"Blueberry Hill. Lucullan food. Nothing whatever to do." I can remember my mother reading these words aloud as she searched the small-print New Yorker ads for the perfect Vermont inn. She made me open the dictionary—no Google back then—to get the exact definition of lucullan: lavish and luxurious, after the storied feasts of pre-Christian Roman general Lucius Lucinius Lucullus. I still have my mother's copy of Elsie Masterton's Blueberry Hill Cookbook—lucullan indeed.
But the triumph of the Mastertons' beautiful inn was the absence of official pleasures. It became a favorite respite for our family of compulsive doers, close to Camp Killooleet, where my brother (and eventually his children) spent life-changing summers and I was a counselor. Some fifty years later, I remember lazy hours lying on a grassy slope and reading the books that came to hand in the higgledy-piggledy shelves outside my Blueberry Hill bedroom. Marjorie Morningstar, devoured in an afternoon and more or less instantly forgotten (though the sweetness of the seamless reading is locked in memory). Advertisements for Myself, my first taste of Norman Mailer and never to be forgotten. I suspect those two books, the one lost in the fog as well as the one endlessly reread, shaped me as a writer. When there's nothing to do, everything is possible.
Fast forward to 2010. In the middle of a stifling New York summer, my inamorato, Ricardo, proposed that we get away for a couple of days midweek. We wanted exactly to do nothing—but closer than Vermont and on water, not in the mountains. We needed to breathe briny air and sleep cradled by breezes: windows open wide, AC off. As to Lucullan food: sparkling oysters on the half shell and straight-up lobster rolls would do it for us. Oh, and we didn't want to bother with a car.
|Mystic River Towers
Credit: Tricia Cunningham
Thus we conjured the Inn at Mystic, two and half hours via Amtrak up the Connecticut coast. The website suggested the right degrees of simplicity and comfort, with lush grounds for hanging about, a pool and small-craft dock if the body wanted to move, and a well reviewed restaurant, the Flood Tide, offering breakfast and dinner. Historic downtown Mystic was a ten-minute walk or a minor taxi trip.
The Inn at Mystic has multiple personalities: inns, plural, is more like it. Take that diagnosis as a nod to its quirky charm, not description of a disorder. If you're like this demanding traveler, however, you may need a minute to catch on, and you'll want to plan your perch
So Ricardo and I may be forgiven an "uh-oh" moment as our taxi turned up the hill at 3 Williams Avenue. (Pack lightly enough and you can walk there from the depot, not a quarter mile away.) The address is one of those mapmakers' conventions: Williams Avenue is another name for a stretch of thrumming Route One, and at first glimpse the inn is a sprawling white motel with a perfect view of traffic. Hang on, and all will be fine and better than fine.
We were booked into room 227, in the Main House, which meant we entered directly from the parking lot and were hit by the smell of disinfectant. But, opening the door to the balcony was so transformative, we might just have opened the supernal closet in Narnia. Fresh air swept in, carrying notes of cut grass and tidal waters. We sat ourselves down on the balcony chairs, and the traffic disappeared from view. Our vista was filled with tranquil rolling lawn and the rippling, dappled Pequotsepos Brook.
Still, compulsive about always getting the most and the best, I asked innkeeper Jody Dyer if she could give us a room "a little less motel-y." Gracious, unflappable Jody offered to move us up the hill to the Mansion, a pillared beauty of a dazzling white house often rented out whole to wedding parties. The available room had a hundred-year-old canopy bed from Texas, complete with lone-star quilt; and the patio downstairs, which would be ours unshared, had a Mystic River harbor view. No traffic except for butterflies.
Stunning—and if we'd had a car we might have leapt. But the point of our original plan was to locate us mere steps from the pool and restaurant. So we kept 227 and grew attached to the magical disconnect between parking lot and balcony. We quickly asked to book a third night. Jody said yes but we'd have to move—not to the historic Mansion but to the nicely landscaped East Wing. Room 254 was a step up in luxury, with a whirlpool double bath, separate toilet and shower room, and a pleasant terrace facing the harbor. And we were still an easy walk hither and yon.
Water view of the Inn
The inn was fully booked, but most of the other guests must have gone off-campus to do the things we didn't do: tour the historic seaport and aquarium, buy stuff at the Old Mistik mall, taste the local Chardonnay, prowl the used bookstore in Niantic, cruise Fisher's Sound. (All worth a detour at another time, but not what we needed.) Amazingly, no one competed for our dream spot: a small deck overlooking the dock where the canoes and kayaks were tethered.
Two Adirondack chairs, generously shaded, were just the place to bask in emptiness. We breathed, we talked, we read. (The good people at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village, who always help us find destination reading, had recommended the exact right mystery: The Cold Blue Blood, by Connecticut writer David Handler.) When the need for an official accomplishment overcame me, I took out a kayak for half an hour and chased the shadows on the green tidal brook under Ricardo's watchful eye.
