While offering some of the best beaches in the United States, Virginia’s shoreline is more than the sum of its wonderful waters.
Whether groups can’t wait to dip their toes into the fabled Chesapeake or mighty Atlantic, or would rather stay high and dry, this special slice of the state provides plenty to do. That includes exploring 400 years of American history, admiring examples of the nation’s military might, enjoying pristine natural areas and, of course, sampling some seriously good seafood.
Read on for the best cities where groups can do all that and much more in coastal Virginia.
The Old Dominion’s coast is rich with historic towns sure to fascinate groups, and that includes Newport News, Virginia, so named for Christopher Newport, the captain of the largest of the Virginia Company ships that brought settlers to the Americas in 1607. As he voyaged back and forth between the continents, Newport would inevitably be asked upon his return, “What’s the news, Captain Newport?” Eventually, the phrase was shortened to simply Newport News.
Today, Newport News honors that history with the Mariners’ Museum and Park, one of the world’s largest maritime museums. “It covers everything maritime, going all the way back to Leif Erikson and the Vikings,” said Barb Kleiss, group marketing manager for Newport News Tourism. “It’s a huge museum, and the really neat thing about it is that it’s a dollar admission. If a group goes through the museum without a docent, it’s a dollar. But even if they want to have a guided tour and do some behind-the-scenes things, it’s still very inexpensive.”
Other outstanding Newport News attractions include the Virginia Living Museum, which features a zoo, an aquarium and a planetarium and, like the Mariners’ Museum, books special after-hours dinners for groups. The Virginia War Museum offers artifacts such as pieces of the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center, and a letter with Hitler’s signature. “I call it my hidden gem because, driving by, no one would guess what’s inside,” Kleiss said.
There’s no doubt about it, according to Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau group sales manager Bruce Newton: The Chesapeake Bay, which surrounds the city to the north and east, and Hampton Roads Harbor, which borders it to the south, combine to make Hampton, Virginia, special.
“We have bridges and tunnels and water everywhere you look,” he said, “so groups particularly like our scenic views. We also have over 100 attractions between all the cities that make up Coastal Virginia/Hampton Roads.”
Of course, there are stellar attractions within Hampton city limits, including the Virginia Air and Space Center, the official visitor center for the NASA Langley Research Center. Groups can tour the exhibits, including all four space capsules, with docents who are often retired Air Force pilots or former NASA engineers. Or, if getting out on the water appeals, the 65-foot Miss Hampton II offers a three-hour guided tour and can also be rented for private group events.
Groups should be sure to head to the 14,000-square-foot Fort Monroe Visitor and Education Center, slated to open this spring. It tells the stories of North America’s first landing of enslaved Africans, which took place at the fort in 1619, and the contraband slaves, who received emancipation at Union-held military posts during the Civil War.
Home to the world’s largest naval base, Norfolk, Virginia, is packed with attractions groups will love, but they’ll probably want to start with the big guns. Groups visiting Naval Station Norfolk experience a 45-minute tour from enlisted personnel, who will show them how the base functions as a working city, with everything from fast-food restaurants to a hospital. Should groups want to see it from the water, both the Spirit of Norfolk and Victory Rover Naval Base Cruises offer tours; the American Rover, a tall ship, hosts harbor and sunset cruises.
Groups might also want to get hands-on at Doumar’s Barbecue.
“Doumar’s is a ’50s-style diner/restaurant,” said Melissa Hopper, associate director of tour and travel for Visit Norfolk. “They get on the motorcoach and talk about why Doumar’s is known for inventing the waffle cone, and then the group will get to experience making one on Doumar’s original machine and go into the diner for ice cream.”
Culture-minded groups will want to visit the glass-blowing studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art for a demonstration, but, as Hopper noted, “One of our biggest attractions is the Battleship Wisconsin. She’s the last battleship of the Iowa class, the largest ever built. Groups can do a main-deck tour or a hardhat tour of the areas down below.”
Tucked away on Marker 12 of the Intracoastal Atlantic Waterway, Chesapeake, Virginia, is a paradise for outdoors-loving groups. From guided birding to tree tours and “owl prowls,” this tranquil city offers plenty of fun in the sun and under the stars, too, with nighttime sky watching.
“We have the darkest skies in the area because we’re not really built up,” said Chesapeake Convention and Visitors Bureau sales manager Jo Slack. “So we offer star watching at Northwest River Park with professional astronomers. That’s a fun thing for groups because it’s very different.”
According to Slack, the CVB is happy to set up events as varied for groups as fly-fishing lessons in Elizabeth River Park or a guided crossing of the South Norfolk Jordan Bridge. An engineering wonder taller than the Brooklyn Bridge, it affords spectacular views of the water. After groups have worked up an appetite, they can head to Wicker’s Crab Pot Seafood where, along with the catch of the day, they’ll be treated to tales from the owner, a fourth-generation waterman.
Groups also won’t want to miss the Great Bridge Battlefield and Waterways History Museum and Visitor Center. Opening this summer, it will explore the historic 1775 conflict that drove the British out of Virginia and led to the Virginia Convention’s adoption of the first public declaration of independence.
Sure, Virginia Beach, Virginia, is best known for its sandy, sunny, surf-laden landscape. But though it boasts three beach areas and an iconic 3.5-mile-long boardwalk, the city nonetheless offers much more than beautiful shoreline.
“I think the thing that’s so surprising about Virginia Beach is the wide variety of attractions and culinary options that are available,” said Jim Coggin, Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau’s tourism sales manager. “While we love our beaches, we want groups to know there’s so much more to do here.”
That includes walking 191 steps to the top of the Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in 1792 and boasting beautiful views. Group members who’d rather stay earthbound can commemorate the spot next to the lighthouse where the first permanent English settlers came ashore in 1607: the First Landing Cross. There are tales of shipwrecks and ghosts to discover at the Virginia Beach Surf and Rescue Museum and 800,000 gallons of displays at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. In 2022, the institution will debut a new clinic where groups will be able to watch veterinarians tend to marine animals.
“We’ve also got some great restaurants, like Rockafeller’s,” Coggin said. “We’re known for our oysters in Virginia, so they’ll do oyster pairings and talk about the history of oysters in Virginia and how they’re harvested. Groups love it.”
Chincoteague and Assateague
A stone’s throw from each other off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, the Chincoteague and Assateague islands offer more than just wild ponies. Home to both the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and a national seashore, uninhabited Assateague is also blessed with bucolic nature trails and a pristine public beach that’s wonderful for sunbathing, shelling and surf fishing. There are plenty of other critters that call Assateague home too, including 300 species of waterfowl and white-tailed deer.
“It’s very relaxing and peaceful here,” said Evelyn Shotwell, executive director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. “You can enjoy the beach all day long and then come back over to Chincoteague to stay and enjoy our shopping, art galleries and restaurants. Don’s is a good choice for a group meal. He grows his own oysters and clams, and he gives group tours of his aqua farms. So, you can see how the clams and oysters are raised, and that’s the food you eat that night.”
Chincoteague Step Through Time Tours, a guided downtown walking tour, is coming to the town this summer, but step-on guides can be booked now for motorcoach groups headed to Assateague for a look at the ponies.