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Gambling and Gamboling in Connecticut

29 July 2000

By Catherine Poe

There is no doubt about it, Connecticut is schizophrenic. On the one hand, it suffers from urban eyesore, traffic snarls on the interstates, and that all-American blight, sprawling shopping malls and outlet centers. Yet get off I-95 and within five minutes you are in a wonderful cliché of country roads, stone fences, clapboard houses, widow walks, windjammers, meandering rivers, and historic cider mills. This is America-dreaming, how it should be, could be.

I have been as guilty as anyone, whisking through Connecticut on my way to another metropolitan hub, Boston, or up to rural retreats in Vermont and New Hampshire. Then this past fall, I returned, getting off the interstate and allowing myself to get lost in Connecticut. Not to worry; you are never far from civilization, it just feels that way.

Not having been to Mystic Seaport in twenty years, I had forgotten that it had escaped Disney's influence, but was instead a gentle village on the Mystic River that offered a taste of 19th Century life without the curse of cute. While many of the buildings have been brought there from other places, they are all authentic, so there is a quaint village feel to the place as you wander from a shipbuilder's colonial home down to the dock and the 157 year old Charles W. Morgan, America's last wooden whaling ship.

SINGING IN THE RIGGING

Going aboard, I was amazed at the cramped living quarters. Below deck, I had to duck as I did on all the ships in the seaport or hit my head on a timber, making me realize that the seamen of the last century were far shorter than I am at 5'6". Looking around at the claustrophobic quarters, I found it hard to imagine that a crew made such ships their home for up to two years, while chasing Moby Dicks around the Horn for whale oil. Today, berthed at a dock in the Mystic River, the Morgan transports us to yesteryear, reminding us softies of harder times. At four o'clock each day, deck hands scramble up the masts to tuck the sails into the rigging, singing sea shanties as they work in tandem, just as 19th century sailors once did. Needless to say, children and adults hold their collective breath, arching their necks to watch these women and men working nearly 40 feet above us without a net and only their skill to keep them from crashing to the deck.

One of Mystic's biggest projects this year is to rebuild the Amistad, recreating the infamous slave ship, that was the impetus for Steven Speilberg's film. If you have seen the movie of the same name, then you've had a glimpse of Mystic Seaport, since it was the actual set for the land sequences. Nowadays, visitors are encouraged to help construct the $3.1 million, hand-hewn, 80-foot recreation of the Amistad, using authentic tools from the period. No mean feat, let me tell you. But everywhere in this little town, hands-on is the rule, whether it is rope making, navigation demonstrations, cargo handling, weaving, or rolling hoops across the Village Green. Needless to say, this makes for a big hit with the kids, and the children's museum gives them a chance to further touch and explore.

CRAVINGS FOR CLAMS

Wandering the dusty streets of Mystic Seaport can be thirsty business, even if you take a horse-drawn carriage, so I suggest a stop at Spouter Tavern next to Chubb's Wharf for a quick pick-me-up. However, if it's fried whole-belly clams you are craving, most of Connecticut agrees that the best place is Sea Swirl (at the junction of Routes 27 and 1), a clam shack that also boasts of its shrimps, fish and chips, homemade chowders, and clam strips without putting a big dent in your wallet. There are also foot-long hot dogs, hamburgers and sundaes for the kids. And you didn't have to get all gussied up to enjoy a sumptuous meal.

After you are well-fortified, there are several choices of things to do. If you must shop wherever you go, then head for the sixty shops in Olde Mistick Village. If the kids are still antsy, then the Mystic Aquarium will let them experience our ocean planet from beneath the water as jellyfish, dolphins, beluga whales, and 4,000 other creatures undulate throughout the 30,000 gallon tanks.

Me? I would rather climb aboard a windjammer and head for the Long Island Sound. There are several companies in the area, including the Brilliant at Mystic Seaport (860-536-0416), that will take you out. If you can, take in a sunset sail, a perfect ending to the day.

Motels and B&Bs abound, but be prepared for some steep tariffs, even in so-called "modest" motels. I stayed at Red Roof Inn in New London (the only place I could get a room on short notice) and my tab was $81. For a full listing of accommodations call Southeastern Connecticut Tourism at 1-800-TO ENJOY (863-6569).

STEP BACK IN TIME

If you want to indulge yourself and your senses, then the Bee and the Thistle Inn in Old Lyme (800-622-4946) is for you. Built in 1756 on the edge of the Lieutenant River, this B&B coddles its guests with antiques and breakfast in bed, especially on those days when popovers stuffed with eggs, cheese and bacon are on the menu. On the weekends, harp music wafts through the parlor and into the restaurant, which has been voted the best in the state for three years in a row. No wonder, with such delicacies as duck and hazelnut pate and pheasant and quail on the winter menu. The tab may not be kind to your wallet, but your five senses will thank you.

