Destination: Norfolk, VA - Soundings Online

Destination: Norfolk, VA

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The Intracoastal Waterway begins at this city, whose downtown marina puts you in the action

The Intracoastal Waterway begins at this city, whose downtown marina puts you in the action

Norfolk has learned that if you fix up the waterfront they will come.

“Boaters get the best first impression of Norfolk,” says Mike Evans, harbormaster of Waterside Marina. “We’re the only place on the ICW where you tie up right downtown.”

Construction of Waterside Marina, Park and Festival Marketplace at Intracoastal Waterway mile marker 0 sparked a 20-year urban renaissance that is still under way. “The waterfront is beautiful, and there’s so much to do here,” says Lloyd Beazley of Portsmouth, Va., who frequently sails his 31-foot Hunter to Norfolk with other members of the Elizabeth River Yacht Club.

Beazley and his friends prefer to tie up in Waterside Marina’s historic Freemason Harbor, also on the ICW, a half-mile west of the mile-long riverfront park. “We have a little more privacy [than in the main basin], yet are close to everything,” he says. “A few years ago this was just an empty field.” Now it’s Oriental Park, with pools, gardens and a Taiwanese pagoda housing a restaurant.

Waterside Marina — rated among Chesapeake Bay’s best — is just steps from Waterside Festival Marketplace’s boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. Outdoor tables overlook the ICW activity, the schooner American Rover dock, and the ferry that shuttles across to Portsmouth. Across the street from the marina and Freemason Harbor you’ll find a modern, vibrant, clean city filled with trendy shops — don’t miss Prince Books and Coffeehouse — imaginative restaurants and world-class attractions, attractions that show Norfolk was, and is, more than a just a major strategic naval base and shipping port.

“There’s always something happening,” says Evans. “Festivals almost every weekend, an active arts scene, professional sports teams, casino and sailing river cruises. … And most everything is an easy walk from the marina.” Even major cruise ships dock downtown, at Nauticus International Pier.

It’s easy to get around the city using the maps in the marina’s welcome packet or from Nauticus Visitors Center. “City Ambassadors” in teal uniforms help orient visitors in the 10-block downtown. Free electric-powered Norfolk Electric Transportation buses circle between the marina and attractions from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday through Friday; noon to midnight Saturday; and until 8 p.m. Sunday. The Norfolk trolley offers narrated tours.

Norfolk’s restaurants range from cheap eats to fine dining, from American and Asian cuisine to local seafood and tapas. Reservations are essential at many of the unique chef-owned restaurants, especially Todd Jurich’s Bistro, a four-diamond restaurant on Waterside Drive that has garnered many awards for its wines and sophisticated cuisine. Lines also form for breakfast, lunch and Sunday brunch at D’egg, a diner-style eatery on Main Street. Nearby Granby Street — the renovated historic financial district — features lively pubs, late-night clubs and trendy restaurants. Granby Street’s art galleries and specialty shops offer upscale treasures.

Locals cherish the 50-plus uniquely decorated mermaid statues around Norfolk, created by artists to raise money for the arts. Each year more are added.

Plaques along the winding Cannonball Trail illustrate Norfolk’s military and civilian history since the English arrived in 1607. Among other things, you’ll learn that Waterside Marina’s “Dunmore Docks” and “Otter Berth” were named after Britain’s Lord Dunmore and his flagship, Otter. Dunmore’s forces burned Norfolk to the ground during the Revolutionary War. “We’re the only port that lionizes the ships that kicked our butts,” quips Evans.

Near Freemason Harbor — an 1880s cotton shipping port — compact townhouses line the cobblestone streets of the city’s oldest neighborhood.

Historic Ghent, a quaint area of brick townhouses and impressive Charleston-style homes, has been revived as an arts, antiques and dining district. Many cruisers take the NET bus to the Chrysler Museum of Art and stroll the few blocks to Ghent. Cabs also are available.

The Chrysler Museum is well worth a visit, with 30,000 original works from 2000 B.C. to the present displayed in 55 galleries. Its Tiffany Glass collection is world-renowned. The museum’s 18th-century Moses Myers and Willoughby-Baylor houses are downtown on the Cannonball Trail, as is the 1739 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the only structure left standing after the British burned the city in 1776.

The battleship Wisconsin, berthed at Nauticus National Maritime Center, draws the most visitors, says Evans, who adds that several other nearby attractions honor the military. Nauticus lets you explore the naval, natural and economic power of the sea. The center is home to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which covers the area’s military history. At the poignant Armed Forces Memorial on Town Point you can read letters written by servicemen and women who died in past wars. In Wisconsin Square, a bronze “Lone Sailor” sculpture looks out over the battleship Wisconsin’s berth. Narrated bus and excursion boat tours are offered out of Norfolk Naval Station. Norfolk’s historic 19th-century City Hall is part of the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial Museum honoring the World War II five-star army general.

