First clue that Hampton, Virginia’s special is the lush green space near the airport. Welcoming, not stark. Then the view from the bridge heading to town with massive naval carriers on the right and gentle beach playing areas on the right. Contrasts of immense delight pop up all the time.

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Listening to the sun’s surface in Hampton, Virginia calls for family silence. Photo courtesy Goddard Space Flight Center

Neighborhood tours happily connect my traveling family with local folks, and their favorite shops, parks and eateries most places we go.

Hampton, Virginia, showed me an early, original neighborhood that reshaped my understanding of Civil War America. Immersing in new history in Hampton involves museums, harbors, boat tours, Army forts …. and archeological digs too.

Contraband Camps tell a story of courage, ingenuity and love of family, plus the allure of community neighborhoods. First, figure out all the other reasons why visiting Hampton is a fine idea. After that, hone in on the depth of Hampton’s history.

Known for deep-water harbors that don’t freeze, enormous ships dedicated to global protection and humanitarian aid and the first training of NASA astronauts, this city of 140,000 by the Chesapeake Bay offers a walkable downtown with three days worth of fascination, easily more.

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America’s first colonists and first astronauts have big stories in Hampton. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

Short drives to the outskirts add even more opportunity to reflect on the arrival of early colonists. Think John Smith and his little wooden boat arriving in 1607. You could paddle and bike the 3,000 miles of the National Historic Trail launched by the National Park Service, but I focused on Hampton itself.

Sea to Stars in Hampton Virginia

Don’t consider the double decker boat tour of Hampton Harbor and the Virginia Air & Space Center as either/or options. Do both, and allow at least half a day for each. A combo ticket covers both, plus three other fun and worthy options.

The Miss Hampton II cruises the same tidewaters as three ships the kids study in early America history classes: the Godspeed, Susan Constance and the Discovery carrying colonists in 1607 to the New World.

Muse about that a bit as you start this three-hour narrated water journey. It’s only one of the kinds of connections that make travel mean something special.

National monument skyline

For instance – notice the crabpots in the Chesapeake Bay and then go eat some for lunch. If your restaurant of choice is The Deadrise at Fort Monroe National Monument, you can also read the menu description about the wooden-hulled boats with sharp bows known to oystermen here as deadrises.

I actually had pan seared sea scallops maybe caught from a different boat, but did see a working deadrise loaded with fish on my Miss Hampton II cruise. Wouldn’t have known that without reading The Deadrise menu the night before.

Hankering to see the naval carriers of the Atlantic Fleet making Hampton their home base, I hogged a side-rail seat on the open-air top deck. Rude but recommended.

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Admire Atlantic Fleet naval carriers from harbor cruises. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Guided missle destroyers and Nimitz class aircraft carriers. The newest class of resupply ships, the Lewis and Clark, and WASP class amphibious vessels. The new Virginia class submarine and a Red Cross humanitarian aid ship.

Even seeing them from the harbor, knowing the small guard boats between my cruise boat and these behemoth vessels would never let me closer, I found it hard to fathom the size, the crew ready to head to sea on a moment’s notice and the skills of the pilots tied to those ships training overhead.

Here’s what’s special about Hampton, Virginia: over and over again connect the present to the past, and often to the future.

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Military history is an architectural story at Fort Wool. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

This double-decker tour boat on the harbor also stops for a walkabout in Fort Wool. Lafayette was here and so were Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Three architectural styles represent 170 military years on an island—sort of an evolution of protection.

Lt. Robby Lee was an engineer at Fort Wool. Can’t say I’ve experienced that era of his life before. Andrew Jackson considered Fort Wool his summer White House, a retreat.

Something profound about standing on that ground while 21st century search-and-rescue helicopters trained overhead. Only in Hampton.

Walkable Downtown

Easy walk to lunch choices after a morning on the Miss Hampton II, and to other options on the Sea to Stars combo ticket.

A spin on the Hampton Carousel, circa 1920, means choosing among 48 antique wooden horses and chariots, then circling to music evoking recollections of Wurlitzer organs and a circus calliope.

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Antique wooden horses distinguish the carousel in downtown Hampton. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Housed in its own pavilion, this merry-go-round features original mirrors and oil paintings—murals of its 1920s era—and painting so intricate I needed to watch awhile instead of ride to appreciate the details.

Cross the paved patio to head to space at the Air & Space Center. Those intriguing Hampton juxtapositions continue downtown. This time it’s transition from a carousel to the surface of the sun.

The Virginia Air & Space Center goes way beyond exhibiting the training and travel of astronauts, fascinating as that is in the midst of actual NASA test vehicles and real-deal outer space modules.

Experience sun’s atmosphere

I wrapped up in sounds of the sun produced by real NASA data – ambient sound from the surface the scientists say.

Time-lapse video with resolution eight times richer than HD TV undulate over the entire front wall of a room dedicated to Solarium. Scientists recorded images every second.

TravelingMom Tip: Go alone or tell the family to hush because this is a place for stillness, not conversation or fidgeting.

Solarium travels but Hampton’s is permanent. This is art and science, video and multimedia, math and wonderment. Keep an eye out for installations by Genna Duberstein who created this; the other permanent Solarium insallation is in Maryland at Goddard Space Flight Center.

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Space travel inspires new awe up close to real vehicles. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom

Quite fine to be noisy with the kids all over the rest of Air & Space, witnessing 113 years of human flight and looking into the underbelly of a Hornet FA18 attack fighter plane, retired after 1,200 trips.

Tailhooks on massive naval carriers catch the new ones used today.

Five minutes was the length of the first Mercury flight, and 36 hours the longest. Visualize your family members inside the actual vehicle.

Harbor view from The Deadrise restaurant. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

Harbor view from The Deadrise restaurant. Photo by Christine Tibbetts, Cultural Heritage TravelingMom.

Apollo 12 landed on the moon, Gemini held two astronauts (twins, right?), the Saturn V is longer than a football field—-all these names and numbers make more sense after walking around them.

The Hampton History Museum’s part of the Sea to Stars ticket and also packages well for visitors with Fort Monroe, the Contraband Camps and the Casement Museum. That’s another story.

In the meantime, see what TravelingMom Susie Kellogg says about next-door neighbor Virginia Beach.

Same neighbor appeals to TravelingMom Sarah Pittard too.