I know how hard it is to get young kids out of the house to go somewhere - even quick outings require you to pack enough snacks, diapers, and toys to make you think you’ll be gone for a week. And who wants to wrestle kids in and out of carseats just to find out that your destination isn’t kid-friendly? That’s why I’ve decided to visit Triangle area sites to see if they’re worth your trip. I won’t use a rating system but I’ll try to describe what you’ll see well enough for you to decide if your kids would find it interesting. I’ll also give you the heads up on bathrooms, stroller accessibility and any other SNAFUs I encounter.


ROAD TRIP - Washington, Bath, and Swanquarter NC

ROAD TRIP EDITION: with stops in Washington, Bath, and Swanquarter, NC

Routes: 264 to Washington, 92 to Bath, 306 to Swanquarter, 32/45 North back to 64 West to Knightdale

   We wanted to try out traveling in our new and first ever minivan so we put the kids in the back, set up the portable DVD players, turned on the GPS and hit the road.

First Stop: Washington, NC

     This town claims to be the first town in the nation to be named after our first President. I am willing to bet that a few other 'Washingtons' also claim that distinction. Coming into town you get the sense that this place is stuck in time - circa 1950. There are a lot of social service offices in the town which leads me to believe that an aging population is this town's greatest concern. The waterfront is worth seeing so you should drive into downtown just to see it. If you want, get out and walk the extensive boardwalk along the water.There are a couple of historic houses down on the waterfront as well that we didn't go in.

       Do not, however, waste your time going to the Estuarium. The admission is $4 per adult and free for kids four and under. There is an overrated sculpture in the lobby created by a local artist to illustrate the water cycle; our guide spent way too much time explaining this to a toddler and a preschooler. Next, we were ushered into a small theater for a 15 minute film. I have seen countless numbers of these types of orientation films at different tourist sites from Virgina, N.Carolina, Florida, S.Carolina, Arizona, and Montreal. Some of the films have been cheesy, some are just dated, but never have I seen a film as bad as the one at this Estuarium! I walked out of the theater after about 8 minutes. There was no educational content delivered! The film was a glorified screen saver showing beautiful views of the NC tidewater region with a pleasant soundtrack. Every so often a voice over would break in to tell you something quick and totally inconsequential. It was like a really long commercial. My kids have developmentally appropriate attention spans that give me a small window of time to work with; I will not waste that window on something that doesn't even engage my interest.

           The rest of the Estuarium is not much to see either. The historical exhibits lack any specificity or academic research. Case in point: the gist of one placard simply tells me that Native Americans once inhabited this area. Well, duh! But which tribes? What were they known for? How did they make use of the specific natural resources of the estuary habitat?

           The only thing the Estuarium has going for it is a tank with a small live alligator and another tank with live blue crabs. Admittedly, the latter could probably be found in an upscale grocery store. My kids enjoyed seeing the alligator - my toddler remembered a song we sing about alligators, my preschooler wanted me to reassure her that it was behind glass and couldn't get to her. Unless seeing a live alligator is worth the $4 admission to you, skip this attraction.

Second Stop: Bath, NC

        With an incorporation date of 1705, this town claims to be the oldest town in NC. It's a very small, but picturesque town with water surrounding it on three sides. Of course, Blackbeard is its' most famous former resident. In an effort to emphasize the town's connection to its' English predecessor, most of the signs in town carry an extra 'e' to use the olde English spelling for everything, including "Ye Olde ABC Package Store" (probably not where Blackbeard bought his spirits). There are only 2 places to eat in this town, neither of which are franchise establishments. We ate at Old Town Country Kitchen, instead of Blackbeard's Slices and Ices. The kid's meals were $4 at Old Town, which my wife and I thought were a little pricey. My wife and I had the specials - barbecue plates with slaw and potato wedges. The food wasn't terrible, but I can't say it's the best I've ever had either.

