cleThe resilient USS North Carolina catches your attention across the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington. You can’t help but notice this mighty battleship dominating the skyline along the waterway. A hop, skip, and a drive across the iconic Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and I was standing at the entrance to the Battleship North Carolina Museum, ready to learn about it’s history while taking a tour throughout the battleship.
It’s funny pulling into the parking lot of the museum and seeing a large building dwarfed by a gargantuan battleship. It’s not every day someone gets to see a sight like this (this is the only naval vessel tourist attraction in North Carolina) so it was a bit dramatic. Okay maybe not dramatic but still it was awesome and the best part was that I got to tour this mighty vessel after forking over some money for a ticket.
The tour of the battleship begins inside a small museum explaining the history of the name North Carolina and battleships in general. There is a very nice replica inside a glass case and I found myself pressing my nose against the plexiglass to get a better look at the intricate details. There are a few videos and info panels to read but really why would I want to sit inside when I could see the battleship through the tall windows?
Walking across the gangplank onto the battleship was a bit of a thrilling moment. I couldn’t help but wonder how many sailors had done the same but for them it was a career not a tourist attraction. My drifting mind was quickly snapped back to the present as soon as my feet touched the recently-renovated teak decks of the battleship.
The ship is marked with very nice signs pointing the direction of various tour sections. Good thing, too, because this ship is big and it would be too easy to get turned around or miss something. I think my favorite part of the entire tour is actually the very beginning standing on the stern. Downtown Wilmington covers the skyline across the river but the real view is looking at the battleship from this vantage point. And all those big guns. Have you ever watched a video of a battleship firing it’s big 16-inch guns? I’ve never understood why they retired this line of ship considering the awesome firepower of those guns.
The self-guided tour takes you through several sections of the ship. You are free to do them all (like I do every time I visit) or you can cut sections short or skip them altogether. It’s really all about how much walking and climbing you want to do. Speaking of walking and climbing this would be a good time to point out a few tips about visiting the North Carolina. Wear good shoes. I’m not talking about sandals that strap to your feet or platform shoes that give you an extra inch in lift and make your legs look good. This ship was an instrument of war not a weekend pleasure boat. The stairs are steep, narrow, and shallow. You will have to step over the lips of hatches many times. Wear closed-toed shoes with a good sole and walk carefully.
Now back to the tour. Different tours cover different parts of the ship including the kitchen, mess hall, sleeping quarters, officer’s territory, the bridge and lookout stations, and beneath one of the main 16-inch gun turrets. These tours are divided into short sections and you can leave most of the tours at any time. In all I think you descend about three or four levels below deck and ascend about two or three levels above deck. It’s a lot of climbing, but it’s not all that strenuous.
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Pictures on the walls show what life aboard the North Carolina was like and really gives you an appreciation for the sailors who would live here for months at a time. Quarters were cramped, privacy was a luxury, and daily life had a fairly routine schedule. The tours wind through the medical bay and dentist office, machine shop and engineering, and through the kitchen where meals were prepared every day for the crew and officers. I don’t know why but the potato peeler has always stood out to me during the tour of the kitchen; be sure to look for it during your tour!
After completing all the tours below decks you will come back out on top and begin to climb a few levels above deck. You’ll visit the bridge and probably be just as tempted as me to try to shove the throttle into full (it doesn’t move anymore bleh) and sit in the captain’s chair for a photo. There are some good views of the ship, museum building, and downtown Wilmington from the upper decks.
One of the things I like most about touring the North Carolina is that it doesn’t end until you want it to end. Well I mean they do close eventually each day but what I’m saying is that you can repeat any of the tours anytime you want. Instead of walking back across the gangplank just head to the stern again, swing around the massive 16-inch gun turret, and start the tours all over again. The staff here are friendly and the atmosphere pretty laid back; I think it would be entirely possible to spend an entire day just hanging out on the main deck and nobody would say anything.
But if you do plan to spend an entire day at the Battleship North Carolina you should be sure to bring some water. The summer months are hot and humid in Wilmington and the temps only get worse below decks. Bring a water bottle and fill it up as often as possible. But the best times to visit the battleship is in the fall or spring months when it’s cooler, but not freezing. Wilmington never really sees snow so even a January trip wouldn’t be too bad.
The tour ends in a crafty way museums around the world have come to use: by sending you through the gift shop. It’s a nice gift shop, too. Postcards, photography, books, clothing, souvenirs, there is a little bit of everything so you’re sure to find something you want. On your way out take one last look at the battleship and ask yourself: when will you return for another exciting visit?
1 Battleship Road, Wilmington, NC | 910-399-9100 | www.battleshipnc.com | Admission is $14 for Adults, $10 for Seniors 65 and older, $10 for Military, Military Spouses, and Adult Children of Military (with ID cards), $6 for Children ages 6-11, and Free for Children 5 and under