Enjoy family activities in Hampton, Virginia

When I was a young girl, I was obsessed with carousels. I had them embroidered on pillows and blankets, I rode them whenever possible and every Christmas, I asked for my very own carousel to have in the backyard. My grandma eventually got me a miniature one to keep on the table, which I’ve kept on display ever since—so it didn’t surprise me when my nine-year-old daughter, Celia, developed her very own obsession with carousels.

While looking at carousels online, we found a spectacular antique wooden one in Hampton, Virginia, just a short road trip from our house. My husband, Jack, joined us at the computer, and we discovered many other family activities in Hampton. The idea for a weekend family getaway was set in motion.

Making the rounds

When we arrived in Hampton, the chorus from the back seat—Celia and her seven-year-old brother, Caden—insisted we ride the carousel before checking into the hotel or even stopping for lunch. We parked the car and headed toward the green-topped glass pavilion, Celia buzzing as the spinning twinkling lights within got closer and closer.

The Hampton Carousel was built in 1920 and operated through 1985 at Buckroe Beach. In 1991, it was completely restored and moved downtown. The carousel itself is a Virginia Historic Landmark. All of the original horses are intricately carved, and the carousel maintains the original oil paintings, mirrors organ, and music rolls. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

“Mom! Can we ride it now?”

Celia’s excitement was infectious and snapped me out of my reverie. The four of us climbed aboard—Celia and Caden on their own horses while Jack and I shared a chariot. When the ride stopped, Celia was ready to go again, but something else had caught Caden’s eye: the massive glass hangar across the street.

To the stars!

After a quick bite to eat, we headed to the Virginia Air & Space Center, which doubles as the visitor center for the NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base. The center, celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2017, chronicles 100 years of flight with hundreds of awesome airplanes and spacecraft, plus hands-on activities for the kids.

Planes small to big to bigger covered the floor, while others were suspended in the air above, all beneath the wire-frame metal and glass hangar at the center. Our little family pointed out the differences in colors, symbols, and looks of each. I was most fascinated by how the shapes of the planes’ noses varied from blunt to needle point.

Even more spectacular, however, were the spacecraft and artifacts from NASA’s early space programs, including the Apollo 12 Command Module that landed in the Pacific Ocean after a successful mission in 1969. Later, Caden and Jack got in the spirit and played astronaut.

“Can I ride the simulator, Dad?” Caden asked. We had made our way to MaxFlight, a sit-in simulator that lets riders take control of a cockpit. Jack smiled and hopped into the simulator with Caden—I think he was secretly just as excited.

Let’s go back

Just up the road, we transitioned from outer space to hyper-local—and back to space again. The Hampton History Museum led us through four centuries of Hampton’s backstory, from the Kecoughtan tribe’s early inhabitance to today’s role in the U.S. space program. We’d recently watched Hidden Figures and were excited to learn that the museum had a special exhibit on the three women featured in the film: Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Hampton-native Mary Jackson. The exhibit, “When the Computer Wore a Skirt: NASA’s Human Computers,” carried us through the lives of these women who broke through not only gender barriers but racial barriers as well.

After dinner, as we drove back to the hotel, we could see the carousel glowing in the distance. A second ride? For sure! I’ve never seen two kids perk back up so quickly after such a big day.

Day Two

With so much of day one spent in full view of the bay, we all wanted some time on the water during day two. We started with a three-hour harbor cruise on the Miss Hampton II, the only boat tour that explores Hampton Roads Harbor. It was a beautiful day on the water and an even better day for history. The tour took us past Blackbeard’s Point and the national monument Fort Monroe to the Norfolk Naval Base, where we could see massive warships on display. We were also able to stop and do a 30-minute walking tour of Fort Wool, the area’s Civil War island fortress.

The fort is right on the Chesapeake Bay—a military defense installation has been on the site since 1607 when John Smith landed there with the Virginia Company. We took our time exploring the trails of the decommissioned island before stopping for a late lunch at the Paradise Ocean Club, an on-site bar and grill with its own swimming pool and beach.

We weren’t quite done with the water, though. After Fort Monroe, we drove up to Buckroe Beach for a quick dip in the Chesapeake Bay, at one of the state’s most popular recreation areas. The white-sand shoreline seemed never-ending, and a long pier jutted out into the water. I worked on a sandcastle with Celia and Caden while Jack worked on his tan. As we packed up the car and the kids for the ride home, the look on Celia’s face was clear. We needed to ride the carousel one more time before we left.

We headed back into town to the crown jewel of the trip. As I watched my little family ride the colorful antique, I at once felt a connection to both my past and my present. I was thankful for the time I was spending with my family, and I was grateful that Hampton had such fun activities for all four of us to enjoy.

Next up, see Hampton in light of the sea and stars.

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