Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Connecticut travelogue

Mystic is one of New England's charming coastal towns - which gained international attention when it became the site of the film "Mystic Pizza", the film which rocketed Julia Roberts into stardom. And, yes, the pizza parlour is still there at the top of the quaint little main street.
We had loved visiting Mystic and the utterly charming nearby fishing port of Stonington some seven years ago and felt in the mood to pay them a return visit - particularly to eat at a certain waterside restaurant where we had been served one of the most memorable meals of our lives.
So, on Friday afternoon, we headed south across Massachusetts to Connecticut and the coast. It was a particularly aesthetic drive, once we left the main highways. We meandered through the undulating rural landscape along leafy, winding roads. Signposts occasionally announced towns but nothing much materialised except a few clapboard houses on large lots and yet more farms with lovely old barns. Immense vistas of corn, tall, ripe, healthy corn, corn "as high as an elephant's eye", stretched back from the roadsides. Lush and verdant country, indeed.

Things were decidedly weird when we arrived in Mystic. There were traffic jams all over the place and, at the town bridge, which opens on the half hour to allow seacraft up the estuary, there was a serious and static backup. We swung out of it, looped around some rather pleasant residential backstreets and stopped at a donut place from which we could observe the traffic while indulging in coffee and a donut. This was when I got the first clue as to what was wrong. A chubby woman in a sunfrock came in to buy a box of donut holes and commented that it was good to see the power back on, although it was still off where she lived.
It must have been the severe summer storms which had savaged New England, we surmised. Correctly. Lightning and falling trees had caused havoc and local businesses had been brought to a halt, some of them for 24 hours.
We repaired to our accommodation, Mystic's Best Western, to find it oddly deserted. In the dark foyer, a frazzled receptionist was busily sending all the guests elsewhere. "We've had no power since yesterday and don't know when it will be back on," she explained. "They have rooms up the road at Day's Inn." Not for long. We got one of the last - but it was quite acceptable since it was a smoking room with two double beds. And, delight of delights, complimentary wireless Internet access.

After an hour or so resting, reading and catching up online, we headed for Mystic town again - for a pleasant walk before dinner. Very pleasant indeed. The little town was massed with weekend tourists. They seemed to be affluent New Englander types - sporty, tanned, well-groomed people in pristine shorts and snappy sandals. Crocs, the colourful, light, plastic sandal of the moment, were much in evidence.
Mystic is not a shopping town. It has just one, narrow main street with quaint little giftie stores and, seemingly, lots of icecream parlours. We melded into the ambling throng, pausing to gaze at people being wined and dined on a moored launch at the dock and to watch the bridge raise and lower for yachts and excursion boats.

I had called the restaurant from Nashua, asking to be put on the priority seating list. Table reservations are not common in the States. People tend to arrive and be queued in order waiting for tables to become free. Priority seating requests lifts one's status in the queue and one is seated before the "walk-ins" - of which there were masses at the lovely S&P Oyster Company restaurant. We were allocated a patio table at 7.30, our chosen time. Surrounded by pots of vivid flowers, we could still watch the bridge and the passing vessels. As the sky softened into delicate sunset hues, I sipped on a frozen mango vodka, Bruce a Bourbon, and we purred at the pleasure of the moment, the divine decadence in a divine place. For starters we had ordered fried calamari and onions with an aioli sauce.

It was baby squid, unspeakably delicate and delicious. We also shared a tangy salad loaded with fresh orange portions. As the lights came on over the water, our mains arrived - hearty bouillabaisse garnished with lobster claws for Bruce and a spread of Alaskan crab legs with dipping butter for me. Oh, my. Ambrosial is the only word for that crab, which came with an odd tool I had never seen before, designed to pierce and then saw neatly through the long length of shell to get at the sweet flesh within.

We were too sated for S&R's rich desserts, but followed our waitress's suggestion to seek an icecream on the main street. I was glad since, amid the zillion options at our chosen icecream parlour, was black cherry sorbet. It was outrageously exquisite - and I ate it sitting on a waterside bench on the quay walk.

Best Western had told us we could book into our room at 11 am the next morning. After a breakfast of fresh waffle and coffee at Day's Inn, we drove around the bays looking at marinas and boats and the smallest beach in the world, nothing more than a reclaimed boat ramp. I had a wander at the Mystic Village shops, lovely, eclectic tourist shops in a pleasant pseudo village arrangement while Bruce read the NY Times on a shady bench beforer we headed for Best Western, only to be told that there was only one room ready - which was not the king smoker I had reserved. We were then told that internet reservations don't guarantee you will get what you reserved online. I had reserved by phone, ringing the Best Western 1800 number, the number Best Western Mystic has on its website, I said. "It's the same. You can only be sure of getting the room you want by ringing the hotel direct," she replied. This blows sideways the whole concept of reserving hotel rooms online or even via toll-free numbers. You must pay a long-distance call if you don't want your hotel reservation to be pot luck.

Best Western told us to come back in a few hours. There was a slim chance a smoking king room may become available. No, if we left our luggage there, it would not be secure and they could take no responsibility for it.
This, therefore, left us carting my computer around with us, nervous of leaving the car for long in case it became too hot - for it was steamy, hot weather in Connecticut. Thus constrained, we juggled our plans for the day, cancelling the two-hour tour of the historic seaport since there was no covered parking for cars (and one could not drag a computer through the exhibits).
Instead, we headed for New London and the River Thames - which had been our Sunday plan. A walk on the beach seemed like a nice idea, and an exploratory to find the old house in which our friend Grant had lived when he worked on the famous submarine corporation. Eugene O'Neill also had once occupied that house, he had told us. So it had double significance as a travel diversion.

