Westhampton Ace, NY Sun
By ADAM BAER
“You know why you can’t backpedal for an overhead? You’ll break your neck. Run back fast, but sidestep it and first touch the net with your racket. Got it? Good. Now, run! Fast. Do it. Yeah. Go!”
It’s 1:10 p.m. on Tuesday June 8 and 94 degrees in Westhampton Beach, where I’ve just been yelled at by a springy 26-year-old tennis pro from Guatemala called Ulysses. I'm sweating profusely as my feet slide on the clay of the Eastside Tennis Club, a no-nonsense destination for racket-heads just north of Montauk Highway. At the same age as Ulysses I'm in the particularly depressing position of having lost my game along with a respectable level of physical fitness after too many post-high-school years sitting at desks, eating incorrectly, and exercising my mind for a living.
A tennis player since age four, when my father taught me the now-mocked forehand that got me the reputation of “slugger” on the junior circuit, tennis has been the most important athletic activity in my life. The only problem is that I’ve stopped playing it — stopped playing most of anything, actually, choosing to exercise, as solitary adults do, on stairmasters and weight benches for the past few years. But then that’s what I’m here to change. I’ve booked a few days at Peter Kaplan’s Tennis Academy in sunny Westhampton. My goal? Use the next 72 hours to become a force to be reckoned with again.
Anyone who’s ever read Tennis magazine knows that lovers of the sport are particularly large targets for hungry travel-industry marketers. Tennis travel has become big business, and every month, new ads appear in the game’s top publications for resort-clinics in the mountains or the sun, from Killington, V.T. to Hilton Head, N.C. But New York is particularly devoid of these vacation options — some exist in the Adirondacks — and Peter Kaplan’s clinic is the only incarnation of this brand of getaway in the Hamptons, benefiting at the same time from all the virtues the famed beachfront destination has to offer.
Mr. Kaplan, a middle-aged real-estate lawyer with decades of tennis-teaching experience, offers a welcome, humble option in comparison to the skein of high-priced luxury tennis camps festooned throughout the country. He houses his guests both in the Grassmere Inn, an acclaimed 36-room Victorian bed and breakfast juxtaposed between Main Street and the beach, and in The New Barn, a nearby converted barn-cum-house-share that offers a more Spartan time: group tables and couches amid big-screen t.v.’s, a pool, and five do-it-yourself kitchen facilities; free beach passes are available and guests also have use of the gym at the Eastside Academy to which free transportation is provided.
Rooms are quaint (and, yes air-conditioned), and bathrooms can be shared or not depending on how much you want to spend; breakfast consists of yogurt, muffins and bagels, and cushy country couches and chairs line a quaint living room that houses a bumper-pool table. During your stay, Mr. Kaplan will also likely invite you to a backyard cocktail hour and barbecue that he holds with his wife and school-age daughters for the young, foreign tennis pros he employs; you’re also encouraged throughout your residency to make use of the property: to play basketball, enjoy complimentary cable TV or broadband internet access, drink iced tea, or simply lounge around.
High luxury it isn’t, but most people are here to enjoy the natural options of Westhampton Beach if not to play tennis all day, and Peter’s fun-uncle personality is enough to make you feel at home. White-glove service and prosciutto-and-veggie frittatas, if that’s what you’re looking for from a B & B, exist at the chic cafes on Main.
“You have to change your grip faster! Go, switch it. Backhand!” This is what Alexandra, a more-senior Eastside pro and law-school graduate from Spain (also my age, incidentally) repeats as I scamper from one corner of Court 1 to the next. I'm trying to get used to the new backhand I learned yesterday, and I'm having a hard time. Like Ulysses, Alexandra was once a professional tour player (ranked three hundred in the world, which, if you can believe it, is an amazing accomplishment); now she’s studying for her M.B.A. I learn this on a two-minute break from my right-to-left drills, my face red from the sun, my ankles throbbing. She is interested in the fact that I am a writer, but as soon as the two minutes are up, she’s back to business. “Come on. You’re here to work,” she says with a devilish smile. I cringe but acquiesce.
