STONINGTON — The magic of Mystic, with its historic southern New England charm, has long been a favorite summer spot for southern New Englanders, but the secret that has attracted so many residents to the shoreline community is now out — and it has led to recognition as one of the best tourist destinations anywhere in the U.S.
From the wide selection of restaurants and hospitality service options to the natural beauty of southeastern Connecticut forests and shorelines to well-known recreational options such as Mystic Aquarium and Mystic Seaport, there is something for everyone. That was one of the selling points that led to Mystic being named the 4th best summer destination in the U.S. in 2023, a ranking gifted to the two-town community on Friday by USA Today and 10Best.com.
The rating was the highest in New England and the only one to crack the top 10, and Mystic Chamber of Commerce President Bruce Flax said Monday that it provides a level of excitement for what has been accomplished and the many events that the chamber and community are prepared to host in the coming year.
“Obviously we all know that Mystic is number one for all of us, but we’ll take a national ranking in the top five,” Flax said with a smile during a presentation Monday morning in the Mystic Tourism Center on East Main Street. “We have seen so much success in the past few years, and to receive this on the tail end of the 100th anniversary of the bascule bridge, it just gives us more reason to keep looking forward.”
Dozens of local officials, business owners, chamber members and state dignitaries came together to celebrate success, with announcement of the ranking providing an unofficial early summer kickoff for the community. The program included comments from Flax, Stonington First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough, state Sen. Heather Somers — state Reps. Aundre Bumgardner and Greg Howard were each in attendance as well — and other state officials.
Anthony Anthony, chief marketing officer for the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, said the recognition not only brings a sense of pride to everyone in Connecticut, but goes a long way to help the state begin “shedding its reputation as a drive-through state.”
“There’s a top-notch aquarium, tons of incredible restaurants, including a 2023 James Beard finalist chef, and so much more,” Anthony said. “There’s an option for everyone, and this is something to build on statewide.”
In describing what set Mystic apart from other top destinations, USA Today praised options such as cruising on a sailboat, enjoying a zipline trip to Tree Trails Adventure Park or seeing wildlife at the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center as activities for those making a visit.
Of course, there is always the Seaport and Aquarium, Olde Mistick Village and downtown shopping to keep visitors busy as well.
“You might remember this New England village from the '80s film ‘Mystic Pizza,’ but it’s even more enchanting in real life,” the review stated. “10Best contributor Linda Laban says it’s now one of the country’s top food destinations, so explore after grabbing a slice at the famous pizza parlor.”
For Flax and members of the community, the recognition marks a full transition from a town that was more of a quietly kept secret prior to the pandemic. The transformation since then, and the desire of residents throughout the region to enjoy more outdoor-based options, helped to shine an additional spotlight to the town.
The attention gained allowed the community to launch its annual Float Ella Festival and continue a variety of programs including the annual Mystic Outdoor Arts Festival, with the popularity of each growing exponentially in recent years.
The opportunity has also attracted more attention to the chamber, which launched the tourism center a year ago in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, as well as the launch of a mobile app that has garnered incredible viewership in recent months, including over 250,000 users in April when it featured 60 local women-owned businesses.
Susette Tibus, president and CEO of Mystic Aquarium, said the recognition also serves as an honor for the museum as well, which is preparing to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“I am happy to celebrate this as a proud, homegrown resident in the community,” she said. “We were the only community in New England to make the list and there is something to be said for that.”
The annual list was topped this year by Mackinac Island, Mich., followed by Mobile, Ala., and Doors County, Wis. Other communities in the top 10 included Chicago; Hocking Hills and Crystal River, Ohio; Asheville, N.C.; Rockaway Beach and Boardwalk, N.Y.; and Shenandoah Valley, Va.
Flax said as the town prepares for what he anticipates will be “one of its best years yet,” the goals remain the same as if the town wasn't recognized at all.
“Our goal remains, with or without this recognition, to elevate the chamber and its members, and to put a spotlight on all the small businesses, unique and quality services and tourism attractions that our town has to offer,” Flax said.
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