MYSTIC — This one-time shipbuilding center has had a long tradition of giving people a reason to visit, long past the heyday — first the Seaport, a kind of maritime Sturbridge Village, then the world-class aquarium, with its celebrity beluga whales. A Cheers-like parlor called Mystic Pizza provided an extra boost, inspiring the 1988 film starring Julia Roberts.
Now comes the white-hot power of the team behind the Ocean House in Watch Hill, R.I., to add a dimension of luxury to a place that still has a functioning Howard Johnson’s. With Spicer Mansion, a restored 1853 estate of a sea captain, Mystic is taking things decidedly upscale.
Conjuring a Gilded Age vibe — the one before the turn of the 20th century — the boutique hotel is up on a hill overlooking downtown and the Mystic River, offering eight high thread-count, impeccably appointed guestrooms, each named for a vessel in Elihu Spicer’s fleet.
Captain Spicer is described as a “master entertainer,” suggesting he liked to party. He built the big house for his family to escape the hot summer in New York City, but welcomed family and friends, often putting out pineapples, a symbol of hospitality, to make his guests feel welcome. The place fell on hard times after World War II, getting divided up into apartments, before the Gates family of Stonington, Conn., stepped in to purchase the property.
The restoration salvaged many of the mansion’s original architectural details, including intricate parquet floors, plaster moldings, hand-painted ceilings, carved mahogany doors and balustrades, and a view-rich widow’s walk. The interior design, a collaboration with the Ocean House Design Group, blends original marine art, the classic feel of Victorian interiors, and contemporary furniture design. Pewter, blue, and gray tones are both regal and soothing.
With the building refurbished, Daniel A. Hostettler and Ocean House Management LLC — the folks who run the wildly successful Ocean House, Weekapaug Inn and Watch Hill Inn — pumped in the luxury programming. Guests know they are going to be pampered from the moment they check in. All the rooms are equipped with iPads, Molton Brown toiletries (including the nicest disposable razor I’ve ever seen), knotted rope paperweights and fresh flowers; the turn-down service includes coiling laptop and phone charger cords in a gray Velcro strap. Somehow that just makes one’s life seem so tidy and organized.
Chess, backgammon, and coffee-table books await in the sitting rooms, where guests enjoy handcrafted cocktails and canapés before being escorted to dinner. The daily six-course farm- and sea-to-table culinary experience, choreographed by chef Jennifer Backman, is clearly the main event of any stay here. Our degustation included lobster ravioli and sea foam, Narangensett Bay sea bass, Hopkins Farm lamb, scrumptious desserts — and six different kinds of foraged sea salt — all expertly paired with a wines by the glass. Couples sit side-by-each on white quilted banquettes, as the food and drink is lovingly explicated. The printed menu is customized to display the names of the dining guests.
At breakfast, a simple repast served with Dave’s coffee from Charlestown, R.I., it’s time to plot the day, and the hotel staff is eager to facilitate, with what Spicer Mansion calls “bespoke moments,” (spicermansion.com/experiences/bespoke-moments) like a nicely curated picnic in an elegant basket; our treat was to get driven to the Seaport for the Wooden Boat Show in the BMW 7-series sedan, which is made available to guests to drive themselves. (Earlier in the morning we took it out to Noank, and noticed among the many high-tech features was a speedometer appearing hologram-like right at the windscreen, moderating the temptation to punch it).
Other coming attractions include a spacious outdoor deck and The Speakeasy, a subterranean cigar and martini bar behind a bookshelf that opens up to a secret passage.
Spicer Mansion is perfect for a romantic weekend getaway. Frazzled couples have no choice but to leave the kids with their grandparents; only guests over the age of 16 are welcome. Oh well, sorry — rules are rules!
Polishing gems in the rough has been a forte of investor Charles M. Royce, who transformed Ocean House and is helping redevelop post-industrial downtown Westerly, R.I.; though he is not directly involved in Spicer Mansion, the foray into the easternmost part of Connecticut seems a natural next step for the Ocean House empire. Indeed, there seem to be several canaries in this coal mine. The gentrification of Mystic is marked by the eateries Red 36 (red36ct.com/), the M/Bar (www.mbarct.com/) and Oyster Club (www.oysterclubct.com/). The wait is about to get a lot shorter at the Sea Swirl, let alone the Steak Loft.
And if Mystic starts to feel the least bit finite, the good news is, guests of Spicer Mansion have privileges at the Ocean House and Weekapaug Inn. Take a drive right down Route 1 past Stonington Borough and take a right at downtown Westerly for Watch Hill, and before you know it you’ll be at the mother-ship property’s gorgeous white sand beach. Just make sure to be back in time for cocktails in Captain Spicer’s parlors.