As you cruise around America's coastline, do you ever gaze at the night sky wondering what it was like to navigate a boat by the stars instead of a GPS? Do childhood fantasies of cavorting with pirates still stir in your heart and conjure up dreams of sailing with rum-guzzling scoundrels? And when veterans reminisce about shipping off to war, can you envision the sounds and sensations of traversing the seas on a colossal navy battleship? If those questions strike a chord with your nautical curiosity, then it's time to visit our country's maritime museums.
These treasure chests of regional history celebrate adventure on the seas and turn the ocean into a classroom. They're more than safe havens when inclement weather or stinging sunburns drive your crew indoors. You can experience past and present life on the waterways through programs that are hands-on and interactive. At the following 10 maritime museums, do whatever floats your boat spend the night on a 19th century tall ship, hone skills for constructing your own boat, or take an evening tour of a haunted lighthouse armed with only a flashlight.
Sprawling across 19 acres of Mystic River shoreline, this museum has emerged as the flagship of American maritime heritage with its exceptional collection of nearly 500 historic watercraft, 1 million photographs and 2 million artifacts. The crown jewel of its fleet is the 1841 Charles W. Morgan, America's oldest commercial vessel still afloat, which lures visitors to its deck for tales of New England's whale-hunting past. Other major attractions: a working shipyard that rekindles the craft of building wooden boats, a planetarium that explores the wonder of celestial navigation by the moon, stars and planets, and a 19th century seafaring village that's bustling with craftsmen, storytellers, artisans and musicians who help you skip back in time.
The current of the Delaware River swirls around a pair of vessels docked at Penn's Landing waterfront. Cruiser Olympia, launched in 1892, is the world's oldest floating steel warship and the only surviving navy ship of the Spanish- American War. Submarine Becuna, launched in 1944, sunk Japanese ships in the Pacific and trailed Soviet submarines with eavesdropping equipment in the Atlantic during WWII. Sailors of all ages can climb aboard and get a close look at these amazing watercraft. Be sure to save time to venture inside the museum for exhibits with rare artifacts and interactive displays on the region's major ports. Discover how colonial patriots battled against pirates, why freedom of African- Americans changed the course of nautical history, and which watery disasters resulted in rescues or catastrophes.
When the museum announces dates for its annual oyster and crab festivals, folks around the Bay mark their calendars and anticipate the celebration of scrumptious local seafood. But this is not just a place to relish a savory catch. It's a living tribute to the region's watermen, history, culture and environment. Located along the Miles River in the quaint harbor town of St. Michaels, the campus is comprised of 12 buildings that showcase the tradition of building workboats, carving duck decoys, processing crab meat, tonging for oysters and much more. The working boatyard, Hooper Strait Lighthouse and Point Lookout bell tower are among the attractions that welcome you to come inside and experience the Chesapeake's nautical past. Students in grades 6 through 9 can also join the museum's complimentary Rising Tide After-School Boatbuilding Program to learn basic boatbuilding techniques.
You will marvel at its grandeur maybe even feel a bit small when you stroll on the deck of the battleship Wisconsin. This monument to our navy's valor is the pride and joy of Nauticus. Even though it earned battle stars in WWII and the Korean War, don't let your awe of this magnificent ship distract you from exploring the rest of the museum. Some exhibits target military weaponry and maritime history, and others focus on deep-sea discoveries and forces of nature. Special interactive displays on aquatic creatures, sharks and horseshoe crabs captivate young visitors. Added bonus: Watching the parade of ships in Norfolk's harbor and experiencing the constant motion of seafaring vessels from small water crafts to massive navy warships.
It's hard to imagine a more elegant setting to learn about the Atlantic trade between England and America in the 1700s and 1800s than at this museum. Built in 1819, the main structure is a gorgeous example of early Greek Revival architecture in the South. The mansion once belonged to William Scarbrough, who was a 19th century shipping merchant and part owner of the Savannah, the first steamboat to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Today, nine rooms of his former home present an impressive collection of model ships nestled in glass cases next to antique maritime paintings and artifacts. The sweet aroma of blooms in the garden surrounding the museum creates an ideal ambience for contemplating adventures on the heavy seas.