         In town, you can see the site of the first library in NC; a couple of historical houses - Bonner and Palmer-Marsh; the oldest church building in NC - St. Thomas' Episcopal 1734; and a visitor's center with adjacent small museum house.There is an orientation film in the visitor's center but you'll forgive my reluctance to see it after the day's earlier matinee. You can see most of what this town has to offer by simply riding around a couple of city blocks and reading the historical markers.

Third Stop: Ferryboat to Aurora, NC

        We intended to go to Aurora to see the Fossil Museum and let my kids dig for their own fossils, but we needed to take the ferry to get there. Would you believe that we missed the ferry by one minute? We literally stopped long enough to read the sign of the ferry's scheduled times only to see the ferry disembarking and the dashboard clock reading 3:16. The next ferry wouldn't leave until 5:30 which would have us too late getting to the museum and definitely too late getting home. I definitely plan to try this trip to Aurora again sometime in the near future.

Fourth Stop: Swanquarter, NC

         My wife was really set on taking a ferryboat ride so we drove to the next town that had a ferry - 25 miles away. Swanquarter is a smaller town than Bath with less historical significance. The slogan of this town should be: "All our major roads are detoured." If you're using a GPS, like we were, to find the ferryboat dock, beware, it will have you driving into the river via a private driveway. Follow the state ferryboat signs instead. The ferry at Swanquarter takes you to Ocracoke Island - a two hour trip one way. The last ferry of the day departs at 4:30pm.We didn't take it because we hadn't planned on an overnighter.
Instead, we headed back home.
        As I mentioned, I do plan to head this way again soon; not only to see the Fossil Museum at Aurora, but also to take a look around New Bern.



Historic Stagville - Durham

The plantation house

http://www.stagville.org/        Only open Tuesdays-Saturdays.

      Finding this site was a good use of my new GPS. If you don't have a GPS, you're going to want to Mapquest this one because there isn't a lot of signage directing you to the site.

     You'll see the plantation house on your drive down the gravel road towards the visitor's center. As our guide pointed out, the house is not as grand as you'd expect for a southern plantation house - it's modest - but it's worth remembering that the better part of this plantation home was built in the late 1700s. The visitor's center houses a few artifacts and a small collection of gifts for purchase. Addy of American Girl fame is well represented here since her character was based on research from this site. Stagville is also a number one spot for African-American genealogical research because the Bennehan family kept very precise records of their slave population, and many of the descendants of those slaves were still living on the property up until the 1950s.

     Tours start on the hour at the visitor's center, beginning at 10am when the site opens. Even though you're allowed to tour the grounds on your own, I highly recommend getting the tour because it gets you access to the inside of the plantation house, the slave cabins, and barn.

     Usually the tour starts at the plantation house but, to avoid getting in the way of a school group, our tour guide began our tour at the slave cabins. We actually needed to get back into our car and follow the guide to visit the cabins. The cabins are approximately a mile away from the plantation house. There are four, two-story slave cabins lined up on the part of the property known as Horton Grove - this part of the property was named for a pre-existent homestead established prior to the American Revolution, of which the original farmhouse is still visible. The slave cabins are unique in that they have wood floors instead of dirt and the interiors are separated into rooms. Basically, Mr. Bennehan, being more entrepreneur than humanitarian, reasoned that he could get better work out of his slaves if they lived in decent houses. Our guide was nice enough to point out to my children the fingerprints and toe prints of slave children in the bricks that compose the chimney of one of the cabins.

row of slave cabins

      Next, we saw the barn which was designed and built completely by the slaves of Stagville in the 1850s. It's an impressive structure when you see it from the inside. Our guide pointed out the fact that the slaves' barn design was influenced heavily by their experience of shipbuilding which led to the barn's interior resemblance to an upside down ship.

     From the barn, we got back in our car and returned to the plantation house. I suppose by this time my toddler was just done. Either that or he was testing the tour guide to see if she could still make her presentation with his temper tantrum as the soundtrack. I really felt bad for this young woman - she had to keep her train of thought and speak above the incessant crying while watching me suspend my toddler upside down behind my back in an effort to distract him. Thank God it is a small house. Luckily, my preschooler was the quintessence of manners and sophistication, quietly listening to the tour guide and ignoring the shenanigans of her low-brow father and brother.

