We left Massachusetts the Thursday before Labor Day… or the beginning of Labor Day Weekend, however you want to look at it. Labor Day is a big deal in New England. In fact, I’m learning every milestone on the calendar associated with summer and warm weather is a big deal here. Since Mike and I don’t have a “traditional” schedule anymore, we tend to forget about upcoming holidays until the occasion presents an obstacle to us. The obstacle with this Labor Day holiday was finding a reservation at our next spot. Our plan was to go to Rhode Island after Massachusetts, but there were no campgrounds in the Ocean State that could accommodate us and had availability. Everything was booked in anticipation of the end-of-summer extended weekend.
Since Rhode Island is so small, we always intended to combine that State with Connecticut for the month of September. Our next logical option was to find somewhere in The Constitution State (hopefully), and then reverse our track slightly to turn back East after Labor Day was over. We were hoping we could find a suitable spot in a Rhode Island campground after the summer season ended. That is how we ended up at Countryside Campground, 90 miles away, in Voluntown, Connecticut. This location was just past the Connecticut – Rhode Island border, and we wouldn’t be too far out of our way when our stay concluded.
The family-owned park was very nice and quiet. When I checked us in at the office I saw a big sign over the desk that said “This is not a hobby, we operate this campground to make a profit”. Well, okay then. I was a little scared to finish the check-in process, but it turned out that the owners were very friendly and helpful. Countryside Campground was a medium-sized RV park set on a hilly piece of land under a thin canopy of native trees. The grounds throughout the park were well manicured and very clean. It wasn’t too big, but there were enough roads through the place to make a decent walk for the dogs. There were two small ponds, one for fishing and one for swimming. Our spot was nice and roomy with a blanket of thick green grass. I ended up barefoot almost all week. This was the second week of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, so we were very excited that our DirecTV signal worked. We could watch tennis! I had looked at the map and deduced that we were in a slightly remote location. If we weren’t going to be out-and-about on tons of daytrips, then we were lucky we had a nice yard where we could relax and enjoy ourselves.
When Saturday arrived, it was game day…kind of like Christmas for college-football-loving-fans such as my husband. Mike was getting geared up for all the fun as we had morning coffee. On game day in Texas we would usually make plans to watch our Longhorns at a sports bar, unless we were lucky enough to have actual tickets in Austin. A couple of years ago, the University of Texas came up with a brilliant idea called LHN (or Longhorn Network) on cable. Most all of the UT games would be seen exclusively on LHN. This was a great plan until only a limited number of obscure cable companies agreed to carry LHN. Now it seems it is impossible to find a broadcast of any Texas Longhorns’ sports on any cable channel anywhere. Back at home, the Montgomery Texas Exes Chapter was feeling lucky when they learned two places in the entire region were showing the game. They had a choice of watching locations! We had some recon to do if we were going to get to see the game way up here in the northeast.
We left our camp around mid-day and drove to the nearest “largish” town of Norwich. We were hoping we could find a sports bar there with some sort of cable package that carried UT vs. New Mexico State. We drove through town and it turned out to be sort of sad. The town that is referred to as the “Rose of New England” was obviously once a vibrant industrial-era community – set along the Yantic River and with direct access to railroad commerce. The downtown buildings all dated back to the late 1600’s with some markers dating as recently as the 1800’s. There were many churches, all ornately and majestically constructed along Church Street – go figure. We drove along the railroad tracks for a little way, but that section of town was completely deserted. We were wandering alongside empty warehouses and multi-family housing…in need of paint and weeding. We headed back to the center of town and drove by City Hall and the Post Office. There were a couple of restaurants, a boxing gym, surrounded by lots more empty commercial space. The only people on the sidewalks appeared to be homeless. It was depressing to see a community with such dense history floundering with stagnation and neglect. We were also sad because we did not locate a sports bar from which to watch the game.
We stopped for a few errands on an alternate route back to the bus; and then continued our search for a place where we could possibly find LHN later in the evening. Our neighbors happened to be from the area, so they were great tour guides. They had children nearby, so they were in town for a few more weeks until they made their way to their usual spot in Florida for winter. They suggested we go to one of the two casinos about 10 miles away. The best chance of finding LHN in Connecticut would be to go to the sports book. If one could bet on the game, maybe they would let one watch it too!
After a quick walk for the dogs, we locked them in the bathroom and drove to Foxwoods. Foxwoods Resort Casino is a hotel casino in Ledyard, CT on the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation. A complex of six casinos, the resort covers an area of 4,700,000 sq ft. I didn’t know what to expect so I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived. It was a huge place. We walked through a gigantic floor of gaming tables toward the poker room to find the sports book. The front section was for horse racing, and the bar area had dozens of televisions showing sports games including football, baseball, golf and tennis. We sat at the bar and played video poker. Drinks were complimentary if we were playing the machines.