After climbing 219 steps to the top of this historic lighthouse, you're rewarded with a glorious view of America's oldest seaport. While you catch your breath, you learn how an old Spanish watchtower evolved over centuries into a steady beacon of navigation for watchful sailors. Built in 1824, the lighthouse is now staffed by historians eager to tell tales of ferocious storms, epic battles and tragic shipwrecks. Exhibits filled with artifacts, model ships and treasures from archaeological dives bring those stories to life. Children's imaginations soar in the play area equipped with a wooden boat for climbing and scavenger hunts for exploring. Dark of the Moon ghost tours dare fearless guests to investigate the site's spooky spots by flashlight.
Even though the Atlantic and Pacific coasts claim the most nautical notoriety, this museum serves as a reminder that the Great Lakes also played a key role in American maritime history. Inside five exhibition buildings, you discover a variety of displays on boat building, sea culture and shipwrecks. But just add water outside, and you can board a noteworthy fleet of water crafts ranging from Coast Guard rescue boats to fishing tugs and the replica tall ship Friends Good Will, a merchant vessel converted to troop transport ship in the War of 1812. This summer's new exhibit, Lake Michigan's Call to Duty, shows how this region mobilized for World War II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Tucked away in the Gulf of Mexico on the barrier island of Galveston lies a hidden gem of regional nautical history. Strolling through its halls reveals the stories of ships that defended America's southern coastline and delivered hopeful immigrants to it shores. The museum's centerpiece is the 1877 tall ship Elissa, which is not a replica but the actual vessel that was rescued from a scrap yard and painstakingly restored. A new exhibit uses model ships, artifacts and paintings to tell the tale of the Texas Navy's maritime adventures and fight for independence from foreign powers.
California's coastline is teeming with watercraft from surfboards to battleships. This museum, dedicated to preserving the region's maritime heritage, is located in lovely Santa Barbara Harbor and is overflowing with interactive and innovative displays. Visitors of all ages enjoy exhibits on underwater photography, female lighthouse keepers, shipwrecks, Coast Guard rescues, commercial fishing, Navy seaplanes, the history of surfing and more. Lectures and educational programs target new nautical themes and marine science. A special project arranges sleepovers on the tall ship Spirit of Dana Point so students can experience life as a sailor in the 1830s.
Unpredictable waves, raging storms and wild natural forces make the intersection of the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean one of the most treacherous passages on the West Coast. Near this location awaits a museum that houses the leading collection of Pacific Northwest maritime artifacts in the country and a renowned research library. Its exhibits cover a gamut of nautical topics ranging from Coast Guard rescue ships to pirate treasures and seafaring commerce. The floating lightship Columbia invites you to venture on board and experience the challenges of using bright lamps and thunderous horns to alert seafaring vessels of danger lurking in the waters.
From the Gulf to the Atlantic and every bay in between, boaters and their families have plenty to look forward to on the Florida coasts this fall. Start the season with a couple of pints at Oktoberfest and spooks at a haunted ghost tour, throw in a boating event or two, and round it out with a lighted boat parade.
Learn about the haunted history in the oldest city in the United States through the lens of the undead. Get tickets for haunted pub crawls, trolly tours and walking tours. You’ll get in the Halloween spirit and learn the stories behind St. Augustine’s most spirited locations from professional storytellers with just the right amount of spook. Kids are welcome on trolly and walking tours, and pets are allowed on walking tours! Check out Ghost Tours of St. Augustine or Ghosts & Gravestones.
Where to Dock: Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor
Jacksonville Beach, Tampa
Kick off the fall season with Oktoberfest on the Atlantic or Gulf Coast with Beaches Oktoberfest and Oktoberfest Tampa. With Tampa’s event ranking in the top five in the country and Jacksonville Beach’s being the largest in the state, you’re sure to find the brew for you! beachesoktoberfest.com
Where to Dock: Fort George Island Marina (Jacksonville), Westshore Yacht Club (Tampa)
Just across the Bay from Tampa and St. Pete, Apollo Beach is teeming with wildlife on land and on the water. At this four-day festival, you’ll find a free expo with nature organizations and artwork, daily field and boat trips to sites not accessible to the public, and expert wildlife and conservation seminars. Nature aficionados won’t want to miss this opportunity at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Suncoast Youth Conservation Center.
Where to Dock: Apollo Beach Marina
West Palm Beach
Has your dog always wanted to be an (un)professional racer? Now is Fido’s time to shine! Register your pup for a day full of zoomies, Doggie Costume Contest, and plenty of BBQ and entertainment for the whole family. Proceeds benefit Furry Friends Adoption, Clinic & Ranch.