I have been here two full days now and enjoyed four personal clinics with Mr. Kaplan’s pros, a group of sociable young people who are as intelligent and interested in your personal quirks (both tennis-related and non-) as they are adept at returning causally and precisely your best attempt at a winning forehand. I have attended other tennis camps for adults, but have not received this brand of personal attention at any of them. Most offer high teacher/student ratios unless you want to drop a mint, and Peter Kaplan gives his students 3:1 ratios or better for an affordable price. (You can also schedule your lessons and drills around beach- or Hamptons-exploring time, and stretch them out over a week, an option that's unheard of at other camps.)
I should also mention, of course, that even though I’m splitting Alexandra's services with my friend Dan, I still feel like I’m getting a private lesson; she’s paying very close attention to both the kinks in my swing and my two left feet while encouraging me to get better with smart incisive comments and strategically placed balls. The quick way she’s rotating us — getting us to sidestep around each other, while the other hits — makes the lesson an aerobic workout as well. And since I have a problem with hitting too close to the ball on my backhand side, for instance, she, every now and again, feeds the ball close to my body so I have to slide to the right to achieve the proper distance a solid shot requires.
While this is happening, she’s analyzing Dan’s game equally well, trying to get him to swing through the ball cleaner. Both of these practices pay off later when during afternoon match play he hits consistently smart shots to my backhand, and I manage to stay alive in points that would have killed me before. By the end of the day I don’t even care that he’s won; I’m playing at another level, twice as fit as when I arrived, and armed with lots of insight about how to improve on my own.
In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve met one humble middle aged couple trying to get a little better at a game they play socially; a Queens father who brought his beginning teenage son to learn something more mentally demanding than footballl; a smart professional couple from Manhattan here to hone their finely tuned club games; and the tenth-ranked child player in the country, here to train for a week by the ocean. I’ve also had a few great dinners at local seafood joints on Dune Road as well as enjoyed an evening concert at a local piano festival. On this evidence the tennis vacation is no longer just appealing to the tunnel-visioned weekend warrior. And if Peter Kaplan and Westhampton have their way, it just might soon appeal to you.
Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun
April 30, 2004 Friday
SECTION: TRAVEL; Pg. 23
LENGTH: 874 words
HEADLINE: Queen of the Sea
BYLINE: By ADAM BAER
The Queen Mary 2, the new $1 billion-plus belle of Cunard's fleet of magnificent ships, is unquestionably the grandest ocean liner ever, and while I was eating, sleeping, gambling, drinking, running, and decompressing on its two night inaugural cruise out of New York, I became Cary Grant: The world was mine.
Or at least that's what Cunard must have hoped a melange of shareholders, travel agents, and journalists would report back to their camps after the company invited them onto the hot-ticket ship last weekend. Certainly there's nothing like standing on the highest deck of the white matronly monster, three football fields long, and cruising into the wind just a scant 10 feet below the imposing Verazzano Bridge. And certainly the ship, which may soon sell out its 2004 season, sets a new standard of luxury for giant ocean liners. At the same time, however, the QM2 is still just a real-life cruise ship with real-life limitations: typically thin walls, lots of passengers (more than 2,600, actually), and tacky, flat entertainment.
But just because a cruise doesn't transcend its genre, doesn't mean it can't be the richest of its ilk - even if this one would, in some ways, disappoint those used to smaller, more personal high-luxury cruises. In the way that Las Vegas casinos strive to surpass a guest's expectations for the sheer breadth of things that can be done, bought, and swallowed in one place, the QM2 has something for everyone, and that does make it unique in its class.
A lot of care clearly went into the building and design of the classic ship - from its shimmering two-tiered Britannia restaurant and retro Queens Room ballroom to its bronzed wall murals depicting ancient lands, photos of the stars who sailed the original Queen Mary and 1980s-kitsch G32 nightclub. But it's the
little things that make the cruise unusually comfortable. On the bookshelf of my large junior balcony suite - blessed with a wonderfully firm bed, lots of closet space, and a roomy bathroom - was John Updike's anthology of the "Best American Short Stories of the Century" resting comfortably next to a Microsoft Xbox. The interactive television offered numerous smartly programmed channels and subchannels of music which instead of superficial mixes presented specific recordings of interesting artists (Yehudi Menuhin, Caetano Veloso, Mahler, Miles Davis, the Beatles).
