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Nauticus, Naval Museum, Norfolk, VA

Home to the world’s largest naval installation, Norfolk is also the site of Nauticus, a unique museum that showcases the nation’s maritime history through hands-on exhibits plus a real, battleship. Berthed in the Norfolk harbor adjacent to Nauticus, the USS Wisconsin, one of the largest and last of the country’s battleships, is part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, a facility contained within Nauticus.

At 887 feet and three inches, the USS Wisconsin, looms large. Standing on her deck looking up at the huge guns gives us a first-hand sense of the ship’s power. Each of the dozen 16 inch/50 caliber guns can fire a 1900 pound projectile, equivalent to the weight of a VW Beetle, 23 nautical miles.

Nauticus makes that point dramatically clear. One of the indoor displays suspends in equilibrium a real VW and a real projectile. Battlescope, another exhibit, overlooks the USS Wisconsin. Point the scope at the ship and see the virtual result when laser cannons hit the vessel.

Use other hands-on exhibits to land navy warplanes on an aircraft carrier, pilot a ship through the river and into the Chesapeake Bay, spell your name out in Morse code and tie ropes like a sailor. At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) exhibits at Nauticus, you can “pet” cat sharks from the Pacific; handle horseshoe crabs, sea stars and whelks at the touch tank; and enter a submersible to maneuver a nine foot long robotic arm so that you pick up samples from the sea floor.

At the Aegis Theater, test your mettle, making rapid fire decisions in a high-tech naval battle and in Design Chamber: Battleship X race against others to design a W.W. II battleship.

In the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, one of only ten such museums operated by the U.S. Navy, find out about important battles in the Chesapeake Bay area, starting with Lord Dunmore’s order to bomb Norfolk in the Revolutionary War on January 1, 1776. View ship models, see a video of underwater archeologists exploring a wreck and find out about the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, the first meeting of ironclad naval vessels and a significant battle of the U.S. Civil War that took place in the Hampton Roads area.

You can explore the fortunes of battle at Nauticus’ Real Pirates, an upcoming National Geographic exhibit, November 21, 2009 and April 4, 2010. Learn about the Whydah, a real pirate ship sunk nearly 300 years ago and see her booty of coins, gold and jewelry.

When in Norfolk, take time to enjoy some of the city’s other delights, including the Norfolk Botanical Gardens’ 155 acres of blooms, the Virginia Zoo and the Chrysler Museum of Art, home to works by Monet, Matisse, Calder and glass by Tiffany.

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