By Allison Tibaldi, Taking the Kids correspondent
My family and I recently traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts. We had previously visited the wonderful Whaling Museum on the island of Nantucket and were curious to explore its sister institution on the mainland.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the largest museum in the country devoted to the story of whaling and the history and seafaring traditions of Massachusetts’ south coast region.
Perhaps no other area of the U.S. is so intimately connected to whaling, so the museum’s geographic location is appropriate.
An afternoon spent here provides an in-depth look at the whaling industry’s fundamental place in this town’s history and development. The strong family programming component succeeds at keeping the museum relevant and engaging for all ages.
A visit here is certainly an educational experience, but like many great family museums, kids will enjoy the exhibits so much, they won’t realize how much knowledge they are absorbing. There are special activities for families on weekends and school holidays. Herman Melville’s annual birthday celebration in August, complete with a cake, is a favorite.
Speaking of Melville, admirers of the Great American novel Moby-Dick will get a thought-provoking perspective on his seminal work. Many of the book’s meticulous descriptions of the world of whaling are illuminated and enriched as you examine the detailed exhibits.
The museum’s 20 galleries include five complete whale skeletons and the world’s largest ship model, the Lagoda, which allows visitors of all ages to climb aboard and fully explore its glorious nooks and crannies.
We enjoyed viewing the world’s most comprehensive collection of scrimshaw, the whalers’ indigenous occupational shipboard art form. During their lengthy time at sea, whalers carved and engraved the bones and teeth of whales and other marine mammals to create utilitarian and decorative objects with intricate designs that have stood the test of time.
Don’t miss heading up to the observation deck. It offers spectacular views of New Bedford’s busy working waterfront. It is America’s number one commercial fishing port, and its appeal is in its gritty vitality as opposed to its quaintness.
Other Activities in New Bedford
You could spend an entire day at the Whaling Museum, but make time to explore this seaport city. New Bedford’s compact center is made for strolling. The cobblestone streets add yesteryear flair. The whaling industry attracted a large variety of immigrants, and locals are proud of the multi-cultural fabric that anchored their city. The modern face of New Bedford remains a dynamic melting pot.
The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park is staffed with helpful park rangers and screens a free short film on the history of the city several times each day. The Zeiterion Theatre is another worthwhile attraction. This vintage venue offers live theatre, dance and music performances, with reasonably ticket prices and family-friendly programming. Literary buffs should stop by the Seamen’s Bethel and sit on Herman Melville’s pew. This simple building is dedicated to the local folk who lost their lives at sea. You can’t help but feel sober as you contemplate just how many New Bedford families were touched by tragedy at sea.
Where to Stay
We spent the night at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott. Clean, comfortable, and walking distance from everything, we parked the car in the lot and didn’t use it until we departed the next day. The free buffet breakfast was loaded with choices and the small indoor pool was a nice diversion.
As you might suspect, fresh local seafood is a menu highlight. The Black Whale offers a view of the working seaport along with a fabulous raw bar loaded with briny tidbits. Oysters, mussels and clams couldn’t be better. Delicious pasta, fried clams and chicken options round out the menu. The kid’s menu is reasonably priced and served with a choice of fresh fruit or fries.
For a meal that is easy on the wallet, try Knuckle Heads. It’s a tavern that welcomes families who don’t mind rubbing shoulders with patrons chugging beer while watching sporting events on the large screen televisions. Fish and chips, lobster rolls and clam chowder are all winners. The children’s menu is full of standards like hot dogs, chicken tenders and burgers for under $4.