And there's an extraordinary range of things to do. Guerilla shoppers can stroll the third-deck mall to purchase Chanel makeup, Escada clothes, Hermes scarfs, 13-carat diamond necklaces, and fifths of QM2-branded liquor. Exercisers can take advantage of rows and rows of hardcore cardiovascular and weightlifting machines. (Most cruises just fatten you up, then offer you some light stretching with a "fitness director" and a lackluster exercise room.)
Guests looking to broaden (ok, lightly stretch) their horizons can see a Museum of Natural History film in the boat's dome screened planetarium (fun but disorienting as the boat rocked); take Oxford University classes at sea (none available on my mini-trip); log on at 20 Internet-ready computer workstations and sprawling wireless hotspots, and explore a brilliantly stocked library (with bona fide librarians!) where Proust and Chaucer are housed with Michael Chabon and the most recent issue of Tattler.
And unlike many other ships, the QM2 is very youth-friendly - thanks a comprehensive gym, a hip video arcade, and childen's play-zone camp, as well as basketball and paddle tennis courts among its five pools (one with a retractable roof).
For those eager to drop more money than the all-inclusive price of their cruise (from $619 for a tiny room on a three-night New York cruise to more than $90,000 for a grand duplex on a 24-day transatlantic trip), options abound. At celebrity chef Todd English's eponymous restaurant pre-fixe lunches ($20) and dinners ($30) include superb braised short ribs, tuna tartare, and Thai-coffee tiramisu.
I found it worth the extra money to eat at Todd English - the meals in the main dining rooms, which are included in the cruise price, were quite average. (Cruisers who purchase more expensive suites get to eat at two slightly higher-quality restaurants than those in the less expensive suites, however.) The cruise price also covers meals you to take at a British style pub; a tea room with snacks; an outdoor grill; a "meat carvery;" an Italian restaurant and a pan-Asian restaurant. Guests can also pay $30 extra to dine in the "chefs galley," where they receive a cooking lesson from the boat's chefs. Lastly, If you're not content with the exercise options at the ship's gym, you can really take care of yourself at the gargantuan Canyon Ranch Spa Club, which offers fitness assessments ($129), medical back care consultations ($79), and body composition analyses ($39), as well as sea-water massages ($109), Middle Eastern Rasul mud "ceremonies" ($129 for a couple), and Mango Sugar Glo scrubs ($109).
In the end the QM2 gives you the choice to make your cruise what you'd like it to be. Is the ship worth traveling on simply because of its size and opulence? That could be a stretch. But if you're already in the market for a lavish cruise around the globe, you will get something for your money on this ship, even if you emerge feeling slightly less fabulous than Cary Grant.
Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun
January 9, 2004 Friday
SECTION: TRAVEL; Pg. 21
LENGTH: 1264 words
HEADLINE: Atlantic City's Surprisingly Grand Hotel
BYLINE: By ADAM BAER
Remember the place that time forgot?" That's what my cousin Mike asked me as the Atlantic City Expressway dumped us into a gritty grid of streets with Monopoly names: Vermont Avenue, Baltic, St. Charles.
Mike is a South Jersey native, a 33-year-old consultant with a healthy interest in blackjack. We both came of age in the 1990s during the resurgence of youth casino culture, and we were driving into Atlantic City in an attempt to recapture that eroded thrill.
Our destination? The new Borgata hotel, casino, and spa: a golden Vegas style tower near the city's marina and off the seedy Boardwalk rumored to be attracting urban Gen-Xers.
The $1 billion Borgata, a joint venture between Boyd Gaming and MGM Mirage that opened in July, is Atlantic City's first new casino-hotel in 13 years. With lavish interiors by Dougall Design (whose credits include Las Vegas's MGM Grand, Monte Carlo, and Mandalay Bay hotel-casinos), the building boasts 2,002 guest rooms and suites, 125,000 square feet of gaming, 145 gaming tables, 3,650 slot machines, 11 "destination restaurants," 11 retail boutiques, a 50,000-square-foot spa, 70,000 square feet of event space, and parking for 7,100 cars.
But for all that gluttony, its television ads haven't flaunted the tuxedoed empty-nesters you see in Foxwoods spots; they have instead cast youngish hipsters traveling in packs on Vespa scooters, underscored by Coldplay-style guitars. Recent headliners at the Borgata have included evergreen mod-rocker David Bowie, comedian Chris Rock, and pop star Mya.