     Behind the house there is a small garden, the foundation of another, smaller slave dwelling, and some modern picnic tables. There is also a Bennehan family cemetery on the property that I did not get to see because I couldn't coax my toddler into giving me one more minute. Leave the stroller at home for this one, it's not going to do you any good inside the house, slave cabins, or barn. There are bathrooms inside the visitor's center and you're going to need them because there isn't a gas station or fast-food joint nearby.

     The guide did a really good job of engaging my preschooler in the tour by pointing out things of interest to a child. In the dining room of the house, the guide let my preschooler look at a butter mold. This is probably not the place for a free-roaming toddler like mine, though. There are too many things inside the house that he could damage.

     Overall, this is a really interesting site with a lot of history to captivate the adults in your party, but you should realize that if you're bringing toddlers along you're going to have to work hard to keep them out of trouble.


North Carolina Railway Museum - Bonsal (near Apex)


        As a special treat to my toddler who loves trains, we came out here on a Saturday afternoon. I wanted to see if showing him real trains would make his little toddler head spin around. Sure enough, as soon as we entered the rail yard he was pointing at everything and commentating in his excited toddler gibberish.

      The website gives good directions on how to find the place; it's outside of Apex but right inside Holly Springs City Limits. The main attraction is the train rides which will start again for the 2011 season on May 1st. But if you've got a couple of hours to kill you can come out and see several types of train cars up close and personal.

        Don't be disappointed by what you see when you pull into the parking lot - the main yard with all of the train cars is across the pedestrian bridge that takes you over the highway. There are three cabooses, two steam engines, a boxcar, tank car, mail car, and lots of other train equipment. In front of each train car is a plaque explaining the use and history of that car. There did not appear to be a lot of facilities for potty breaks so you might want to get your kids to take care of that before they get to the museum. There is a large gas station further down Old US 1 South that you could probably use for its' potty facilities. There is a gift shop on site that is open on days when there are scheduled rides.
       The site is run by volunteers who were very friendly and eager to help us. One man totally looked the part of a genuine engineer as he climbed down from a steam engine wearing soot-stained coveralls. Another volunteer opened up the mail car for us to tour and explained how a mail car worked. He also opened up a restored caboose for us and let us sit in the top roost of it. The volunteers are obviously very committed to this attraction. On the Saturday that we were out, there were volunteers building a new ticket station and making improvements to the garden scale model railroad near the parking lot.

interior of mail car
       Ride schedules and ticket sales can be found on the website. I definitely plan on coming back for one of the scheduled rides. You'll be able to recognize me - I'll be the guy with the toddler that can't stop saying "Toot, toot!"


Historic Oak View Park - Raleigh

The farmhouse


Special Exhibit: From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age South

        I should start this post with a disclaimer: I have been to Oak View before and it is one of my favorite places to take the kids. There are three reasons why it's one of my favorites:
  1. It's close to my home and my wife's work.
  2. The park opens early - 8:30am - one of the few places in the Triangle open that early.
  3. It's super kid-friendly with great stroller accessibility, play kitchen in the Visitor's Center, and farm animals close enough to pet.
Besides, with it's beautiful rolling front lawn of pecan trees, who wouldn't want to spend time here when the weather is beautiful?

      For those who've never been to the Park, there is a Visitor's Center, barn, carriage house, detached kitchen, herb garden, farmhouse, cemetery, cotton barn, and cotton field. The visitor's center is where my kids prefer to be because it has a play kitchen and lots of interactive farm toys.

Visitor's Center Play Kitchen
 There are also historical exhibits in the Visitor's Center such as a recreated sharecropper's cabin.

       The cotton field always has cotton plants in it and if you go after August you can usually see the pods open, and the white, fluffy cotton bulging out.The cotton barn is a two-story structure with lots of information concerning the production of cotton. There is even a demonstration of how an old cotton gin works that you can crank yourself and see the fluffy material extracted from the chaff and seeds. My preschooler really liked this demo and was able to gin a good deal of cotton. There's also a friendly cat who often hangs around the cotton barn and is willing to rub against your leg if you're open to it.

