Retro Connecticut: A Long Weekend in the Good Old Days
By Hannah Monahan
Connecticut might not seem like the most family-friendly travel spot, with Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos dominating Connecticut tourism.
But if you want to get away from modern life, take a day off from work, and be transported to the ’40s and ’50s, Connecticut is the perfect destination. They call it Retro Connecticut, and indeed, it’s like time traveling going back to the days of diners, drive-ins and old-fashioned stores.
Mystic Country offers family fun activities in addition to the famed Mystic Aquarium, like a boardwalk beach park, and a roller rink. While a little north, the old-time country ways are still strong. Take a drive off I-95 and try these retro diners, old entertainment, and classic country events for a great long weekend in Connecticut. Here’s how we spent a long weekend in May 2012.
9 AM Arrive at Mystic, Connecticut seaport. Drive through the beautiful downtown area and continue ten minutes south to the small fishing town of Noank where you will be transported back in time.
9:10 AM Stop at Carson’s Store, 43 Main Street in Noank. This small general store turned diner takes you back to the ’50s with its classic retro counter tops, stools, and booths. There’s even a penny candy counter. Established in 1907, Carson’s is one of Mystic’s best-kept secrets and a “native hangout” according to Agnes Holland who has lived in Noank for 75 years.
“You gotta stop at Carson’s,” says an out of town sailor who has docked his boat around the corner for more than 15 years and stops in for breakfast every time he does. The Irish Omelet is a must if you love corned beef and potatoes.
11:30 AM Hit the beach and boardwalk at Ocean Beach Park on 98 Neptune Ave in New London. Along the beautiful white sand beach is an old-time boardwalk complete with a pool, carousel, mini-golf course, video arcade, a beach bar, and water slides.
Play some beach volleyball or just sit and enjoy the sun with your family. Let the kids go off and experience the different attractions with no worries, there are dozens of lifeguards on staff and the place is very clean. Joanie says, “The place is a lot cleaner than when I was a kid. I love coming here with my granddaughter.”
Movies on the Beach
Stay for lunch and go to the food court or get an ice cream at the snack bar. There is a wide variety of food offered at the park. In the afternoon, on the boardwalk stage, live bands play fun family music. If you decide to spend the evening, movies are played right on the beach on a projector screen.
2:30 PM Drive to Galaxy Roller Rink on 210 Bridge St. in Groton for afternoon Great Skate. Since 1994 this rink has been a fun place to listen to today’s top songs, or beloved classics while skating around a gleaming hardwood floor with colored lights overhead. Just $6 for admission and skate rentals from $3-$5 depending on the type of skate, the roller rink is an inexpensive family event.
With a food court offering child favorites like pizza, hot dogs, and ice cream cheap, owner Matthew Longino says “we’re not the movie theaters, we’re a lot cheaper.” Why go see a movie when you and your family can have fun to get exercise and listening to some great music?
5:00 PM Take the drive to Storrs, Connecticut and check into your hotel, the Nathan Hale Inn on 855 Bolton Rd. Just 40 minutes from the roller rink, this hotel is worth the drive and close to your next few days of fun. With two full-service restaurants, there is a choice between casual and upscale dining for the evening.
6:15 PM Walk a short way to the UConn Dairy Bar on 3636 Horsebarn Hill Road. This delicious ice cream is produced through the land grant program by the university, on-site. Enjoy the treat outside on the hillside farm where you’ll see horses, sheep, and of course dairy cows.
7:30 PM Take a ride over to the Mansfield Drive-In Theater on 228 Strafford Rd. Enjoy a double feature with the family on one of 3 screens “offering a little something for everyone” says owner Michael Jungeen.
Selling ices, popcorn, and all the classic movie snacks, you can enjoy the movies with your food from the comfort of your car or on lawn chairs outside. There’s nothing as retro as watching a movie on the gigantic screen of a drive-in, with your family or just your partner snuggled up beside you. Yes, necking is ok!