Our bartender was extremely gracious and we had a good time even though we still never found LHN. Mike watched a couple of other games and looked for Texas score updates on those broadcasts. I quizzed the bartender and the fun lady sitting next to me about what we should do during our time in Connecticut. They gave me tons of ideas on things for us to do and places for us to see in the area. We won enough money on our video poker machines to leave the bartender a decent tip, then stopped at Hard Rock Café for a late dinner on the way to the parking garage. We smelled terribly of smoke and never got to watch the Longhorns, but the evening had been lots of fun regardless of the drawbacks.
Another fun suggestion from our neighbor was to eat at a place called Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock in nearby New London. He said just follow the Thames to the marinas in New London and it would be good food. After a couple of days of rainy yucky weather, the sky cleared and it seemed like a good time for a seafood lunch in the sun. We loaded the dogs into the Honda and took the scenic route to historic New London. Just as we were approaching the outskirts of town we passed the beautiful campus of the United States Coast Guard Academy. Wait! That is where the oldest son of our former neighbor-family attends school right now! We lived next door to Mike and Bernadette, and their four WONDERFUL children, for the last 10 years we lived in The Woodlands. The kiddos were young when we moved there, and now three were in college, and the oldest was even engaged. My Mike sent a text to Big Mike to get Little Mike’s phone number. We wanted to tell him hello since we were so accidentally close. I had always known where Little Mike went to school – but I never really registered about its exact location. I just thought it was “somewhere up North”. Now that we were “somewhere up North”, we accidentally drove right past it!
The food at Captain Scott’s was great! Mike had a swordfish sandwich. I ordered lobster bisque and steamed clams. We ate outside in the bright warm sun, soaking in the smells and sights of a typical day in a local marina. The dogs drooled over the idea of catching one of the seagulls that played in the tide on the other side of the patio enclosure. After lunch we walked around town and got a little depressed again. Another historic town with a great inventory of wonderful architecture, sidewalks busy with homeless people and litter. We have seen so much wealth and prosperity in the resort towns where we have visited. It is only fair that we also get an authentic look at another reality of our nation’s economy.
Did you ever see the movie Mystic Pizza? It is a ‘coming of age’ movie that came out in 1988 when I was in college. Julia Roberts and Matt Damon were in it before they were famous. The story is set around a Pizza place in Mystic Connecticut. Everyone told us to go visit Mystic – but skip the Pizza place. I remember the scenery in the movie was pretty to me, so we decided to drive over one afternoon and take a look around. When we first arrived to town we stopped at Olde Mistick Village. We wandered around the shopping mall disguised as an early American village. This stop was one of the suggestions from our bartender at Foxwoods. She told me that a candy store there had great fudge, and I was on a mission to see if she was right. There are 60 shops in total. We meandered past most of them until I found Franklin’s General Store. They touted that they made their fudge fresh each morning, so I was guessing this was the place she was telling me about. Bingo. The double chocolate and rocky road varieties we selected were like eating pure chocolate air. She was right, best fudge ever.
Back in the car, we made our way just down the road to Mystic Seaport. We thought this was the actual town, but in reality it is a Museum of America and the Sea. It is a 17 –acre living history museum. The 19th-century village offers demonstrations, performances, exhibits, gardens, vessels and much more all set on the banks of the Mystic River. It was late in the day, and it didn’t make sense to purchase admission tickets as they were preparing to close their doors. It seemed like a place where we could spend an entire day or even longer. We walked along the fence of the village and found a nice restaurant with outdoor patio seating. Since they said Piper and Cessna were welcome, we had an afternoon cocktail. While we were resting for a bit, I did some research on my phone to find other restaurants that might be located nearby. We also grilled our waitress to find out exactly where town was. We learned we were one stop sign away and there were several restaurants in the heart of town that would also allow dogs in their outdoor dining areas. Back in the car, we drove toward the drawbridge.
The little town of Mystic is as charming as I remember in the movie. The River runs through the center of the community, and Main Street ascends up a shallow hill to meet a classic white church steeple rising out of the trees at the top of town. Chic boutiques and classy art galleries fill the storefronts along both sides of the street. Restaurants and Coffee Houses offer tantalizing aromas to the mix. The sidewalks were crowded with tourists taking it all in. We found a great place to enjoy drinks and dinner on Water Street. Oyster Club is a casual fine dining restaurant and raw bar specializing in the richness of the New England coast and countryside. The menu, which is written daily, showcases food that travels the shortest distance from ‘farm & sea to table,’ with seasonality and location determining the day’s delicacies. Oyster Club had a “tree house” built on a rocky bluff above the restaurant building. It was a wonderful outdoor patio perched high up into the trees. The menu was more casual, but no less delicious. The dogs were welcome, so it turned out to be the perfect spot to enjoy a dinner and sunset. Mike had a sausage burger and I had smoked chicken. We shared the most delicious square of cornbread and butter that either of us has ever had.
