My parents brought my sister Jean and me to this outstanding museum when I was about 12 years old, which may have influenced me to later become an officer in the United States Navy, so well does it tell the story of men who have gone down to the sea in ships. It's the largest maritime museum in the Western Hemisphere. The highlight today is its USS Monitor Center, which houses the remains of the famous Union ironclad. The Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras after her stalemate battle with the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimac) on Hampton Roads in 1862. Divers in the 1990s recovered her round, one-gun turret, which is kept here in a perpetual bath of salt water to prevent it from rusting. You can actually walk into a remarkable, full-size reproduction of the turret exactly as it was found, lying upside down, on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, a crewman's skeleton clearly visible. Hundreds of other artifacts -- including handwritten letters -- also are on display.

Elsewhere in the museum, handcrafted ship models, scrimshaw, maritime paintings, decorative arts, working steam engines, and more are displayed in spacious galleries. Shown on the hour and half-hour, an 18-minute film narrated by James Earl Jones discusses maritime activity the world over. There usually are two guided tours per day Monday to Friday (call for schedule). Docents lead guided tours on request. The museum is in a pleasant 550-acre park setting, with a lake, picnic areas, and walking trails. There's a cafe, and the gift shop sells quality nautical items.