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Hard driving and smooth sailing in Coastal Connecticut

Alan Behr, Tribune News Service on

Published in Travel News

Because there are no city-sized theme parks in Southern Connecticut, you must find your thrills there in real life. I had just come from helping to herd a crew of second-graders through the Visitor Center at the PEZ factory in the town of Orange--a fragrant, colorful diversion for the nation's devoted army of "Pez Heads" and for civilians like us, who just like popping dispenser heads and downing twelve-packs of chewy PEZ bricks. I was now rolling in an easterly direction along Interstate 95, toward Mystic Seaport.

To get there and live to tell you about it, I had to steer past locals cruising at nearly triple-digit speeds in fits of driving mania that were one part homicidal and the other part suicidal. No matter how confiscatory the speeding ticket I risked summoning, I could barely keep a succession of young woman in vehicles with Connecticut plates from plowing their front bumpers up my tailpipe. One drew so near, I could see the driver's scowling visage clearly enough to critique her eyeliner. Another got so frustrated, she motioned, in a sweeping gesture with her right hand, to get out of the way. Now frustrated by the repetitious peril, I responded with a single-digit gesture perhaps more common to my home in New York City but recognized everywhere as an emphatic rebuke.

I was trying to have a relaxing road trip, but I felt a sparkle of accomplishment when I reached Mystic. I took a room at a simple but hospitable hotel near the seaport, had a forgettable dinner at an already-forgotten eatery, and settled in for a tranquil night.

As a German national, I have been accused (as it can come across sounding that way in the USA) of punctuality: I was the first to arrive at the seaport the next morning, but soon the place filled with other weekending families. The seaport is a museum but an interactive one in traditional (non-digital) sense: real things happen, put into effect by humans. For starters, the harbor, once used by New England wailers and fishermen, is authentic, as are the ships, boats and repurposed antique shoreside infrastructure. To enter the museum, which covers an impressive 19 waterfront acres, is to participate abstractly in the economic life of the region during that brief but essential period in which American ports supported themselves with manually operated machines and optically sighted instruments.

Back when you lit your home with whale-oil lamps (this was long before saving the whales became a moral imperative), the ships that did the brutish but then-necessary work were powered by sail. My first job this morning, therefore, was to join other visitors in helping museum staffers set a mainsail on the Charles W. Morgan. The stout, tall ship is the last surviving wooden whaler -- a type of maritime commercial hunter represented by the Pequod in the novel Moby Dick." As two women climbed aloft to release the sail (back in the day, the crew was all-male), we able-bodied not-quite-seamen pulled in unison on the rope that hoisted the sail, the heaves coming on our refrain, offered in response to the stanzas sung by our young guide. The song concerned the plight of a Boston tailor who went to sea -- and although we never heard the end, we understood, with each yank in unison, what that landlubber found himself up against.

At the print shop, I was shown how a crank-action printing press works: with muscle power. The shop had two open cases, one above the other, fixed with type for ready use. The upper case held capital letters and the lower case held the others -- and that, I learned, was the origin of the term "upper and lower case."

Throughout most of history, almost anyone, regardless of the level of his culture's technological sophistication, could get into a boat and go somewhere. What separated the developing seafaring nations from the rest of humanity was in knowing actually where they were going and, even more important, how to get back. There were important political implications -- those who could do that colonized those who could not.

To understand a bit of the knowhow involved, I took the Navigation Quest, which is free and fun to do as a family activity. There are two courses, and you are given one; it consists of four white boxes positioned around the museum grounds. Each box contains a card explaining an exhibit and clues to the location of the next box, which you find with the aid of the navigation tools given at the start: a map, telescope, compass and GPS. I did well enough until the third box, which I had trouble locating; fortunately, I was safely directed to my destination by an 8-year-old boy following the same route, compass in hand.

Given that this is a maritime museum, it seemed only sensible that I end our visit with a boat ride. From the available options, I chose a short harbor tour aboard a former Navy launch, and I can recommend the experience. Only when you see a commercial harbor from its business end can you really understand, if only by feel, its present or former power, grace and consequentiality.

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It came time for us to leave the museum -- and exercise the nuclear option. I drove the short distance to where the world's first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, which is the main attraction of the Submarine Force Museum. To get there, I had to pass the main entrance to the Naval Submarine Base New London, where a long line of vehicles stood beside the entry gate, waiting to have security credentials checked. Every submarine in the United States Navy is powered by a nuclear reactor, and a fearsome number are armed with the nuclear-tipped missiles that are the nation's front-line "back off" message to potential menaces to peace.

Like all major navies, that of the United States has drawn officers from naval families. Adm. Hyman Rickover stood out -- because he was born Jewish (later converted Episcopalian) in Russian Poland and because he served longer (63 years) than any other member of any of the U.S. armed services. He took the Navy into the nuclear age by spearheading the development of the Nautilus, a 3,533-ton (surfaced displacement) masterpiece of 1955 technology. Today, you enter from over the bow and make your way slowly to the stern, from the torpedo room (the menacing contents of which were the whole point behind the vessel's expensive existence) through the control stations and wardrooms, then to the exit at the stern. Although large by the standards of its era, the Nautilus proves why a submarine is no place for a claustrophobic -- or anyone with a body mass index north of average. By the time you step and shimmy past the well-laid out and self-explanatory exhibits and resurface outdoors, you are ready for a breath of fresh seafront air.

Darkness intruded as I drove to surrender the automobile to Hertz, in New York City. The twilight seemed to discourage, but not entirely eliminate, the tailgating that that had filled the rearview mirror the day before. With me were a few souvenirs: fudge from the seaport's gift shop, a chart of all U.S. naval vessels and, it goes without saying, plenty of PEZ.


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