       I mentioned farm animals didn't I? Yes, there are usually goats hanging around in the field near the carriage house. They're very friendly and will poke their heads through the fence to get a petting. My toddler giggled with delight as these friendly four-footers popped their heads out to greet him. There is a sign that tells you these goats have been known to mistake fingers for food, so you probably shouldn't feed them and I kept my kids' hands away from the goats' mouths. My preschooler noted that one of the goats looked like he had a beard. We were even treated to genuine goat defecation and urination which, for my kids, is absolutely priceless (yes, I have trained them well to appreciate potty humor).

A friendly bearded gent
       The Park also has picnic tables, a small pond, and two gazebos that make it a prime spot for a picnic or just enjoying the outdoors. The carriage house has a horse-drawn carriage you can view and the cemetery contains several unmarked graves as well as the identified graves of some of the site's previous owners. The detached kitchen is an example of an 1820s farmhouse kitchen with period artifact displays inside.

        We went to the Park this time for the express purpose of viewing their special exhibit - From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in the Gilded Age - which was open in the recently restored farmhouse. In fact, this was the first time I have ever been in the farmhouse because it has been closed for a while for renovations. This is also the first exhibit to appear in the farmhouse since its' reopening. The exhibit and the farmhouse open at 10am. The exhibit is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and developed by Maymont Park in Richmond, VA. This was a little bit of a homecoming for me, in a way, since I grew up not far from Maymont and spent many days there as a kid growing up in Richmond.Much of the photographic material in the exhibit is derived from sources in and around Maymont.

        The exhibit details the life of domestic servants during the early 1900s which, in the South, were mostly African American. There are a few displays set up in the house which exemplify the dress and everyday objects of a southern domestic servant, but most of the exhibit consists of bulletin boards which give greater detail about the work of domestic servants. The exhibit is relatively text heavy so I had a hard time absorbing it with a toddler and preschooler running around. But the good news is that the staff has made it virtually impossible for my toddler to destroy anything in the house - they have sectioned off all of the displays with Plexiglas barriers.

       One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a wall displaying photographs of domestic servants at work in North Carolina. Some of these period photos are of servants at work around the Executive Mansion of Raleigh.

       If you don't end up getting to Oak View for the special exhibit ending June 12, then you should definitely make a point of visiting Oak View. It's got a lot to keep the kids busy and there is enough to keep us adults engaged too.


NC State Solar House - NC State Campus

rear of the house

       Imagine walking into a stranger's beautifully furnished and decorated house to see a woman emerge from one of the rooms - furnished as a home office - to greet you. Or imagine visiting a model home that's located on a college campus. If you can imagine either one of those scenarios then you can understand what it was like to visit the Solar House on the NC State Campus.

      The house is located next to the McKimmon Center on NC State's Campus. It is a completely furnished and functional house with all of the customary appliances. The only difference is that this house is equipped to run off of energy generated from the sun.That doesn't mean that it always runs off the sun, though. As we found out, it has to be super sunny for the photovoltaic panels in the backyard to gather enough energy to power the house. The day we visited it was only slightly overcast, which did not create enough direct sunlight to keep the house off the grid. 

      This is not an attraction for young children or the merely curious. If you want to learn how to design your house to make full use of solar power, then this is the place to visit. But if that description does not fit, it's probably not worth the trip. None of the technology inside the house is exposed, and there are no viewable cross-sections which would allow the visitor to see how the house works. There is only one solar experiment - a small solar panel that powers a palm-sized fan - in the basement of the house. Frankly, my preschooler was more intrigued by the spiral staircase in the back of the house - a feature that has nothing to do with solar energy.

       If you want to introduce your kids to the benefits of solar energy, skip the NC State Solar House and go buy one of those solar-powered car kits and head out to a local park on a sunny day. Your kids will be much more engaged and you'll probably have more fun too.