Atlantic City could use a new bright spot. For the past few decades, the once-booming resort town has served primarily as a two- or three-night stop for gambling addicts, suburbanites, bachelor parties, and retirees who arrive on buses to feed slot machines.
I know this firsthand. I've visited the city many times, and it consistently offers encounters with New Jersey realism - wise guys in tracksuits amid whitebelted day-trippers storming brunch buffets. Its hotels have strained to appear multifaceted for some time - Caesar's, while tacky, has offered a nice gym and tennis courts for years. But for all this effort, the hotels haven't attracted the kind of guests needed for the city's revival as a vacation destination.
Hence the question: Could Borgata be onto something? Our investigation began on a weekday afternoon. We arrived from Manhattan in two hours and skipped a line of cars waiting for valet parking, entering the hotel from a self-serve lot that would make a suburban shopping mall jealous. And that's when we saw it in the entrance: a Starbucks. The place is a veritable mall with a pentagonal ceiling cupola hanging above flowers perfumed with mocha Frappucinos.
To register we stood in a crowd clogging a starkly postmodern lobby sporting ochre marble and an illuminated wall of water. We then made our way to the guests' lounge, a secure cafe-like space, where key-holders buy drinks and gifts before catching the elevator.
Our room was enormous, with a convex glass wall looking out upon the entire expanse of the city and a decor that could be called "Contemporary Tuscan Urban." The appointments appeared expensive: The firm beds offered thick, white down comforters, and at nearly the size of the bedroom, the gigantic bathroom featured both a marble shower room with seating area and water pressure that mimicked persistent tropical rain.
We were here on the hotel's press invitation, I should add, which explained the room's "MTV Cribs" opulence. Our bellman told us that comedian David Spade had stayed in the same type of room. Later I saw on the local news that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez have stayed at the hotel too.
That night, we had dinner reservations at Luke Palladino's Italian restaurant Specchio, one of the casino's upscale eateries - among them the French-Asian Suilan run by acclaimed chef Susanna Foo. So after a visit to a Zen-like indoor pool, complete with two Jacuzzis under a vaulted ceiling, we changed our clothes. The restaurant requires men to wear dress slacks, and most of the guests do more than follow the rules.
Bolstered by a shared 14,000-bottle wine cellar overseen by David Gordan of TriBeCa Grill, Borgata's restaurants offer superior drinks; accordingly, Specchio's fabrics are a rich merlot hue. I enjoyed a limoncello cocktail before a Ligurian seafood salad ($35) and lamb chops scottaditto with pecorino gnocchi( $35); Mike matched a glass of Montepulciano with some mushroom and tallegio crespelle ($14) and a hearty zuppa di pesce with spaghetti ($42). The meal cost well over $150 with drinks, but we rationalized this excess by comforting ourselves with the observation that there seemed to be more young women at the Borgata than we'd ever seen in Atlantic City proper.
Borgata seems to be a haven for model-types. Indeed, a number of the seductively clad hotel waitresses were featured in a glossy lingerie calendar titled "Babes of Borgata" which was sold in the lounge for $15. But young female guests still abounded: Throughout the night they scoped out potential conquests as heartily as their male counterparts - both in the hotel's hip night club, MIXX, and on the casino floor, where, for all of the hotel's luxury, it's possible to find affordable blackjack tables.
Another of the Borgata's distinguishing features is its "Spa Toccare." Spa treatments include a "hydramemory facial" ("hydration and nourishment" offered over a 24-hour period, $95); numerous fizzy and spiced soaks ($70-$105); a "Classic Man Body" treatment (50 minutes of exfoliation with Dead Sea salt, sugar cane, and magnesium oxide crystals, $90), and a powerful deep-tissue massage (50 minutes, $95) that renders other casino-spa rubs amateurish. For $10, you can also just use the spa's steam and sauna facilities after working out in the hotel's "Pump Room," a full-service health club that rivals Crunch.
Mike and I found, however, that the cheekiest and yet most welcome in-house shop was Shaving Grace, Borgata's men's salon run by the Sgarrsas, a team of barber brothers from Philadelphia. Of course Borgata offers a Pierre & Carlo women's salon too. But Shaving Grace is something an Atlantic City casino has never seen: a testosterone-infused monument to straight-razor shaves ($20), hot towels, the spot-on haircut ($25), and Dean Martin. The wood-paneled lounge also offers a pool table and your choice of beer and fine cigars (yes, you can and should arrive early for your appointment).
