Skip to main content

Cruising Landmarks: Maritime Museums To Highlight Any Trip

Accessible by land or water, a look into the maritime past can build a love of boating in the future. These six maritime museums offer boating families experiences that will form a lifetime of memories.

A lot of the time when we’re cruising, particularly if we’re cruising with children, is spent looking for something new—a place or an experience that will keep the entire crew happy or, better yet, wanting to come back for more. A suggestion, learned from experience: Make a maritime museum part of your next cruise. A good hands-on museum is a great way to share the passion. Let the crew climb on a tall ship, ride an antique runabout, sight a target through a submarine periscope, or try to pick up a real cannonball. There are nautical museums across the U.S. Here are some of our favorites:

The Antique Boat Museum; Clayton, New York.


If you’re cruising in the Thousand Islands—or along the St. Lawrence River as part of the Great Loop—the Antique Boat Museum is a must stop. With a collection of some 320 antique boats, the museum is a boat lover’s paradise, a cornucopia of nautical Americana ranging from such iconic names as Gar Wood, Chris-Craft, and Hacker down to an 1860 Chippewa dugout canoe. Beyond the boats themselves, the museum, on the western edge of the Thousand Islands, is a treasure of restorations, boatbuilding classes, and special events. For a hands-on experience, you can row a St. Lawrence skiff for free, or take a 45-minute ride on a triple-cockpit mahogany speedboat for a fee.

One of the most popular exhibits traces its origins to the first New York City boat show in 1905 when, according to the museum, “motor boating was a facet of modernism, a celebration of personal freedom and opulence through technology.”

Called the National Motor Boat Show, the exhibit contains a dozen boats—Century, Elco, Lyman, and Fay & Bowen among them—arranged as if they were in a 1920s boat show, a display of gleaming mahogany, immaculate engine compartments, and classic lines, all ready for prospective buyers.

I visited the museum a few years ago when I was cruising the Thousand Islands on a new Hunt 29 with photographer Billy Black. By happenstance, we were there during the museum’s annual Antique Boat Show and Auction so we tied up at the outer floating dock to take a look. The place was wall-to-wall with boats—more than 90 in the water—and boat aficionados, including us. We ended up taking a ride on a 33-foot triple-cockpit Gar Wood speedboat that left us all smiling ear to ear. The Antique Boat Show and Auction this summer is Friday July 31 through Sunday August 2.

Antique Boat Museum
750 Mary St., Clayton, New York 13624
Admission: Adults: $14; Seniors 65 and older: $12; Youth 7-17: $8; 6 and under: Free

Maine Maritime Museum; Bath, Maine


There aren’t any wooden speedboat rides in Bath; on the other hand, there aren’t any lobster boats in Clayton. If Clayton is the antique boat center of the world, the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath can claim the same title for lobster boats’—and almost anything else that’s been plying the Kennebec River since Samuel de Champlain led the first European expedition up there in 1605.

On the water, Bath is as easy to get to today as it was in the 17th century. If you’re heading along the Maine coast from Portland, the Kennebec River is just east of Casco Bay, and then it’s a straight shot about 11 miles up to Bath. When I was there on a Back Cove 30 with Bentley Collins from Sabre/Back Cove, we were on a cruise that started in Boothbay Harbor and took us west to Wiscasset and then over the Sasanoa River to Bath.

You’ll know when you get there. Bath also is home to the Bath Iron Works, which has been building warships for the U.S. Navy since 1893. In the Second World War, BIW built 82 destroyers (more than the entire output of the Japanese navy). Although I loved the performance and looks of our Back Cove 30, when we pulled near the USSSpruance, a just-launched 529-foot guided-missile destroyer at the BIW dock, we felt fairly puny and insignificant. After paying our respects and readjusting our egos, we headed about 100 yards downstream and tied up at the visitors’ dock at the Maine Maritime Museum.

Sitting on a beautiful 20-acre campus, the museum houses a collection of 20,000 objects—from sextants and spyglasses to fine art and lobster boats—in a series of buildings surrounding the open sculpture of the Wyoming, at 450 feet the largest wooden ship built in the U.S. Launched here in 1909, the Wyoming went down in a storm off Nantucket in 1924 with her captain and crew of 13. Today, white steel replicas of the bow and stern mark the actual spots where they were built. We sat here eating lobster rolls for lunch from an outdoor café on the lawn dotted with picnic tables.

The museum has a terrific history of lobster boats, with six boats demonstrating how they evolved over the years. Kids can play on a 50-foot pirate ship, learn how to tie knots or blow the whistle in the interactive tugboat exhibit. Throughout the year boats are being built and restored. If you really want to get into a hands-on mode, the museum has a two-day boatbuilding class over summer weekends when each family builds an 11-foot wooden skiff that can be launched and taken home. This is a “no experience necessary” activity; all the materials are precut and made ready for assembly.