Four blocks from Waterside Marina is the MacArthur Center, a million-square-foot, three-level mall. Its 150 shops, restaurants and entertainment venues include an 18-screen theater. The city’s six other performing arts venues range from intimate theaters to Norfolk Scope, a 13,000-seat domed arena hosting everything from three-ring circuses to rock concerts. Among downtown Granby Street’s theaters is The NorVa, a restored 1922 concert hall. Norfolk’s performing arts companies include the Virginia Symphony, Virginia Opera, Virginia Ballet and Virginia Stage Company.

Those who prefer a sports fix can ride the NET to Scope for Norfolk Admirals baseball (New York Mets AAA affiliate) or Norfolk Nighthawks football. Or take a cab to Harbor Park to catch a Norfolk Tides ice hockey game.

Farther afield you’ll find the Virginia Botanical Gardens, Virginia Zoological Park, Old Fort Norfolk, golf courses and Ocean View’s sandy beaches along Hampton Roads. The gardens, zoo and Chrysler Museum of Art offer reduced admission with a “Passport to Fun,” available through the Norfolk Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.norfolkcvb.com, (800) 368-3097). The Passport also includes discounts for restaurants, shopping and other attractions.

Back at Waterside Marina, the many festivals enliven the park. Even without a festival you can take in the ICW’s ever-changing stream of commercial, recreational and military vessel traffic.

“Local boaters come for our festivals. Transients stumble into them and say ‘Oh my gosh, what great fun,’ ” says Evans. “Then they come back and recommend us to others.”

As well they should.

If you decide to go

Norfolk, Va., a major center both for U.S. Navy activity and shipping, is located just inside the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on the Elizabeth River, the official beginning of the Intracoastal Waterway. Despite its commercial and military operations, Norfolk welcomes recreational boaters.

“We’ve got location, location, location,” says Mike Evans, harbormaster of Waterside Marina. The all-transient marina in Town Point Park at ICW mile marker 0 (buoy 36) has fuel and pumpout facilities. Dockage with 20-foot depths can accommodate 400-foot yachts at breakwater-protected floating docks and adjoining Otter Berth. Evans considers Otter Berth the “finest megayacht basin in the Mid-Atlantic states.”

Rates at Waterside Marina in Town Point Park and at Freemason Harbor west of Town Point, both (757) 625-2000, are $1.30 a foot per night plus power. Showers, laundry, and Wi-Fi Internet service are on-site; swimming pool with fitness privileges are at nearby hotel. Dozens of downtown restaurants, shops and attractions are within two blocks of either location. Reservations are recommended. Packages are available during waterfront festivals, which are held most summer weekends.

Evans says the anchorage on the Portsmouth side of the Elizabeth River can handle 500 to 700 boats. Cruisers anchored or staying in Portsmouth marinas — including Tidewater Yacht Marina, www.tyamarina.com, (757) 393-2525, a destination marina with full repairs — can take the ferry across to Norfolk’s Town Point Park or dinghy across to Waterside Marina. Waterside charges $2 a day for dinghy dockage, $2 for a shower. “Zero Mile Dinghy Dock” can be used only when cruise ships aren’t docked at adjacent Nauticus International Pier.

Cruisers can find all marine services in Norfolk, making it a popular port for provisioning and fitting out. Colonna’s Shipyard, about a half-mile up the Elizabeth River, www.colonnaship.com (click on “Yachts”), (757) 627-0738, offers full repairs. Mechanics also will come to Waterside Marina.

No-wake zones are in effect south from Buoy 34 and north from the Jordan lift bridge, Evans warns. He says NOAA charts 12222 and 12206 are essential for navigating Norfolk Harbor. Chart 12222 covers Cape Charles, Hampton Roads and Norfolk, while 12206 (Norfolk to Albemarle Sound via North Landing River or Great Dismal Swamp Canal) covers the beginning of the ICW. A half-dozen charts cover the approach to the Elizabeth River from the north.

With major hotels and interstate highways within a block and an international airport six miles from Waterside Marina, Norfolk is a convenient port for crew changes.

Information

• Norfolk Convention and Visitors Bureau, (800) 368-3097, www.norfolkcvb.com.

Events

• April through September — Norfolk Tides AAA baseball at Harbor Park, (757) 622-2222, www.norfolktides.com.

• April 18-24 — International Azalea Festival with music, food, art exhibits, and coronation of Queen Azalea and her Court, (757) 282-2801, www.azaleafestival.org.

• April 21-May 22 — Virginia Arts Festival, featuring international artists and classical, chamber, vocal, ethnic and jazz music, as well as dance and theater, 757-282-2800, www.virginiaartsfest.com.

• May-August — Friday Nights at the Point series.

• Memorial Day weekend — AFR’AM Fest, a celebration of African-American family, arts and culture with music, historical exhibits, food and children’s activities, at Town Point Park, 757-639-7054, www.afram-fest.info.

• June 10-12 — Norfolk Harborfest, with parade of sail, workboat parade and races, tugboat muster, maritime demonstrations, tall ship open houses, boatbuilding contest, yacht rendezvous, pirate ship battle, and more, Town Point Park, (757) 441-2345, www.festeventsva.org.

• June 24-26 — Bayou Boogaloo and Cajun Food Festival, Town Point Park, (757) 441-2345, www.festeventsva.org.

• July 4 — Great American Fourth of July Picnic and Fireworks, Town Point Park, (757) 441-2345, www.festeventsva.org.

Battleship Wisconsin looms over the waterfront

“Massive” is the word that comes to mind when you first see the USS Wisconsin, one of America’s last and largest battleships.

The Wisconsin’s bow looms over downtown Waterside Drive at Nauticus National Maritime Center, Norfolk’s three-story, 120,000-square-foot science and technology center. The ship seems even more massive once you board and stand beneath its 16-inch guns. At nearly three football fields long (887 feet, 3 inches), she has a 108-foot beam and draws more than 37 feet, with 4 acres of teak decking over its 1.5-inch-thick steel deck. She carried a crew of almost 2,000.

Launched Dec. 7, 1943, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Wisconsin served in the Pacific during World War II, in the Korean conflict, then became a training ship until 1958. The battleship was recommissioned in 1988 and later was armed with Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles for duty in Operation Desert Storm. Decommissioned in 1991, she remains part of the Navy, ready to be recalled to active duty.

You can explore the main deck and sections of two upper decks on the self-guided tour, or follow a 45-minute rental audio tape. The docents (often former crewmembers) recount their duties aboard this “City at Sea” or similar ships. You’ll learn that Wisconsin’s bulbous bow wasn’t part of the original battleship. Following a collision, 68 feet of the USS Kentucky replaced the Wisconsin’s damaged bow. Afterward sailors nicknamed the battleship “Wis-Ky.”

Hampton Roads Naval Museum, a separate organization housed within Nauticus, operates the battleship Wisconsin and the Huntington Tugboat Museum at adjacent Nauticus International Pier. The Naval Museum exhibits 200 years of regional maritime history from the 1781 Battle off the Capes — instrumental in America’s victory in the Revolutionary War — to today’s Navy. Photographs add immediacy to exhibits on the Civil War battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac (ex-Virginia) and World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic.

On the Nauticus pier, the 1933 tugboat Huntington, which worked the harbor for more than 50 years, is open to visitors. Also, Victory Rover makes two-hour cruises of Naval Station Norfolk — the largest naval complex in the world — from the pier.

The Nauticus center, which focuses on the naval, natural and economic power of the sea, also offers exhibits on the battleship Wisconsin. In the “Design Chamber X” exhibit, you are under time constraints to help design the Wisconsin, while “City At Sea” explores life aboard. Eight “Battlescopes” seemingly focus on the real USS Wisconsin at the pier but instead virtually explore the ship’s weapons and intelligence systems. You’ll learn that one 16-inch shell weighs the same as a Volkswagen Beetle. The film “USS Wisconsin: The Last Battleship” takes you back to World War II, documenting the ship, crew, and the crew’s service.

Nauticus also has more than 150 interactive exhibits that let you touch a shark and other sea creatures, experience hair-raising science experiments, and be videotaped as a weather forecaster. In the Aegis Command Center Theater, you can make split-second decisions that control a full-scale battle simulation on an Aegis Class destroyer, complete with realistic sound and video effects of incoming and outgoing ordnance.

Other exhibits include NOAA’s “95,000 Miles of Coastal Knowledge,” “The Living Sea,” and “The Port of Hampton Roads: Gateway to the World.” The Hampton Roads exhibit explores the port’s evolving technology, connections to the world, and careers of those who work there. The center also hosts traveling exhibits.

Nauticus National Maritime Center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Memorial Day to Labor Day. Off-season hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free for first and second floors (Hampton Roads Naval Museum, Battleship Wisconsin, gift shop, café). Admission to third-floor exhibits is $9.95, children 3 years and younger free, and seniors, military personnel and AAA members $7.50. Phone: (800) 664-1080. www.nauticus.org