Mariners’ Museum; Newport News, Virginia
Designated as America’s National Maritime Museum by Congress, the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, is huge—with 32,000 artifacts, artwork, ship models, functioning steam engines and even the revolving gun turret from the USS Monitor, the Union half of the first ironclad ship battle in nearby Hampton Roads during the Civil War. It’s also near one of the nation’s most popular cruising grounds—Mile 0 of the ICW is just a few miles away in Norfolk—and its James River location is steeped in American History. Indeed, Capt. John Smith sailed up the river in 1607 to found Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the New World; Yorktown, where George Washington’s army defeated the British in the final victory of the American Revolution, is just a few miles away, and Colonial Williamsburg is also nearby.
The Mariners’ Museum itself is full of interactive exhibits. You can learn Morse code, try to lift different-size cannonballs (not as easy as it might seem), or climb in a liferaft and search through dozens of possible survival items and then open a flipboard to see how your selections compare with those chosen by a ship captain. Smaller kids flock to the Activity Ship in the central lobby where they’ll find a ship’s wheel, treasure chests, climbing ladders, and nautical costumes.
Still, the Monitor Center is the main draw, harking back to the historic fight between the Monitor and the Confederate Ship Virginia (formerly the Merrimac), the first battle between two ironclads, ending in a standoff in Hampton Roads in March 1862. The Monitor subsequently sank at the end of that year in a storm 16 miles off Cape Hatteras. The wreck was discovered in 1973, and the warship’s revolutionary revolving gun turret, prop, engine, and some personal effects are now at the museum. The Monitor Center also has a “design an ironclad” interactive game, where you choose among hundreds of options to build your own Civil War-era ironclad fighting ship—and then learn whether it floats or sinks.
The entire museum is part of Mariners’ Museum Park, a beautiful 550-acre area filled with walking trails, bridges, picnic tables, and a large lake. It’s an inviting destination for a day or more, but it’s not on the water. If you’re coming by boat, the nearest stop is Leeward’s Marina five miles down the James River, with floating docks for boats up to 43 feet. Other large full-service marinas are nearby in Norfolk and Portsmouth.
100 Museum Dr., Newport News, Virginia 23601
Admission: Adults: $12; Students 13-18: $10; Children 12-6: $7; Children 5 and under: Free