New London is an oddly down-at-heel town. It has a gracious old main street, leafy and narrow, with historic buildings and imposing church towers. But it was almost deserted. A few desultry convenience stores were open, but there was a bleak, abandoned feeling to it. And the surrounding back streets seemed decayed and threatening. In a tiny town square, a sad quasi Rasta band was playing melancholy music as a feature of the oddest and smallest craft market I have ever seen. We wandered through - about five stalls with no customers. There was some Asian tat, some woven cushion covers, some beading, a local club promotional and a large and depressed-looking African American woman selling home-made "gourmet bean pies". I did not fancy the idea of any food which was sitting around under clingfilm in the steamy heat of the day. Nor did anyone else, by the look of the stand. She would be taking her labours home with her.

In unspoken agreement, we headed back to the car. This town was no place to hang around. A beach walk, water views, we followed the map to the headland where the beach park was located. Once in the coastal burbs, New London was far more salubrious. Very salubrious indeed. Large houses and crowded marinas. As we neared the beach park, we found ourselves suddenly in a traffic jam. No. A queue of cars waiting to get into a vast carpark. How odd. Finally we reached the entrance gate to discover that there was a $11 fee to park the car before getting to the beach. The whole area was enclosed in high cyclone fence and there was a water funpark for which one was, presumably, also paying admission. We explained that we were lost , hooked around the admission booth and drove off in search of a plain old beach.
A sea wall obscured the beach we found down the road. Parking was problematic. There were "resident only" signs everywhere. But Bruce had spotted The Lighthouse Inn up the hill and had earmarked it for lunch. It was an imposing old place looking down one of the roads to the sea.
We found a lovely, shady spot in the circular driveway around the Inn and headed down the road for our beach walk before lunch. On reaching the gate to the walled beach, we were blocked by tanned young gate attendants. Apparently we needed to have a guest pass to walk on the beach. It was a private beach.

We followed the wall down the length of the beach, walking on a narrow, weedy verge towards the lovely old lighthouse on the promontory. There were more gates to the beach, each one firmly closed with assorted "Private" signs - one seemingly a business, another for different residents....
It was clear that we were unwelcome. Tourists were unwelcome. Outsiders of any hue were unwelcome. And, indeed, when one paused and perused the sun-worshippers spread out along the bay, it was a WASP world, an affluent, suntanned, youthful, privileged WASP world. An exclusive enclave with ownership of a large stretch of beach. I snarled with disapproval, for I am of the Australian understanding that beaches are for everyone and that no one should so much as attempt to restrict public access to them.

Thus grumbling, I settled for a look at the lighthouse. Oops. Another sign. Not just a "private" sign, but a "no photographs". Huh? How unwelcoming and just bloody bossy is this community? Out of sheer perversity, I photographed the sign.

We retraced our footsteps and headed for the Inn which turned out to be one of America's historic hotels - with an imposingly handsome interior, grand dining rooms with gold chairs, wood panelled walls and ceilings, chandeliers and formal wait staff. We were giving a lovely window table in the almost empty dining room. Some upmarket young women were gathered in another dining room, bubbling away with social noises. It seemed to be a bridal shower. In another gracious old dining room, a singer and pianist were rehearsing. Otherwise, the place seemed oddly quiet. Our waiter was called James and he was comically snooty and not pleased that we wished to drink water. Thereafter his service was not swift. But the meal was pleasant enough - crab quesadilla shared as a starter and seafood salads for each of us. Mine was a seared tuna salad so fired up with wasabi that lesser mortals may not have coped with it. One had the feeling that the chef was not very worldly and was trying just a bit too hard. Sometimes the Americans miss the mark with their efforts at being olde worlde gracious and end up just being a bit pretentious. This was such a case. Nonetheless, the environment soothed us and we departed happy, heading for the darling town of Stonington for coffee and cake.

Stonington is a "Kodak moment" village. There are no fast food places - just a charming main street lined with hanging flower pots and characterful shops and cafes. We scored a perfect carpark in the shade right beside the Yellow Cafe and went in for coffees and sour cream cinnamon cake, chatting with the proprietor about the drama of the recent power outages. Then we took a stroll, along the main street and through backstreets to the fishing wharf where the lobster pots were piled up, where grimy working fishing boats rested on their moorings and where fierce fish stench emerged from the canvas-covered gutting tables which, now abandoned for the day, were still wet, with knives and scaling tools trustingly abandoned.

Walking back through more side streets in which the old clapboard houses bore historic plaques revealing who had first lived there - captains and pioneers - we came upon the village green, and very busy it was, too. The town fair was in full swing and, unlike the sad little New London market, it was packed with avenues of stalls and swarming with people. We meandered through, reflecting that a weekend market was a weekend market was a weekend market, and emerged at the other side of town, to walk more charming old streets admiring lovely and quaint historic houses, until we reached the car - well and truly walked.

At which moment, it occurred to me that we had done all we really wanted to do and had no pressing reason to spend the night in a hotel which may or may not have the room that we had reserved. So we returned to the Best Western to cancel our booking (they had found an appropriate room) and drive back to New Hampshire - slowly, along different backroads. They were just as lushly rural and beautiful as the road down but, amid the cornfields, there seemed to be quite a lot of decidedly upmarket horse studs. They are not poor in Connecticut.

And back onto the efficiency of the American motorway system to "schuss" across Massachusetts, skirting Boston, and slipping across the border back home to NH with the realisation that we still had a whole Sunday to spend at our ease with newspapers and nature walks.

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