The Coast News Group
Hit the Road

Real pirate exhibit just one of Denver’s draws

Come for the pirates; stay for the history, museums, art, shopping, trails, food and fun.
I’m talking about Denver — a city that’s always been on my way to somewhere else. This time, though, my husband and I stayed to see what the Mile High City has to offer. In three-and-a-half days, we only scratched the surface.
We began with pirates — that is, “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.”
This exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (through Aug. 21) features more than 200 artifacts from the Whydah, a slave-ship-turned-pirate-ship that sank in 1717 off the coast of Cape Cod. This fast-sailing vessel, heavy with the bounty of 53 other ships, went down in a storm. It is the only pirate ship that has been discovered off the U.S. coast.
It wasn’t until 1984 that the Whydah was discovered and much of its contents retrieved by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. A veteran diver, he and his co-workers recovered more than 100,000 artifacts from the ship. The retrieval continues. Visit
The Whydah artifacts are both glorious and scary.
The latter includes a strikingly small leg bone and a little leather shoe, probably belonging to 10-year-old John King, who insisted on sailing with the crew. Visitors also see a fearful body-shaped, cage-like contraption that was used to hang pirates in public places as a warning to others.
Other mesmerizing souvenirs from the deep include the ship’s bell, interestingly displayed in a water-filled aquarium; a pistol; cannons and cannonballs; sword handles; and treasure — lots and lots of gold and silver coins called “pieces of eight.” They are so named because these Spanish coins, the first world currency, were worth eight reales each.
There are several stations where kids can enjoy hands-on activities, and everyone can touch some pieces of eight through Plexiglas barriers. Through the miracle of technology, visitors can experience the rolling of a pirate ship from the captain’s quarters. (If you tend to get motion sickness, close your eyes or move on.)
What visitors might be surprised to learn is that life aboard a pirate ship was quite democratic. The legitimate sailor’s life was one of hard labor, abuse and little pay, but pirates collectively elected officers, voted on the ship’s course and shared equally in the loot. Not surprisingly, pirate profits generally dissipated quickly once they were in port. There were many temptations and plenty of people to lighten the pirates’ pockets.
The 13,000-square-foot interactive exhibit is more than just a display of pirate treasure, though. Thankfully, it doesn’t gloss over the horrific history of the slave trade and its relationship to piracy. It explains the “triangle route” that operated between Africa, the Caribbean and the then-southern American colonies. There are reproductions of the shackles worn by Africans who were jammed into ships’ holds and made to endure inhumane conditions. Often many died before arriving in the Caribbean or the South.
Pirates favored these slave ships because they were built for speed. However, if they were captured by pirates, the Africans and some of the crew often joined the already diverse band of pirates.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is at 2001 Colorado Blvd., in City Park. Don’t miss the fabulous view of the city skyline just across the street.
Eleven Denver hotels are offering VIP exhibition tickets, special rates and treats for kids. For instance, the AAA’s Four-Diamond Hyatt Regency Denver, located in the heart of downtown and within walking distance of many attractions, has rooms starting at $119. The Grand Hyatt Denver’s room starts at $129. See, click on “Great Hotel Deals,” then click on “Real Pirates Hotel Packages.”
For more information about “Real Pirates,” organized by National Geographic Arts and Exhibitions International, visit
A later column will feature other attractions in the Mile High City.