9 AM Wake up and take a ride down the street to Mansfield General Store, 534 Storrs Rd. This old building used to be the local grocery store, but in 2008, it was taken over and created into a country kitchen and antique store.
Sunday Buffet Brunch
On Sundays, a buffet-style brunch is served with all the country classics. Eat outside on the patio or inside in the homey kitchen tables. Live guitar, banjo, and harmonics bands play at this gathering that all the locals go to.
Angela, who has seen the transformations of the store into a kitchen, is happy to see the owner’s success. “She uses all locally grown ingredients, and she’s really doing well,” she said about the owner Kelly. It’s a great family place just down the road.
11 AM Head back to the Mansfield Drive-in Theater that doubles as a craft fair and market every Sunday morning. People come from all over to shop and sell everything from crafts, furniture, antiques, clothing, and food.
With thousands of people passing through the drive-in grounds, there is something for everyone. If you have little kids with you, there is a playground onsite if shopping isn’t their idea of fun.
2 PM Take a ride to Hosmer Mountain Store on 217 Mountain St in Willimantic. At this point, the name Hosmer Mountain Soda will probably be familiar. This local company makes and bottles their own root beers, cream sodas, birch beer, and 20 other flavors of carbonated drinks. Sold all over Connecticut, these drinks are a statewide favorite. In a glass bottle, you will think you’ve gone back to the 50’s drinking the refreshing soda.
From 44¢-52¢ for a 12 oz. bottle to 99¢-$1.09 for a 28 oz. bottle and deals when you buy in bulk, Hosmer sodas are a cheaper, tastier, and more authentic alternative to getting a soda at a convenience store.
A customer at the Aero Diner in North Windham, CT.
BOWL A STRIKE!
Bowl some frames at Lucky Strike Lanes on 185 Stafford Rd in Mansfield. Bowling is such a family activity, and Lucky Strike Lanes is no exception offering duckpin bowling for all ages. With retro style booths, chairs, and of course bowling shoes, this will be a perfect stop on your tour of retro Connecticut.
6 PM Dine at the Aero Diner at 361 Boston Post Rd. in North Windham. In the middle of a modern highway, next to big named stores, is this tiny 50’s diner with amazing food. Classic diner food like burgers, clubs, and meatloaf are on the menu here.
The Aero served one of the best burgers I have ever eaten and cooked to your liking. People come in for their favorite meals at Aero Diner and are “obsessed” as one waitress put it, with classics such as turkey dinner. For dessert have a classic milkshake in vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry or try a slice of pie to get the real sense of retro Americana.
10 AM check out of the hotel and take a short ride to Putnam, CT on your way back to I-95. This Old 1940’s mill town has been restored and reinvigorated with shops and restaurants and is the perfect place to walk around.
10:30 AM stop at Victoria Station Café for some coffee and croissants. This little shop next to the local train station has a classic Victorian style décor, with suede coaches and a grand piano. If the inside atmosphere doesn’t suit, there is a cobblestone patio lined with beautiful flowers just in front with large tables for family dining outdoors.
Amazing gourmet coffees and lattés, along with deliciously decadent breakfast pastries makes Victoria Station’s menu a treat.
11:30 AM Walk the short distance from the café, through the train station, to the Gertrude Warner Museum. If that name sounds familiar, you have probably read the classic 1940s books Boxcar Children.
Gertrude Warner lived and taught in Putnam and is said to have drawn on plot lines in the books from the mill town.
Inside a restored boxcar itself, the museum is a dedication to the stories and to the author.
The museum guides say that people come from as far as Mexico to see this museum and are “moved to tears when they see the real life set up of what the boxcar was said to look like in the first book.”
If you are a fan of Warner’s work this is a great stop along the way. If you haven’t read the books, stop buy anyways and learn about Warner and some history of Putnam.
Useful Links for Visiting Retro Connecticut
Hannah Monahan is writer who lives in Boston.
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