At lunchtime, I walked down the hill and across Route One to provender up at the Sea Swirl, the paradigmatic clam shack. Fried whole-belly clams lost their crispness by the time I got them back to our aerie; next time I'll have them straight from the fryer. But lobster rolls held their perfection on the three-minute walk up the hill. Suggestion: ask for your roll to be toasted dark, and request extra lemon, a packet of mayo, a fork for the fat chunks of claw meat escaping the roll, and sugar for the good iced tea. Don't forget straws and napkins.
As seasoned travelers to the New England and mid-Atlantic coast know, every area boasts a starred fish restaurant with a gorgeous view of the water—and the food is great if you go with simple and awful if you let the kitchen fuss.
Ferried to town by the affable and reliable crew at Mystic Yellow Cab (under $5 on the meter), we had a lunch and a dinner at S & P Oyster, perfectly situated next to the Bascule drawbridge. Raw oysters were varied and impeccable, with Stonington Blue Points the standout. A lobster salad on salsa was a mistake, the flavors blurred, but a lobster taco was pretty good mostly because the corn tortilla had been heated on the word-burning grill and the pico di gallo was omitted, as requested. The upstairs bar has a great view across the water to the fine old houses on Captains Row; mostly it's a way station for diners hoping for the patio, though, and it gets hectic in the evening. Then again, it's worth putting up with a little waiting and jostling to end up on the patio at twilight.
S & P brews decent coffee, but the proper dessert after eating there is a cone at Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, a short stroll across the river. Much seaside "home-made" ice cream is disappointing; at Drawbridge, it's an agony to narrow down your choice of flavors.
Sad to report, our one dinner at the Flood Tide didn't live up to its press. The view was lovely and the seriously understaffed service was valiant. But there was neither taste nor texture in the Stonington scallops we'd requested simply pan-seared. How could a local catch go so wrong? In fairness we have to note that other diners seemed happy with elaborate tableside preparations of Caesar salad and dessert crepes. Of course a hotel restaurant must cater to many tastes—but straight-up should always be an option, and local ingredients should shine.
Our last night, we took the advice of a fellow traveler at the Inn and went to Skipper's Dock in Stonington, four miles away and $12.75 on the taximeter—or about the tab for inching through four blocks of New York rush-hour traffic. We'd booked an outside table for eight o'clock but got there shortly after seven so as not to miss the sunset. Snifters of Irish whiskey in hand, sunglasses over our eyes and jackets over our shoulders, we sat at the waterside rail in the outside cocktail area and watched the sun shimmy through threads of cloud, then slip into the tree line and out of sight. It's the show that never gets old, and we hummed with contentment.
At dinner, Ricardo braved the cherrystones and pronounced them perfect. Craving salad, as one does on the third day of a trip, I ordered wood-fire-charred romaine and must confess to loving it. Our shared clam chowder, alas, had been fancied up with rosemary—a great deal of rosemary—and was thick as Elmer's glue. Of Ricardo's broiled fisherman's platter, only three words need be said: Don't order it. But the char-grilled lobster, blackened and chewy, was primal perfection. Even if you're not allergic to garlic, as I am, I beg you to ask for it basted with plain butter, for anything else would get in the way of the pure, deep flavors. Accompanying mashed potatoes, dense and buttery, were outrageously good. Wax beans tasted just-picked.
Sign of a great trip: On the train back to New York next morning, we started making a list—a very short list—of things we'll do differently next time.
Drink area microbrews instead of so-so wine. Spend more time at Bank Square Books, which we visited on the run, and maybe—why not?—have a slice at Mystic Pizza, across the street. Venture along the coastline in a kayak and maybe even charter a boat to take us out into the sound.
Have breakfast or lunch at the heralded Kitchen Little near the seaport. (Breakfast at the Inn is ennobled by a beautiful platter of neatly cut fresh fruit, including dewy raspberries and blueberries if you get there early, but the menu is unvarying and offers neither yoghurt, serious granola, nor—during our stay—muffins other than blueberry. Really good blueberry muffins, it must be said. Elsie Masterton would give them two thumbs up. But eventually wish for bran.)
Mostly we'll do it again the way we did it this time. I'm already nostalgic for my pre-breakfast stroll down to the Shell station to pick up The New York Times, The Hartford Courant (morning paper of my childhood), and maybe the Norwich paper or the tabloids. My toes are ready for a touch-up by Danielle Bell, a roller-skating champ who temporarily retired to have a baby and now provides deft beauty services at Sha-Bam!, on Route One (a/k/a Roosevelt Avenue) between the Inn and the Shell station.
For sure we'll spend hours doing nothing in our spot overlooking the Pequotsepos. Vacation, by first definition, means freedom from something. I bet even Lucullus needed that freedom now and then.
Yellow Cab of Mystic: