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(CIRCA Magazine – A travel column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
The universe loves the number three. Consider the three little pigs, the three bears, and the three blind mice. Groups of three are strangely satisfying, right? So when three people recommended New Bern as our next Driveable Destination, I quickly came up with three great reasons to go; the city is beautiful, coastal, and historic. And really, who am I to argue with the universe?
Three hundred year old New Bern, where the Neuse and Trent Rivers converge, is just over two hours from Raleigh along U.S. Highway 70. It was North Carolina’s colonial capital, and its most splendid relic is Tryon Palace. The Palace, an enchanting Georgian mansion, was completed in 1770 by Royal Governor William Tryon. It represented the British crown for five glorious years before Revolutionary patriots captured the building, auctioned its contents, and turned it into the home of the North Carolina State Legislature. When the state capital moved to Raleigh in 1794, the Palace lost its raison d’être and, four years later, burned to the ground. Modern New Bern grew on top of it. Prior to rebuilding and reopening the Palace in 1959, 20th century engineers had to excavate its original foundation from under the asphalt of the same Highway 70 you’ll take to get there.
Fortunately, New Bern didn’t need the Palace to stay relevant. It had other tricks up its sleeve. By the late 19th century, local pharmacist and drugstore owner Caleb Bradham was conquering the global marketplace with his very special mix of kola nut extract, vanilla, and pepsin. The product introduced in 1898 as “Brad’s Drink” soon burst into the stratosphere as Pepsi-Cola and, more than a hundred years later, a group of Bradham descendants donated multi-millions to build New Bern a world class venue called the North Carolina History Center. It’s right across the street from Tryon Palace. Imagine an art gallery crossed with an airport. It has a central concourse and the equivalent of two main terminals—the Regional History Museum and the Pepsi Family Center. Visitors to the Pepsi Family Center enter through a room billed as a “time machine,” the premise being that even if money can’t buy you love it can certainly cover the cost of a modest warp in the space-time continuum.
Spoiler alert: This is not really a time machine. It’s just a very cool gimmick. The machine is actually a set of ceiling projectors that flash images of historic people, events, and places onto the walls, interspersed with backward ticking calendars and clocks. When the final date hits 1835, a door swings open to reveal—Munchkinland? Meh, not Munchkinland. (This was only a minor disappointment.) Instead it reveals a fully convincing, life-size, indoor model of a 19th century fishing village complete with general store, farmhouse kitchen, quilting bee, printing press, fishing boat, turpentine manufacturing operation, and other period recreations. It’s like stumbling into a parallel universe, one with flat panel displays embedded absolutely everywhere—walls, tabletops, cabinetry, drawers, trees—each programmed to provide an interactive, kid-friendly history lesson. This is a world where imagination and education are BFFs and nobody’s heard the word “budget.”
My first stop was the farmhouse kitchen, where I encountered a giant, wall-mounted virtual lady wearing an apron. She was making roast duck. As I approached her work space, she asked, “Could you find the flour, please?” I definitely hoped I could. But when I glanced around, my confidence took a hit. Every available surface was outfitted with either a touch screen or rows of obsolete culinary items wired invisibly to elevator buttons. Frankly, the whole arrangement was overwhelming. Nevertheless, I made an effort and managed to locate the flour. When I pressed its button, a virtual bag of parallel universe flour materialized simultaneously on a huge, horizontal monitor embedded in the heavy, wooden farm table that stood in the center of the room. Magic! Unfortunately, the cook wasn’t satisfied with just flour. She also required ground pepper, lemons, parsley, and mace. I spent massive amounts of time hunting for these. (Which is precisely why I don’t make roast duck at home.) Then the lady vanished and her hands reappeared in the table monitor, where she proceeded to whisk, cut, coat, and stir—preparing a fully-cooked bird in less than 90 seconds. All I can say is, wow. This made me wish the Baptist educators whose history we preserve at the Wake Forest Historical Museum had considered experimenting with cola recipes.
Across the concourse from the Pepsi Family Center, the Regional History Museum takes a more staid approach to the story of North Carolina. This is a very adult museum. Both interesting and dignified, it follows a path along a large, circular gallery with a series of exhibits dating from the state’s Native American population to modern times. The displays include murals, audiovisual recordings, artifacts, and vitrines filled with lovely examples of historic clothing, silverware, instruments, and other items. As both museums are equally compelling, you should allow at least a couple of hours to see everything. For those who can devote a full day to New Bern, the most popular ticket choice is an all-day pass ($20 per adult; $10 per child). This includes entry to the two museums, Tryon Palace, 16 acres of associated gardens, and several historic houses located nearby. If you have more time to spend, there are also trolleys, boat tours, a historic cemetery, waterfront restaurants, and a Civil War battleground.
In fact, with so much to see and do in New Bern, the universe suggests making it a three-day weekend.
Tickets are sold at the North Carolina History Center, located at 529 South Front Street, New Bern, NC. Tryon Palace and the History Center are open year round, with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Dec. 24-26, and Jan. 1. To plan your trip and learn more about Historic New Bern, visit http://www.tryonpalace.org.