I might add that unlike my other trips to Atlantic City, I had no interest in leaving my hotel for the three days that I stayed at the Borgata. To be sure, part of the Atlantic City experience is picking a classic resort like the Taj Mahal, and then walking up and down the boardwalk amid armless sideshow men, fudge stores, and rickshaws, to visit others. But staying in the Marina section of Atlantic City makes those activities inconvenient. And staying at the Borgata makes them unnecessary: While there, you begin to feel that you've actually made an uplifting choice.
Indeed the concept behind Borgata seems to be that there's much more to Atlantic City than gambling, and that an Atlantic City hotel can be a sophisticated, upscale retreat. Of course the Borgata doesn't exactly make the city a place you'd want to stay for a week. But for a fun, relaxing, and social two- or three-night stay worth an inflated casino price, the Borgata is a clear, shimmering cubic zirconium in the rough.
LOAD-DATE: January 9, 2004
Copyright 2003 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun
November 7, 2003 Friday
SECTION: WINTER TRAVEL; Pg. 14
LENGTH: 1016 words
HEADLINE: Cruising to Paradise
BYLINE: By ADAM BAER
A cruise seemed like an apt
- if risky - mode of
transportation for visiting Bermuda. After all,
for centuries the island's tricky coasts
shipwrecked unfortunate seafarers,
including the group of British castaways who claimed Bermuda for England in 1609, inspiring Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
There were no indigenous people living on the island when the British began colonizing it in the early 17th century, and since then, Bermuda has evolved into a vacation destination characterized by pink sand, pastel homes, golf courses, coral reefs, tennis courts, and swank hotels. In other words, it's a great place just to rest and play, with few intrusions from the real world as you know it. Not surprisingly, many stressed-out politician-moguls maintain homes on the island, including Ross Perot, Silvio Berlusconi, and, of course, Mayor Bloomberg.
In that spirit, I decided to make my Bermuda trip one of fun and repose. And my cruise to the island - aboard the Radisson Seven Seas Navigator-certainly helped on the latter count. The Navigator cruise, which I took on a press invitation, is practically an ode to personal luxury. All of the boat's rooms are large suites, and most of them have butlers. Many rooms also have private balconies, which is a true pleasure: Nothing is cooler than sitting on your balcony in the middle of the ocean at night, staring into the black abyss, knowing that no one will bother you, but that if you like you can order filet mignon and a Perrier at the drop of a hat.
The boat offers myriad lounges (be sure to book a trip that offers comedians and classical pianists, not cabaret lizards and harpists), an intimate casino, and two restaurants with fairly good food and free-flowing wine (also included - the only drinks you have to buy separately on the cruise are those in the lounges). Thankfully, unlike cruises that force you to sit at an assigned table with strangers, the Navigator allows you to sit at a different table every night by yourself. And all gratuities are included, as well as complimentary dry-cleaning services upon arrival and a few choice bottles of premium liquor.
But the chief virtue of the Navigator is its understanding of peace and quiet. A former Russian spy ship that can handle fewer than 500 passengers - compared to the thousands on other ships - it takes the noise and bustle of the ordinary cruise experience out of the equation. On my cruise I felt completely disconnected from the world for the week: Internet access is available for guests at a reasonable price, but I didn't opt for it.
David Foster Wallace attacked the luxury cruise experience in a riotously funny 1995 essay titled "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" dissecting its womb-like, infantilizing atmosphere. His point is well-taken, but I have to say: A week where the only pressing decisions are whether to use the Jacuzzi or the steam room after a sea-air infused jog around a cedar-scented deck is something that every overworked professional could use.
Soon, however, it was time for activity, and our two Bermuda stops at Hamilton, the colony's main city, and St. George, a quainter port, delivered. We docked at Hamilton on the third day of the cruise after departing from New York City. I was eager to explore Bermuda's coral reefs and to try underwater diving, so I booked passage on Greg Hartley's Undersea Adventure. This is a highly personalized coral-reef helmet-dive led by the company's owner, a witty, bearded chap with a passion for sharing his intimate knowledge of marine biology, particularly of the parrotfish, angelfish, and snappers that swim in the different sections of the Bermuda waters.