Where to Dock: Palm Harbor Marina
No matter your music taste, you’re sure to find something to jam out to at this three-day festival, from smooth jazz and blues to funk and zydeco. You’ll find plenty of vendors at the festival, and Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood offers old-school charm and Latin American eateries. St. Petersburg offers hip breweries, coffee shops and more.
Where to Dock: Clearwater Beach Municipal Marina
Join in a celebration of life at the Water Lantern Festival this fall. Start the day with food trucks, music and family- friendly fun, and end by releasing your personalized lantern on the water at sunset.
Where to Dock: Marina Jack
The largest in-water boat show in the world offers viewings and demos of everything from superyachts to kayaks and fishing gear. Stop by the Superyacht Village to sip a cocktail on one of the most luxurious boats in the world, the Convention Center for watersport and innovative boating gear demos, and take the family to a kid-friendly fishing seminar.
Where to Dock: 17th Street Yacht Basin, Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina, Pier 66 Hotel & Marina
Join the Old Naples Waterfront Association in the historic center to kick off stone crab season! Eat stone crab to your heart’s content in a prime harvesting location of the tasty crustacean and enjoy plenty of entertainment, from live music to local galleries and craft vendors. floridarambler.com/florida-festivals/ florida-seafood-festivals-calendar
Where to Dock: Naples Bay Resort & Marina
Cruise to the charming Apalachicola, tucked away among expansive wildlife reserves and just a bay away from the Gulf. Along with some of the best oysters and seafood you can eat, the whole family will enjoy a parade, carnival, Blessing of the Fleet, hours of live music every day, and competitions such as the oyster shucking contest and blue crab races.
Where to Dock: Apalachicola Marina
Celebrate the annual return of the North Atlantic right whale to the coasts of Florida and Georgia to give birth and nurse their young in historic Fernandina Beach. Learn about threats and conservation efforts for these gentle giants, participate in a beach clean-up, and enjoy family fun at educational exhibits, athletic events, and food and craft vendors.
Where to Dock: Oasis Marinas at Fernandina Beach
Cruise to Key West for three days of epic racing and a full week of family-friendly fun. Don’t miss the World’s Fastest Boat Parade on the first Sunday, or any three of the races throughout the week: the Truman Waterfront Cup, Southernmost Continental Champion, and Championship. Use downtime to explore the Race Village at Truman Waterfront and try out local pubs, shops and restaurants.
Where to Dock: Conch Harbor Marina
Visit Siesta Key Beach to watch sculptors from around the world turn piles of white sand into sculpted masterpieces. Professional competitors have 24 hours to build their pieces, and visitors have the chance to participate in amateur sand-sculpting competitions and see the masters at work.
Where to Dock: Safe Harbor Siesta Key
Art connoisseurs and amateurs alike will love this boutique art competition and festival in the scenic cultural center of Sarasota. Masters of different media—ceramics, jewelry, graphic art, painting, and more—will put the best of their work on display for patrons to browse and buy to their hearts’ content.
Where to Dock: Marina Jack
November 19-January 31
Ready to get in the holiday spirit? Cruise back to St. Augustine as early as before Thanksgiving for a dazzling display of more than 3 million lights in the historic district. Gaze in awe at the twinkly lights and find photo ops at the Bridge of Lions and the Christmas tree at the center of Plaza de la Constitución. Enjoy the sounds of the All Star Orchestra on the first night and stroll to businesses open later than usual.
Where to Dock: St. Augustine Municipal Marina
Since the 1970s, this annual art extravaganza brings works of contemporary and modern pieces by renowed and emerging artists from around the world to showcase in Miami. Held at the Miami Beach Convention Center, for three days the public can gaze upon unique masterpieces presented by leading galleries from five continents.
Where to Dock: Sunset Harbour Yacht Club
Key Largo, FL
This annual four-day event showcases classic antique yachts, automobiles and aircraft to celebrate those who restore vintage collections. Experience a full schedule of events kicking off with a welcome party and dinner buffet on Thursday, then a weekend packed with drive-bys, shows, dinners, cocktail receptions, a costume party and more.
Where to Dock: Ocean Reef Club
With so many spectacular lighted boat parades on the coasts of Florida, we couldn’t choose just one! Dock at any of these coastal towns on the first three Saturdays of December to ring in the season on the festive Florida waterfronts.
