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A TANK AWAY | MYSTIC, CONN.

Timing is everything

Avoid the masses, and head to this seaport off-season

Among the seaport town’s attractions are penguins at the Mystic Aquarium. Among the seaport town’s attractions are penguins at the Mystic Aquarium. (Lisa Leavitt for The Boston Globe)
By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / December 1, 2010

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Conveniently located halfway between Boston and New York on the Interstate 95 corridor, Mystic has always been a popular day trip, especially in the height of summer when many families are making an annual road trip. Set foot in Mystic Seaport on a July weekend and this re-creation of a 19th-century seaside village feels more like Ellis Island during the height of immigration. And good luck getting that glimpse of the beluga whales at nearby Mystic Aquarium, standing behind row after row of onlookers. To avoid the masses, layer your clothes and head to Mystic in the off-season. Both Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium are open year-round.

STAY Down the road from the aquarium and only a two-minute drive from the seaport is the Hilton Mystic (20 Coogan Boulevard, www.hiltonmystic.com, 860-572-0731, rates from $74). Parking is easy and the large indoor pool is popular with kids unwinding after a long day of seeing the sights. Four blocks from the Amtrak station, the 49 rooms at the Whaler’s Inn (20 East Main Street, www.whalersinnmystic.com, 800-243-2588) are smack in the center of town. Rates for double rooms, including continental breakfast, start at $109 in winter.

DINE Off the beaten track, Somewhere in Time (3175 Gold Star Highway, www.somewhereintimecafe.com, 860-536-1985, $3-$10) might feel like somewhere in the middle of nowhere. But once you arrive and see the slew of people lined up for breakfast, you realize this is a local institution. Grab a mug of coffee and get ready to dig into the large selection of omelets, pancakes, and French toast. Nearby is B.F. Clyde’s (129 North Stonington Road, www.bfclydescidermill.com, 860-536-3354), open in 1881 and home to the oldest steam-powered cider mill in America. The mill won’t be running in December, but you can still come to the store and try the sweet cider, pumpkin bread, apple pies, and maple syrup. For Mystic pizza, try the new kid on the block, Pizzetta (7 Water St., www.pizzettamystic.com, 860-536-4443, $11-$18.50). Order one of their thin crust pizzas like pesto or white clam, and wash it down with a Connecticut microbrew, Mystic Bridge IPA. If you’re in the mood for steak frites, ribs, grilled salmon, or pasta dishes, try Azu (32 West Main Street, www.ckrestaurantgroup.com/azu, 860-536-6336, entrees $14-$26), which always has a festive feel, whether it’s before the holidays or after New Year’s. Top it off with a sundae or hot chocolate at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream (2 West Main St., www.mysticdrawbridgeicecream.com, 860-572-7978), where homemade ice cream has been served at this same site for over 100 years.

DURING THE DAY There’s no better welcoming committee to the Mystic Aquarium (55 Coogan Blvd., www.mysticaquarium.org, 860-572-5955, $26 for adults, $19 ages 3-17) than those beluga whales swimming in their outdoor pools just to the right of the entrance. Watch the trainers feed the whales, then walk nearby to see the large Steller sea lions. Afterward, head inside to view the display of hypnotic jellyfish, including the graceful comb jellies and the long tentacles of the Pacific sea nettles, known for their painful sting. For an additional fee, you can have private time with a penguin in the Penguin Encounter. Pet his slick back feathers, watch him waddle around the small room, and see him dine on herring and squid as you learn about the diminishing habitat of the African penguins, now officially endangered.

Over at the Mystic Seaport (75 Greenmanville Ave., www.mysticseaport.org, 888-973-2767, $24 for adults, $15 ages 6-17), the historic whaleboat Charles W. Morgan is undergoing a $10 million restoration to make it seaworthy again by 2013. In the meantime, stroll down Front Street, a re-creation of a working whaling village with all the requisite shops. In the cooperage, large casks are created to store the oil. A man sweats over a fire at the shipsmith, melding wrought-iron metal to create lances, harpoons, and spades to cut the blubber, while the printing press is busy advertising jobs for naive green hands, appealing to their patriotic side with a sign reading: “20 Proud Americans Wanted for the Good of the Country.’’

AFTER DARK Throughout weekends in December, the Seaport presents nightly “Lantern Light Tours’’ where actors take you back to Christmas Eve, circa 1876. If you’re feeling lucky, try your hand at the blackjack or craps tables at Foxwoods Casino (Ledyard Center, www.foxwoods.com, 860-312-3000), only a 15-minute drive from downtown Mystic.

Steve Jermanok can be reached at www.activetravels.com.