankee accent.
Every time I go to Mystic, I feel like I’m going home. There’s something about the area’s friendly people, cozy towns, and sense of history that resonates with me. I often wonder when you feel a strong connection to a place whether perhaps you lived there in an earlier life. Maybe that’s the message my beluga friend is trying to communicate to me with his all-knowing smile and wise winks. Perhaps he’s saying we’ve met before and here we are again. If all goes well, we’ll meet once more on a distant shore.
For more information, visit www.mystic.org.