Mr. Hartley's dive is an ideal underwater experience for diving newbies; you wear a large, lead helmet that's connected to an oxygen tank on the boat, and you can breathe normally wearing glasses or contact lenses while you explore brain coral and play with moray eels in 12 feet of crystal water. Mr. Hartley's assistant, a social, lanky guy from Hamilton, is also present to manage the technological specifics and quash your fears. Being underwater and able to breathe normally is about the most foreign yet thrilling sensation I've experienced. 1222 340 1334 3511135 353 1173 364(Greg Hartley's Undersea Adventure, 441-234-2861,www.hartleybermuda.com. The dive is $58 for adults and $44 for children. The boat leaves from the flagpole in Hamilton Harbor.)
Another Bermuda activity of note is a two-hour tour on the Wildcat, a 50-foot yellow catamaran that races around the island at 60 miles per hour. Participants are treated to a humorous but informative monologue given by the Wildcat's emcee, Rick, which is punctuated by rock 'n' roll tunes.
It's a fast, windy time, and the commentary includes more social-interest information and gossip than facts about Bermuda's history and culture. It was on this tour, for instance, that I got to see up close the oceanfront backyards of Messrs. Perot, Berlusconi, and Bloomberg: All three own sprawling compounds near Bermuda's famed Castle Harbor. I learned that fact just as Mr. Perot himself sped past us in his 42-foot speedboat wearing oversized goggles. He apparently has the fastest boat on the island - he lapped us during the highspeed tour. (Wildcat Tour, 441-293-RIDE. $50 for adults, $25 children under 12. Board the boat at the flagpole in Hamilton Harbor.)
Then, of course, there are the beaches along Bermuda's south shore. I recommend Elbow and Horseshoe beaches: Your cab driver will know where to take you, or you can rent a scooter and find the beaches on one of the island's brightly colored tourist maps that display the shore. Horseshoe Beach proved to be the quietest, enjoyed mostly by locals, and peppered with tall rocks climbing out of the cool, calm water. Adventurers swim about and find ancient caves inhabited by tropical fish, longtails, and bright-yellow birds. But you may prefer to just lie still for hours. After all, a cruise vacation - especially one to Bermuda - shouldn't be packed with too much activity.
LOAD-DATE: November 7, 2003
Copyright 2003 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun
June 6, 2003 Friday
SECTION: TRAVEL; Pg. 18
LENGTH: 1143 words
HEADLINE: Mystic Pleasures
BYLINE: By ADAM BAER
Growing up on Long Island, it was hard not to know Mystic, Conn. It was the humdrum burg with old musty ships, the "kiddie" beach without waves, the fried-seafood pit-stop my family hit en route to Cape Cod.
But in past years, I'd come to hear more about Mystic as an interesting escape for adults too. So when my Connecticut-bred friend Lina, a scientist, told me that the town's aquarium was leading the pack in both archaeological finds and technology, I agreed to join her for a visit, though not without her money-back guarantee.
Driving up from the city, we arrived in two hours. It was an overcast day, but we decided to check out the town's famous Seaport, where a simulated 19th-century village with old schoolhouses and general stores attempts to take visitors back to the days when Mystic was a whaling hotspot. Truthfully, I can't, as an adult, claim to have found the historical re-enactments too exciting. But I did enjoy learning about one topic I used to hate: the history of ships. The world's oldest wooden whaleship, for instance, the Charles W. Morgan, now calls Mystic home. Built in 1841, the ship once trolled every ocean of the globe except the Arctic, flirted with pirate ships in the Java Straits, and bore the brunt of an attack by South Sea Islanders who were no match for its gruff crew.
(General admission to the Seaport is $17 for adults, $9 for children 3-12, free for children under 3.)
Soon, we were lunching at an establishment that eclipsed my childhood memories of watery chowder: Boom Restaurant (194 Water Street, Stonington, 860-535-2588), located at nearby Dodson Boatyard, was recommended by a Seaport employee and offered a strong, progressive take on harbor cuisine. I enjoyed a meaty scallop taco with avocado and red-onion tartar sauce; Lina had a refreshing mesclun-and-bosc-pear salad with toasted walnuts, Danish bleu cheese, and lemon vinaigrette. And the view of contemporary boats in the background gave the tabletop's nautical charts renewed life.
