A NOTE TO OUR READERS: Experience America's Waterfront" is from the June 2007 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.
I've done everything from kayaking in the Atlantic Ocean to standing on the flight deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Virginia. Still, I never really understood the glory of Hampton Roads until I walked along the water's edge in Norfolk one summer morning. All around, I could see what makes it so special. This is America's waterfront.
It's the smell of salt air rising off the Chesapeake Bay and the snap of sails billowing on the masts of a tall ship. It's the way a sailor hugs his family when he's finally home from sea. It's the fragile boats of Jamestown settlers, the thunder of the Monitor and the Merrimack, and the rattle of liberty ships sailing bravely for far-off shores.
For four centuries, these waters have set the stage for the pageant of a nation. English mariners named Hampton Roads for the safe harbor at the confluence of three rivers--the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond--that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. Norfolk, home to the world's largest Navy base, sits in the heart of the region that holds nine other cities from Williamsburg to Virginia Beach.
Left: Fireworks often illuminate waterfront celebrations.
In vibrant downtown Norfolk, a city that has transformed itself into a lively destination for travelers, boatloads of fun and entertainment center around the Elizabeth River. You can help hoist the sails on a schooner, catch a paddle wheeler to a baseball game, or ship out on an ocean voyage from a stylish new cruise ship terminal. Designed to mirror the crescent shape of a 17th-century fort that guarded Norfolk's fledgling maritime industry, the $36-million Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center expects to host more than 60,000 passengers for Royal Caribbean International, Carnival, and other cruise lines annually.
At Nauticus, a maritime science museum that neighbors the ship terminal, you can view the sea life of the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay. You can even pet a shark, if you're brave enough. Nurse sharks swim in a touch tank, one of the most popular activities for children. Dozens of hands-on activities and exhibits fill the waterfront center that's as lofty as an ocean liner. A webcam offers a view of ships traveling the Intracoastal Waterway (mile marker 0 is in Norfolk). You can see it at www.nauticus.org.
Cross a walkway from Nauticus, and step out onto the deck of the USS Wisconsin, the centerpiece of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. "The Whiskey," one of America's largest battleships, served from World War II through Operation Desert Storm. Her mighty 16-inch guns, able to lob shells as heavy as Volkswagens more than 26 nautical miles, helped support the landing on Iwo Jima. A nearby park features a bronze sculpture of a sailor that honors fallen Navy heroes and stands as a touching memorial.
Left: The tall ship American Rover sails the waterfront in Norfolk.
In 1862, a crew of stalwart seamen, faint from lack of oxygen and drenched by leaks, sailed into Hampton Roads aboard an ungainly looking vessel some called "a cheesebox on a raft." Their USS Monitor had dueled the CSS Virginia (an ironclad built from the USS Merrimack) in a battle that forever changed the course of naval warfare. Experience the epic clash in state-of-the-art exhibits at the new USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, a 20-minute drive from Norfolk.
Catch a ride along the Elizabeth River on the Paddlewheel Ferry. The replica boat shuttles visitors between Portsmouth and Norfolk to baseball games in the waterfront stadium at Harbor Park. When you sit high in the stands in the nifty, old-style ballpark, the water seems so close you could touch it. It's easy to imagine a batter knocking a ball high over the outfield right into the Elizabeth River. "That's only happened during batting practice in the history of the park," says Ian Locke, spokesperson for the AAA Norfolk Tides, "but fans can dream." It's still a beautiful view that gets even better when fireworks burst over the water at games on June 2; July 2, 3, and 28; August 31; and September 1.
Left: A fan waits to snag a foul ball at Harbor Park.
More than 20 tall ships land in Norfolk June 7-12 for Sail Virginia 2007, the city's keystone event for the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown landing. More than 1,000 artists, actors, musicians, and other entertainers will help stage the commemoration. Any day of the week, you can help hoist the sails on the American Rover. The three-masted passenger schooner sets sail for two-hour afternoon cruises and sunset cruises.
Seafaring Families I enjoyed harbor and naval base tours on the Carrie B. and the Victory Rover. One morning, I drove to massive Naval Station Norfolk for a bus tour to get a closer look at the impressive array of aircraft carriers, guided missile destroyers, submarines, and fast frigates in port. Our guide was a newly enlisted, 20-year-old woman, hoping to chart the same course as her father and brother. They both served on the nuclear-powered carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Seafaring traditions run deep in Hampton Roads.
Left: Powerful 16-inch guns on the battleship USS Wisconsin thundered during the landing on Iwo Jima as well as the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm.
Relics from the USS Monitor, reclaimed from the ship's resting place off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, serve as the theme of the spectacular new USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News.
A battle theater re-creates the frenzied duel of ironclads during the Civil War's Battle of Hampton Roads. Both sides claimed victory in the four-hour fight, but historians declare it a draw.
Visitors can view work to preserve the Monitor, with its distinctive revolving turret made up of eight layers of armored plate. You can also watch the restoration at home by webcam. Visit www.marinersmuseum.org, or call 1-800-581-7245.