If you’re coming to the Maine Maritime Museum by boat, just tie up and go to the admissions desk. There’s no dockmaster and no charge for day visitors. Overnight stays at the dock cost $3 per foot, or you can pick up one of the nine moorings for $35 a night. The museum has an immaculate Visiting Yachtsmen’s Building with restrooms, showers, and launch facilities.

Maine Maritime Museum
243 Washington St., Bath, Maine 04530
Admission: Adults: $12; Seniors 65 and older: $11; Students: $9; Youth 16-5: $9; Children 4 and under: Free

Museum of History & Industry; Seattle, Washington


In Seattle, you can get a nautical museum “twofer” with the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) and the Center for Wooden Boats almost next to each other at the south end of Lake Union. MOHAI is actually built to replicate a ship, and the Maritime Gallery on the fourth floor is the bridge, with windows overlooking Lake Union and much of Seattle (on a clear day). The Maritime Gallery is just one room, but it’s full of artifacts (model ships, a lighthouse lens from 1885, a diver’s helmet from the early 1900s) and interactive exhibits. The most popular is a Second World War submarine periscope that provides a 360-degree view. Peering through the periscope on a recent visit, Stella Beaudoin, 10, was delighted when she was able to zero in on her summer sailing camp on the east shore of the lake. Elsewhere in MOHAI the interactive railroad exhibit is a huge draw, and kids can borrow Exploration Packs for the day; they’re included with admission and include costumes, games, and puzzles to make the museum more hands-on and creative.

Museum Of History & Industry
860 Terry Ave. N, Seattle, Washington 98109
If you’re visiting MOHAI or the CWB by boat, CWB is in charge of slips and moorings; contact them via email:, or phone 206.382.2628.
Admission: Adult: $17; Seniors 62 and older: $15; Students, military: $14; Children 14 and under: Free

Center for Wooden Boats; Seattle, Washington


The neighboring Center for Wooden Boats is “a living museum,” providing direct, hands-on experience as the best way to learn new skills. You can pick up a tool and learn to caulk a seam, go for a row or even a sail. Indeed, the CWB offers free 45-minute rides on historic vessels including a Friendship sloop, a New Haven Sharpie, and a Bristol Bay Gillnetter; the center attracts 6,000 people a year for its free Cast Off public sailing program on Sundays. Walking the docks is fun. Take a good look at Sea Puffin, a 1906 steam launch, or Pirate, a gorgeous sloop that won the R boat national championship in 1919. CWB offers toy boat building for kids as well as “Storytime” onboard the historic tugboat Arthur Foss, when sea stories and maritime picture books are read aloud to preschoolers.

Center for Wooden Boats
1010 Valley St., Seattle, Washington 98109
If you’re visiting MOHAI or the CWB by boat, CWB is in charge of slips and moorings; contact them via email:, or phone 206.382.2628.
Admission: Free

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.

Mariners’ Museum
100 Museum Dr., Newport News, Virginia 23601
Admission: Adults: $12; Students 13-18: $10; Children 12-6: $7; Children 5 and under: Free

Mystic Seaport; Mystic, Connecticut


Located just a few minutes off the bustling I-95 Washington-Boston corridor, Mystic Seaport is hardly a secret. It attracts some 400,000 visitors a year. And for good reason. A simulated 18th century working maritime community (the town of Mystic was founded in 1654), the Seaport contains 60 historic buildings, four tall ships, dozens of other vessels, and 17 acres of cobbled lanes, nautical shops, boats under restoration, players in period costume, a planetarium, a children’s museum, a great Maritime Gallery with original art and much more. My own favorites: the Charles W. Morgan, the only remaining wooden whaleship, which was launched in New Bedford, Mass., in 1841 and then completed 37 voyages around the world, and the absolutely gorgeous 1932 S&S-designed 61-foot Brilliant, one of the most beautiful wooden schooners ever built. The best way to see Mystic is to take your own boat and spend the night, or a couple of nights. The Seaport is on a natural harbor about two miles up the Mystic River from Fishers Island Sound (off the eastern end of Long Island Sound), and it has room for 40 boats at a time. (Call the dock master on VHF 68; overnights cost $4.50 per foot, but that includes free admission for your crew.)

About 20 years ago my wife and I took my 9-year-old daughter on our Grand Banks 36 to the Seaport, and tied up on the seawall right in the middle of all the action. At the end of the day, as the crowds thinned out, my daughter took off to explore on her own. Sitting on the bridge, enjoying the scene with some wine and cheese, we could see her wandering around, chatting to the driver of a horse-and-carriage, the chantey singers, the barrel makers. It was a totally safe environment, and she loved it. The next day was my birthday and with her own money she bought me a small Mystic Seaport magnet. It’s still on my dresser to this day.

Mystic Seaport
75 Greenmanville Ave., Mystic, Connecticut 06355
Admission: Adults: $24 ($3 discount for AAA members); Seniors 65 and older: $22; Youth 6-17: $15; Under 6: Free

This post originally appeared here.