My wife asked if I would drive her to the Army National Guard base next to Groton/New London Airport this past Sunday for what will become a monthly stint doing social work with soldiers. I knew it would be a long day, so I brought plenty of reading material and had every intention of spending time in the library in Groton or Mystic.

Instead, I rediscovered downtown Mystic and some of its places of interest, browsed Olde Mistick Village and behaved like a tourist. After way too many years, it was nice to return.

Since it was just after 8 a.m. on a peaceful Sunday, my stomach told me that it was time to eat. After a 10-minute ride from Groton, I got off Interstate 95 at exit 90 and turned right toward downtown. I quickly passed one haunt I've never tried -- Kitchen Little, a blue shack with a wonderful reputation. I always wondered what that place was like, but saw from the large Sunday morning crowd that I wasn't going to find out.

As I continued, I passed three parking lots for the Seaport and remembered 28 years ago when we first visited Mystic as newbies that there was just one large parking area. Now things have changed considerably and the Seaport gift shop and entrance have completely shifted from what used to be a dinky ticket booth to a very fancy entrance farther into the town.

My last visit had been in the early part of winter some 10 years ago when my wife and I took the famous Lantern Light Tour of the Seaport, which I assume is still wonderful. Of course, I've also toured the Seaport, which remains a must-see for anyone down here who hasn't visited.

I turned down the quiet winding street that leads to the main drag in downtown Mystic and immediately felt the warmth of a quiet fishing community on a Sunday morning. Once on the main street, I crossed the Mystic River Bridge and looked for a coffee shop or a little restaurant. And there was Azu on my right. It looked wonderful. Open windows beckoned, the place looked very appealing. I had found breakfast nirvana.

Azu was the perfect choice. Seated at a table right in front of an open window, I became an instant tourist visiting Mystic. I could have been a guest of one of the inns on the other side of the street or a explorer from the Inn at Mystic or The Old Mystic Inn, just interested in trying out new cuisine. No matter. I was completely relaxed.

A couple sat at the table next to me. This weekend apparently was his birthday celebration and their small talk indicated that this romantic getaway was soon to end and they would be back someplace in Connecticut or another close-by spot, readjusting after a super escape.

I was envious of this couple. Here I sat alone, chowing down on wonderful breakfast fare, reading my New York Times leisurely and my wife was locked up at a military base. What a bummer. "Oh well," I thought to myself. "We're really only 90 minutes south. If she's ever re-assigned here, we can make it a weekend."

I finished breakfast and decided to take a walk around downtown. So much had changed. Where Azu was, there had been a wonderful fudge and ice cream shop back in the '90s when I was promoting Mystic Coast and Country -- a coalition of 39 towns.

Today there was a period consignment shop next door and up and down the other side of the street was the usual collection of clothing boutiques, an Army-Navy store and a book store. It was still early -- barely 9:30 and I didn't have the patience to wait until all the stores opened.

One place, the Black Dog, was a collection of gifts, pricey T-shirts, sweats and fancy leashes and dog collars (too extravagant for our two). The shops were balanced by some small galleries and an upscale baby store.

I walked back across the bridge, glanced down at the tour boats with longing and continued my exploratory stroll. On a side street just beyond the river, I passed a gemstone shop and across the street was a sunglass store and a simple lunch place that looked like it would be fun to try.

I crossed the main drag and started walking up the winding street I had taken and stopped in front of Anthony's, which looked like an absolutely wonderful restaurant. Prices were certainly competitive enough and I found myself drooling over the Osso Bucco, my favorite veal dish.

This was literally restaurant row, because there was a great-looking oyster bar and seafood place across from Anthony's on the Mystic River and another small but charming seafood place just above Anthony's in a tiny shopping plaza.

"I really do love this place," I thought. "I could get lost for a week, drowning in garlic, salmon, lobster roll and other goodies." Oh well. Not this trip.

I walked up a little farther and found a wonderful bakery, filled with locals and tourists and I couldn't resist a sugar cookie.

But it was time to move on. So I returned to the car and drove back toward the more commercial area and Olde Mistick Village. It was well past 10 a.m. and those shops were just opening, so I continued my odyssey.

Three hours later, I'd frequented every boutique, nautical and Native American store and T-shirt and sweatshirt shop. It was actually fun, since I had no money and could only wish for the many things I saw. I rationalized that I didn't need the stuff anyway, but I was in denial. We'd shopped at Olde Mistick Village so often as the girls were growing up.

And the shops were in the shadow of the Mystic Marine Life Aquarium, one of the most beautiful I've been to and filled with amazing aquatic treasures. I simply didn't have the time that day, but vowed to return if my wife was assigned to base next to Groton/New London Airport again.

Happily, when I picked my wife up, she told me that this was to be her regular base of social work operations, once a month and that the August stint would probably be on our anniversary, the 21st. "Then we have to at least make this an overnight," I said. "That way, we can have a really early breakfast at Azu before I drop you at the base. Much more romantic than this past Sunday."

I like this rediscovering Mystic stuff. Next time I may even branch out to Stonington Village or further inland.

Steven Gaynes can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.