Our time at Countryside Campground was winding down, and it was time to visit the other casino in the area. Our neighbors had told us that they were both completely different, and we should see each of them. Mohegan Sun, located in Uncasville, Connecticut, is one of the largest casinos in the United States with 364,000 square feet of gaming space. It is located on 240 acres along the banks of the Thames River. If Disney could build an American Indian theme-park for adults only, this is what they would have come up with. We had done some online research and learned that Jimmy Buffet had a Margaritaville Café in the Casino. We love Jimmy Buffet, and Margaritaville has a drink on its menu called the Ragtop Day. I am extremely partial to this concoction of cucumber vodka, watermelon vodka, pineapple juice, cranberry juice and club soda.
We drove over late one afternoon to have drinks and nachos with Jimmy before hitting the casino tables. We parked the Honda in a garage and walked to the other end of the entire casino – literally. Wow. The ceiling in the hotel lobby was made of woven birch strips. There are moving stuffed wolves on large boulders throughout the casino floor. Waterfalls, giant cartoon-sized tee pees, intricate wood carvings… the place is amazing and ENORMOUS. We passed through the retail section of the establishment and passed by places like Bobby Flay’s Bar American and Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse on the way to Margaritaville. We ordered Volcano Nachos at the restaurant, and we had enough leftovers to feed six more people. After dinner we decided to walk back to the car before going to the gaming tables. We wanted to get rid of the nachos and grab our sweaters. We got lost trying to find the parking garage. Not the car, but the whole garage! After many miles of walking, we discovered we were passing the same landmark another time. After we finally realized that we were lost in this Native American Wonderland, we appropriately asked the attendant at the Lost and Found Booth to direct us to the Summer Garage. Whew, that was scary. What if I had had two Ragtop Days? We would have been in a real bind.
Nachos ditched and sweaters donned, we made our way back to the casino floor. This time we decided to stay in one small section where we could always see the hallway to the Summer Garage. Mike gave me a hundred dollars to play Pai Gao Poker. Once I found a table with a low enough minimum and an available seat, he left me with the oriental crowd and went off in search of the craps tables. He came back over a few times because there wasn’t enough action to join in on the dice game. The Romantics, a band from our youth, was playing in a bar near the pai gao section. He ended up playing slots and listening to them until it was time for us to drive back home. I ended up losing $20, but he won $30 – so we were successful for the evening.
The last Saturday we were at Countryside was another game day. Luckily, this time the TX vs. BYU game was scheduled to be broadcast on a major network. We would be able to watch it from any sports bar with a television and regular cable. A place called Happy Jack’s was about 11 miles down the road from us on the other side of Jewett City. A second local joint we wanted to try was called Surrell’s, and it was even closer than Happy Jack’s. We took off for the farthest location first. Our idea was to watch the first half at Happy Jacks, and then drive closer to home and watch the second half at Surrell’s. We got to Happy Jack’s a little early and had a great time visiting with the bartender/owner and a couple that had stopped in for dinner after a weekend Harley ride to the coast. Our game was delayed 2 hours due to heavy rains in Utah. We decided the game would be over too late to last until the end, so it was time to move to Surrell’s if we were going to make a second stop. Our neighbors had told us they had wicked good prime rib on Saturday nights, so we were saving ourselves to eat dinner at the next place.
When we got to Surrell’s it was exactly what I expected. A small town restaurant bar where the staff knows every patron by name. It was small, but cozy. We sat at the bar and ordered dinner. There were two TV’s for us to watch football on. Mike had the prime rib, I had baked stuffed fish. We had fried calamari for appetizers. Our meal also came with salad, French fries, cole slaw, and twice baked potatoes. It looked like we were having Sunday brunch for our Saturday night dinner. Everything was delicious and made from scratch. The longhorns lost the game, but our meal was a winner. Once again, we took home leftovers for 6 more people.
We spent the last day of “Connecticut Part I” doing chores and watching football. I went to get a manicure and pedicure during the afternoon, and we had one last campfire that evening. Despite the trouble it had taken Mike to get us a reservation somewhere, I was glad we had landed in this pleasant spot. We had taken more daytrips, visited more casinos, and eaten better meals out than I had imagined we would enjoy during this stop on the Lower 48 in 48 Tour.