Virtual tours? It wasn’t that long ago that we scoffed at the idea of watching a watered-down walk-through of a place. How can that be better than the real thing? Never! And, why ruin the first-time surprise and excitement of, say, a visit to the Great Wall of China?
Well, what a difference a day or two can make. After a week in lock-down mode, all our you-need-to-see-it-for-yourself travel arrogance has dissipated, and we’re ready — no delighted — to, say, visit the Louvre virtually. While virtual tours of museums, parks, and places have been around for a while, they’re in the spotlight now, as an antidote for COVID-19-induced cabin-fever.
Google Arts & Culture has partnered with more than 1,200 museums and archives worldwide to showcase their collections online. Some offer virtual tours; others provide high-quality photography with descriptions. You’ll find a list of participants at www.artsandculture.google.com/partner. Other places, including parks, tourist attractions, and popular sites, have developed their own tours. Here are seven that we enjoyed, and that whetted our appetite to re-visit one day — in person.
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum
Climb aboard a space shuttle and listen to the astronauts who helped deploy the Hubble Telescope in a 360-degree video at this national museum. You’ll also tour the operations room, visit the Hubble control center, and learn how astronauts go to the bathroom in space (apparently one of the most asked questions.) There’s also a 360-degree video from the Hubble Space telescope of Orion Nebula in the Milky Way. www.artsandculture.google.com/project/360-videos
Kenai Fjords National Park
This beautiful park, filled with gushing waterfalls, giant ice flows, towering mountains, massive glaciers, and soaring eagles, has nearly 40 glaciers across the Harding Icefield. Follow a park ranger to the base of Exit Glacier, and learn how the ice has been rapidly receding, in recent years up to 150 feet per year. You’ll climb down into a large crevice, rappelling 30 feet below the surface of a glacier. And, then go kayaking in Bear Glacier Lagoon, surrounded by floating ice chunks and towering glaciers. It’s now on our travel to-do list. https://artsandculture.withgoogle.com/en-us/national-parks-service/kenai-fjords/exit-glacier-tour
American Museum of Natural History
The world-famous “dinosaur hall” at this popular New York City museum is home to an amazing collection of skeletons. The newest is Titanosaur; it grazes the 19-foot-high ceiling, and at 122 feet long, it’s so large, its neck and head extend out of the room. “It’s one of the newest big dinosaurs that have been found in the world,” says Mark Norell, Macauley Curator, Division of Paleontology. Look and listen to a video on how this giant, one of the largest land animals ever to live, was discovered in Patagonia, and how it was cast and reassembled at its new home in the museum. www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent/orientation-center/the-titanosaur
There are additional opportunities to visit the museum virtually through the museum’s YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/channel/UCMkybZyI_B-xgkLQo_eCQ_w), and a virtual tour from Google Arts and Culture (www.artsandculture.google.com/partner/american-museum-of-natural-history). Previously recorded tours of the halls and collections are also being shared on Facebook Lives at 2 p.m. daily (www.facebook.com/naturalhistory).
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
After watching this video, you’ll definitely want to further explore this magical, mystical place deep below the Chihuahuan Desert in southern New Mexico. Above ground, are rocky outcroppings and ancient sea ledges decorated with flowering cacti. Follow a park ranger as she descends some 750 feet below the surface into an underground world, filled with gnarly rock formations and swooping bats. You’ll take a VR headlamp tour of one of the largest caves in North America, bigger than six football fields, and discover secret rooms. Outside again, watch as swarms of cave swallows swoop above. At nightfall a different spectacle begins as hundreds of thousands of bats enter in and out of the cave. You’ll have close-up views of the bats and learn how they navigate in the dark using echolocation. https://artsandculture.withgoogle.com/en-us/national-parks-service/carlsbad-caverns/
New England Aquarium
Our beloved aquarium has temporarily closed its doors, but you can still visit as they continue to offer special presentations and educational content. Video presentations are posted each day on the website and also on Facebook at 11 a.m. daily and can later be found on the aquarium’s Virtual Visit webpage. Watch as a trainer feeds the penguin colonies and learn how they keep the cute critters healthy and happy. There’s an underwater tour of the Giant Ocean Tank, a close-up look at sharks and rays, and the opportunity to watch as one of the aquarium’s lobsters gets fed — a shrimp on a tube! Other presentations take you on virtual tours of the exhibits and provide a look at behind-scene activities. So far, the most popular video has been Monday’s feeding of Myrtle the turtle, which currently has 43,000 views on Facebook and another 8,000 views on YouTube. www.neaq.org
The Nature Conservancy
This organization offers a variety of virtual field trips, aimed at kids in grades 3 through 12. They’re educational in nature, the information is interesting, and the video content is engaging. We watched and enjoyed several of them, including a canoe trip to the Emerald Edge, home to the world’s largest intact coastal temperate rainforest that is more than 800 years old; a visit to the Dominican Republic to learn about coral reefs; a visit to Borneo, the third largest island in the world, to learn about how scientists are studying the rainforest, and a trip to the grasslands and deserts of Kenya, Africa. www.natureworkseverywhere.org
San Diego Zoo
Watching baby animal videos is a sure-fire way to cheer you up. The world-renowned San Diego Zoo, is home to more than 3,500 animals and 650 species. You can watch live cams and recorded footage of pandas, penguins, baboons, polar bears, koalas, giraffes, elephants, tigers and condors. There’s also a variety of video content, including one starring the sloth bear brothers, Deemak and Kartick, and another featuring Smudge, the search and rescue koala dog used to track koalas in Australia. www.sandiegozoo.org
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org