If you have time and have not had your fill of "the men who go down to sea in ships," then stop in Stonington to visit the Old Lighthouse Museum. A climb to the top not only gives you a splendid view of the harbor, but on a clear day you can see across the Sound. Sometimes people swear they have even spotted Levittown! But for the real sea aficionado, the Palmer House is a must-see.

Captain Nat and his brother Alexander Palmer were formidable seamen and ship builders, but it is Captain Nat who has earned his place in the history books with his 1820 discovery in the south Atlantic when he sighted "land not yet laid down on my chart." It was the continent of Antarctica. Today his home is a real treasure trove of not only nautical and historical interest but architecturally as well, since the house's ornate woodwork was crafted by the Palmer shipwrights. I particularly enjoyed the cupola atop the house that was designed so that the Palmers could spot their fleet of ships heading home.

BEHEMOTH IN THE WOODS

The next day I headed up Route 2 to the fabled Foxwoods Resort Casino on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation. I went in the early evening, so the country road was dappled with the last light of day, encouraging me to dawdle and enjoy the autumn foliage. And then out of nowhere, there it was, towering over the trees, dwarfing the landscape, and reminding me of a modern version of the mad King Ludwig's Bavarian castle.

I was not prepared for the immensity of the casino nor its impact on the traffic. The next thing I knew I was no longer dawdling, but was inching along in a traffic jam that was backed up for miles, all headed for the casino.

Las Vegas casinos are expected to be out-sized and even outlandish, but I didn't expect a behemoth like Foxwoods to loom out of such tranquil woods. And while not as glitzy as Vegas gaming parlors, Foxwoods definitely is a Disneyland for adults.

The addition of the Grand Pequot Towers, a world class hotel in its own right, has brought the number of rooms available to guests to 1,392. Rates are not cheap, often going for over $200 a night, but a call to 1-800-FOXWOOD may enable you to make a better deal.

Foxwoods boasts, justifiably, of its five gaming environments, including 5,500 slots that will take everything from a quarter to $500 and 370 table games from blackjack and craps to roulette and baccarat. There is even a smoke-free casino and poker room.

High Stakes Bingo brings crowds big enough to fill the 3,200 seat Bingo Hall. But then again, everything is oversized here. Still I never felt dwarfed as I wandered the gleaming halls, following the flow of the crowds. Foxwoods aims to make everyone comfortable.

And the first place to start is with the stomach. There are 24 restaurants from American fast food to gourmet Italian, so no one ever goes hungry. Or unpampered. A hard day's night at the tables can send the most experienced gambler to the showers or, in this case, to the Spa and a full range of pampering delights. Or if you don't tire easily, nonstop entertainment is always just down the hall. Live jazz, country, and rhythm and blues fill the corridors with perpetual music.

Special theaters with turbo and virtual adventures can satisfy the kids, and for adults, the Cinedrome 360 NiteClub is now known as the hottest dance club in Connecticut. With performers as diverse as Bill Cosby and David Copperfield to Tony Bennett and Celine Deion, even the most jaded will find an act to entice them away from the tables.

Look for Paul Anka, the Village People, Kool and the Gang, and Harry Connick, Jr. to take their turns in the spotlight this winter.

THE FOX PEOPLE

Others, like myself, would rather explore the woods around the casino or visit the new $135 million tribal museum, which opened this past August. Here the Pequots trace their roots and near extinction. If ever a tribe rose from the ashes like a Phoenix, it is the Pequots.

Having lived in southeast Connecticut for more than a thousand years, they were angered at the encroachment of the settlers at Mystic Fort and in 1637, they attacked, only to be decimated by the colonists. They retreated to the woods north of the fort to try and rebuild what was left of their tribe. Known as the Fox People, the Pequots may have taken three centuries to recover, but they have been crafty as a fox and returned in force, thanks to their casino, giving the tribe a new lease on life.

Standing in the beautiful sky-lit hall of the museum, I couldn't help but think about Mystic and the Pequots and how their paths through history have intersected. Today, Mystic draws tourists seeking the past while the Pequot's Foxwoods draws gaming enthusiasts who ensure the tribe's future. Yet these historical dynamics are mere minutes away on the back roads of Connecticut and worth a detour off of I-95.

Catherine Poe
Catherine Poe is a novelist, screenplay writer, and essayist who just loves to travel. You'll note that all her travel pieces are perfect for those who wish to combine some kind of gaming entertainment with their otherwise mainstream vacation plans.