We decided to avoid Mystic's touristy B&Bs and stay in the fairly new riverside Marriott in nearby Groton (625 Rt. 117, Groton, 860-446-2600),about a 10-minute drive west from Mystic. The Marriott features in-room whirlpools, a full health club, and an Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa. Through August 31, the hotel offers a special of $239 a night for a family of four, which includes admission to Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium.
Culinary surprises awaited us there, too. The Marriott's restaurant, Octagon, featured glassy geometric walls that gave the room a chic, urban feel (absent was fishermen paraphernalia). Top-shelf Angus beef ruled the menu, and buttery risotto with walnuts gave fried oysters wrapped in beef carpaccio a rich bed to rest on. Charred filet mignon, paired with caramelized onions and warm sautéed spinach with red-pepper flakes, achieved buoyant levels of rich flavor. 335 1685 482 1697And while prices skewed fairly high - entrees ranged from $20 to $30 - the place could hold its own against plenty of strong New York restaurants.
After dinner, I won $75 at the nearby Mohegan Sun Casino (the Marriott offers free shuttles for interested parties).And by then it was safe to say that my old preconceptions of Mystic were gone.
The next day, we set our sights on the Mystic Aquarium (55 Coogan Blvd., 860-572-5955, www.mysticaquarium.org). The aquarium has recently been dubbed the "Institute for Exploration" following a $52 million expansion. It has also received international attention as a leader in the field of marine archaeology since the 1999 arrival of Dr. Robert Ballard, the deep-sea archeologist who discovered the Titanic and a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. (Aquarium admission is $16 for adults, $11 for children 3-12.)
The Institute for Exploration has all the features of a traditional aquarium - sea lion shows and sting-ray tanks abound - and visitors can schedule private in-water swims with the institute's social beluga whales and penguins, or observe a working clinic where rescued whales and seals are treated to return to the wild.
But the institute truly stands out for its interest in presenting ongoing research. In late July, for example, Dr. Ballard will present an online video feed from his excavation in the Black Sea, where Venetian ships (and perhaps their crews) are preserved due to the water's lack of oxygen. A mummified dolphin has already been found.
Lina and I had come to the aquarium specifically to see Dr. Ballard's new "Immersion Institute," and it didn't disappoint. The institute has implanted a remotely operated robot equipped with a camera in the underwater marine sanctuary of Monterey Bay, Calif. The video filmed by the robot is digitally streamed to the aquarium, and scientists can control the robot's movements from the institute's round, intimate theater. An aquarium attendant let me "drive" the robot - something regular visitors can't do, unfortunately - and by carefully nudging a joystick, I found a wild sea lion.
The video is shown on a huge, concave screen in the 40-seat theater, giving viewers a look at a lively underwater garden usually seen only by divers. Seeing the marine sanctuary through the robot's "eyes," it feels as if you're actually inside it.
To enhance the experience, visitors can use individual computer terminals in the theater to play a CGI-scripted video game that simulates the experience of driving the robot. Players amble about, finding sea life and foliage and learning from pop-up texts along the way.
Our tour guide told us that the institute will soon also feature video from the Florida Keys, where the tropical colors are uniquely vivid, and from Thunder Bay, the home of historic shipwrecks.
We also got to play a zippy, dramatic, 3-D group game (about 30 people can play at once), where users begin as small forms of marine life and eat one another in order to rise up the food chain to the predatory level of "great white shark" (you see your individual plight on your terminal, and the entire virtual sea is shown on the theater's main screen; it's like an interactive IMAX film with better graphics). Of course I didn't rise past the level of dolphin (Lina beat the entire room), but both the children and adults in our group found the game exciting.
Before we left, our guide, a self-described New Yorker who's "no longer hardened," removed a quarter from her purse and clinked it against the glass of a seal tank, at which point a happy male swam our way and cooed through the glass - he had been rescued from the Navy, where he had been trained to react to sound.
And that's when I knew that even though I wasn't a kid anymore, there were still reasons to visit Mystic (and to visit with kids too). The seal wiggled and danced in our direction, and the squeals of excited schoolchildren at a nearby exhibit just sounded tuneful.
han Cary Grant.