Daytona Beach Christmas Boat Parade
Palm Coast Yacht Club Holiday Boat Parade
The Seminole Hard Rock Winter Boat Parade
St. Augustine Regatta of Lights
Naples Bay Christmas Boat Parade
Northwest Cape Coral 2nd Annual Boat Parade
The Caribbean is well known for its clear blue tropical waters. But as rich as it is in beauty, the islands have an even greater wealth of his- tory. Luckily, museums are located across the region to share the stories and significant events that can provide glimpses of what maritime life was like throughout the years. Their exhibits, relics and archives will have you looking at the region in a whole new light.
You can find this treasure trove of artifacts in the Atlantic Ocean 650 miles east of North Carolina, the nearest land mass to this collection of islands. The museum shows how maritime events shaped the history, people and culture of Bermuda. It is located at the historic Royal Naval Dockyard within Bermuda’s largest fort. Exhibits cover 500 years of the country’s history from how the German U-505 submarine was captured by the U.S. Navy and concealed in Bermuda to how sailing races from North America to Bermuda have influenced the development of ocean-worthy boats and blue water sailing. Be sure to experience the museum’s unique spaces by strolling through the two-story boat loft to catching a dolphin show at the Keep Pond Terrace to taking in the expansive ocean views at the flagpole.
Where to Dock: Kings Wharf or Heritage Wharf
Turks and Caicos National Museum opened in 1991 to store artifacts found in the excavation of the Molasses Reef shipwreck, an unknown Spanish ship that sunk in 1515 on the Caicos Bank. The museum spans two locations: the Guinep House on Grand Turk Island, believed to be more than 180 years old and named after the large guinep tree on its property, and the Village at Grace Bay on Providenciales, where visitors can tour the Heritage House, an historically correct rendition of a typical 1800s Caicos dwelling. In addition to showcasing shipwreck artifacts, visitors also learn about the evolution of The Grand Turk Lighthouse as well as the rise and fall of the island’s salt industry. On Museum Day, the first Saturday in November, visitors can tour the exhibits for free, and in May, the Village at Grace Bay holds a “Back in the Day” event with activities reflecting historical life on the island.
Where to Dock: Blue Haven Resort & Marina
If you like to take in history outdoors, these exhibitions are for you. The trail consists of 36 stops across all three islands (Grand Cayman and the Sister Islands) and is best traveled via car. Each stop is marked by a road sign that shares a notable historic event or contribution related to the maritime industry. Learn how turtling shaped the islands’ early economy, how ships were cleaned and repaired before boat lifts by a process called “careening”, and hear stories of notable shipwrecks. If you prefer to learn Cayman Island history in one place, you can check out the Cayman Islands National Museum, housed in Cayman’s oldest surviving public building, which has a series of permanent and rotating exhibits.
Where to Dock: The Barcadere Marina
Completed 500 years after Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of La Hispaniola, the Faro a Colon (aka The Columbus Lighthouse) is one of the Dominican Republic’s most popular attractions. Constructed in the shape of a Latin cross spanning the width of two soccer fields, the lighthouse was created to recognize the first “encounter between two worlds.” It includes a mausoleum that houses Christopher Columbus’ remains as well as a museum displaying original and replica artifacts from the time of Columbus’ voyage. The lighthouse also has a library containing documents and maps displaying some of the earliest drawings of the Americas.
Where to Dock: Marina Zarpar
The Antigua Naval Dockyard, now named Nelson’s Dockyard, was built in the mid-1700s to serve as a strategic post and support the Royal Navy battle against the French and protect trade routes in the region. The dockyard officially closed in 1889 and reopened in 1961 as an historic site. In addition to exploring the dockyard, take advantage of the park’s 12 miles of hiking trails, two forts, and tours such as the “Rum in the Ruins” where you can listen to stories of the dockyard while sipping on a cocktail. If traveling by boat, get the best view of the gorgeous English Harbour and snag a slip at nearby Nelson’s Dockyard Marina, the only continuously working Georgian Era dockyard in the world.
Where to Dock: Nelson’s Dockyard Marina
Opened in 2020, the Bequia Heritage Museum includes the Boat Museum and Annexe that display and educate visitors about the boatbuilding and whaling industries as well as artifacts dating back to the period of the island’s European settlement. Vessels on display at the museum include a traditional Amerindian dug-out canoe and the decommissioned boat, Rescue, that was originally used for whaling.
