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Norfolk’s maritime heritage

It’s no surprise that Norfolk has long historic and economic ties to water. The city is in the heart of coastal Virginia’s Hampton Roads, where three rivers flow into the Chesapeake Bay and help form one of the largest natural harbors in the world.

The first English settlers sailed through the area in 1607 on their way to Jamestown, the British fleet bombarded the city from the harbor during the Revolutionary War, the historic Civil War battle of ironclads Monitor and Merrimack took place in the harbor off Sewell’s Point, and the Great White Fleet of 15 U.S. warships set out on its worldwide tour from Norfolk in 1907.

“Norfolk is the third-largest port on the East Coast after New York and Savannah, and Naval Station Norfolk is the largest naval installation in the world,” said local guide Susan Desilets. “The Sheraton on Elizabeth River is mile zero of the Intracoastal Waterway.”

So Norfolk’s waterfront is a natural place to begin exploring the city’s many attractions.

“Norfolk is surrounded almost entirely by water, and there are many ways groups can enjoy it,” said Donna Allen, vice president of sales and marketing for Visit Norfolk, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

I discovered several of them on a fall visit in conjunction with the 24th annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival.

A Festive Location
“Town Point Park is a beautiful green space located along the Elizabeth River where most of our popular festivals take place,” said Allen.

Tens of thousands of people, including several who came by boat, gathered in the riverside park on a beautiful weekend to enjoy live music and to sample wines from more than 30 Virginia wineries.

In addition to another wine festival in the spring, the park is the scene of Harborfest, with its array of sailing ships; the Bayou Boogaloo and Cajun Food Festival; the Norfolk Jazz Festival; and the Virginia Beer Festival.

Taking a break from the festival, I toured the adjacent Nauticus, the distinctively shaped, multilevel metal structure that houses more than 150 interactive exhibits that explore the natural, economic and naval aspects of the world’s oceans. Visiting groups can see a large-format, high-definition film, “The Living Sea”; feel the texture of live starfish and hermit crabs in a touch tank; design battleships; and control a nine-foot-long robotic arm of a submersible research vehicle.

The Nauticus’ observation deck provides a good view of the harbor, which teems with military vessels, pleasure craft, ferries, tugs, yachts, cargo ships and sailboats. Huge cruise ships dock next to the Nauticus at Norfolk’s 6-year-old, 80,000-square-foot cruise terminal, one of the largest domestic cruise ports in the country.

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which covers 227 years of naval history, is located on Nauticus’ second floor. From the naval museum, I walked across a bridge to tour the 887-foot-long USS Wisconsin, one of the largest battleships ever built by the U.S. Navy, which served in World War II, the Korean War and the Gulf War.

On the Water
The next morning, I got a firsthand look at the Elizabeth River on a harbor cruise and brunch aboard the American Rover, a 129-passenger, three-masted topsail schooner that departs from a dock in downtown Norfolk. The ship has two climate-controlled lounges and a bar below deck, but the best way to enjoy the cruise is on deck, where groups have the option of joining the crew to help raise and lower the American Rover’s red “tan bark” sails or take a turn at the helm.

The two-hour cruise provides great views of the Norfolk and Portsmouth skylines, the Nauticus and the Wisconsin, private shipyards, the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, shipping container terminals, Old Fort Norfolk, a Coast Guard station and the Norfolk Southern coal piers.

Other cruise options include the modern Spirit of Norfolk, which offers lunch, dinner and specialty theme cruises for groups; and the Victory Rover, which has two-hour narrated cruises of Naval Base Norfolk. You can also ride a paddle-wheel ferry on the Elizabeth River between Norfolk and Olde Towne Portsmouth.

“Groups can charter a boat or experience a crab class to learn about the intricacies of crab season, different kinds of crabs and the history of crabs in the region,” said Allen.

Groups can even see the Norfolk Botanical Garden by boat. Surrounded on three sides by Lake Whitehurst, the garden offers boat tours along its system of canals.

“We are one of the few gardens to offer tours by boat,” said a garden spokesperson.

Started in 1938 as a Works Progress Administration project, Norfolk Botanical Garden now encompasses 30 theme gardens spread over 155 acres. It has some of the East Coast’s largest collections of roses, azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons. There are numerous walking trails through the gardens, and visitors can also go on a 25-minute tram tour.