Where to Dock: Bequia Marina
Located in a mansion built in 1729 on the Waaigat inlet, the Curaçao Maritime Museum shares with visitors the story and events that influenced Curaçao’s involvement in the maritime industry. Learn how trade ebbed and flowed in and out of Curaçao’s ports, reflective of the events happening around the world to the arrival of the first cruise ship in 1901 from New York, sparking the cruise tourism industry until the 1970s when air travel took over as the primary way for tourists to visit the island. Visitors can explore the museum at their own pace or take a guided tour.
Where to Dock: Seru Boca Marina
With a decent internet connection, you can visit the Grand Bahama Museum from the comforts of your remote anchorage or mooring. Bahamian history and culture are explored through digital exhibits ranging from the islands’ natural landscapes and the history of the port authority to the role the Bahamas played during the Golden Age of Piracy. Learn about the first recorded piece of mail sent from the Bahamas in 1761 and the evolution of mailboats. Or savor a dark and stormy while reading about the Bahamas’ role in the rum-running industry during U.S. Prohibition. The Grand Bahama Museum was originally housed at The Garden of the Groves but was unfortunately destroyed by weather and time. To reach a wider audience and share Bahamian history and culture, the museum decided to move to a digital platform.
Where to Dock: Grand Bahama Yacht Club or Flamingo Bay Hotel & Marina
WHICH OF THESE RENOWNED SEAFOOD TOWNS WILL HOOK YOU?
Beaufort lies on an inlet leading south to the Atlantic and is considered part of North Carolina’s “Inner Banks” and the Crystal Coast. The Crystal Coast spans 85 miles of stunning coastline in southern North Carolina, including 56 miles of protected beach of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Located on historic Amelia Island, Fernandina Beach is the northernmost city on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Visitors will find easy access to Jacksonville, the mouth of the St. Mary’s River, and coastal destinations in southern Georgia such as Cumberland Island.
Established in 1709, Beaufort was originally known as Fishtown, having been a fishing village and port of safety since the late 1600s. In addition to fishing, Beaufort was a hub for whaling, lumber, shipbuilding and farming. The earliest settlers made their mark by building Bahamian and West Indian-style homes, and the Plan of Beaufort Towne can still be seen in a 12-block historic district.
First settled in 1562, this town on historic Amelia Island went through many transformations under eight flags before it became what it is today. After the Civil War, Fernandina Beach became a bustling seaport and popular destination, called “The Queen of Summer Resorts” by many Northerners. Today’s visitors find themselves surrounded by the town’s lovely relics of the past — an historic district, Civil War port and the first cross-state railroad remain.
Beaufort has a thriving scene for anglers. Cast your line off a dock downtown, book a charter or head north to Cedar Island Wildlife Refuge to catch flounder, trout and redfish. Boat tours and private charters are a popular way to experience the stunning views and wildlife of the Crystal Coast. See porpoises, dolphins and wild horses on the beach. Better yet, book with Cruisin’ Tikis Beaufort to imbibe while you observe. Dock at Beaufort Docks.
Pier fishing is huge on Amelia Island, and anglers should head to the George Crady Bridge, which spans one mile of Nassau Sound. Snag a variety of fish in the area, including redfish, whiting, seatrout, tarpon and flounder. Boaters can start aquatic excursions in either the Atlantic Ocean to the east or Amelia River to the west. Go on a solo adventure, or join a tour or charter by boat, kayak or watersport with the likes of Amelia River Tours, Amelia Adventures & Kayak or Riptide Watersports. Dock at Fernandina Harbor Marina.
History buffs will feel right at home in Beaufort. Visit the Beaufort Historic Site to learn the town’s story through nine preserved historic homes in the middle of town. Three different maritime museums, including the North Carolina Maritime Museum, and the Bonehenge Whale Center offer marine merriment for the whole family. And for a taste of Crystal Coast wildlife, head over to the Rachel Carson Reserve where wild horses and countless birds, reptiles and aquatic mammals roam free.
Fernandina Beach is known for its easy living. Amelia Island Welcome Center is a great place to revisit Fernandina’s history and plan your day. Make your way to Centre Street on the water to browse eclectic shops and bustling art galleries, taste wild-caught shrimp at a bistro, or grab a pint at the Palace Saloon, Florida’s oldest tavern. If you’re in town on a Friday, you might stumble upon Sounds on Centre, a local concert series.
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