Life is good when you can drive to your cruise port. Norfolk is the major cruise port in Virginia. Norfolk is also the largest military naval base in the world. The city is also served by AMTRAK and various airlines. Regardless if you are cruising out of Norfolk or looking for a weekend getaway, Norfolk has a lot to offer.
Who sails out of Norfolk? Currently, it is Carnival Cruise Line. The Carnival Magic sails different routes to the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Caribbean and along the US Eastern seaboard to Canada. The current sailing season looks like February into October.
Friends moved to Norfolk from New York City recently. They cannot stop raving about the area. We took AMTRAK down for a long weekend to see for ourselves. There is a lot to like.
- The Chrysler Museum of Art. A member of the famous family originally hailed from Norfolk. They brought some of the family’s wealth back to town. A great example is the art museum, which has a spectacular collection. Museum admission is free to the public.
- The USS Wisconsin is a big attraction, but it’s not the only attraction building on Norfolk’s history and status as the largest naval base in the world. It is billed as a “Maritime Discovery Center.” The facility also includes the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, which traces the history of the US Navy. It’s largest attraction (literally) is the USS Wisconsin. The museum is easy to find. It’s the building next to the huge grey battleship.
- Ghent neighborhood. The area our friends described as “Downtown Norfolk” looks like it was built yesterday. Swanky hotels and office buildings. I asked: “Does Norfolk have an Old Town or historic district. Since our friends were fans of older architecture, they knew the answer. This is a residential area with lots of mansions and attractive homes, circa the early 1900’s. They are in spectacular condition. The nearby shopping streets have cute shops and sidewalk cafes. This area is ideal for strolling.
- Virginia Beach. A short drive from Norfolk is the community of Virginia Beach. While Norfolk has a population of 235,000, the population of Virginia Beach is 457,000. It will remind you of the Jersey shore, the Hamptons and Miami Beach, all rolled into one community. The high-rise hotels add to the Miami Beach vibe. The outdoor bars and relaxed attitude remind you of the Jersey Shore, yet the celebrities in residence and fine dining available might remind New Yorkers of the Hamptons on Eastern Long Island.
- Virginia Beach boardwalk. The town boasts a three-mile boardwalk, which is also known as the Oceanfront. The sandy beach is on one side, outdoor restaurants and other activities on the inland side. A free shuttle bus service, designed to look like trolley cars, runs along Atlantic and Pacific Avenues.
- Oysters and raw bar specialties. It is easy to find raw oysters here. It is not difficult to find a bar serving a dozen different varieties either. One of our lunch restaurants did a cold seafood medley, often called fruits de mere or a seafood tower, for about $75.00. This was a dish for sharing. We also spotted several corner bars that were also oyster bars.
- The Cavalier Hotel. This large stately building, in the same category as the Breakers in Palm Beach, was built in the mid 1920’s. It sits atop a hill overlooking the water and the newer Marriott hotel on the oceanfront. Lots of Adirondack chairs in neat lows along grassy lawns. You get the idea. The hotel is part of the Marriott organization.
- Bourbon Tasting. Within the Cavalier Hotel is the Tarnished Truth Distilling Company. It’s a distillery built into the hotel’s former laundry rooms. They produce their own bourbons along with their gin and vodka. The tour and tasting runs about $19.00/head and takes an hour. You try four of their spirits in their tasting room plus their vodka and gin in the Hunt Room bar or their shop. This was lots of fun.
- Breakfast restaurants. Both Norfolk and Virginia Beach have quite a few breakfast spots. They offer imaginative fare and draw crowds. At one location I had a version of eggs benedict featuring hollandaise sauce covered crab patties on what I think was lightly fried bread. It was excellent.
- Virginia Aquarium. A misty rain meant we needed to find indoor activities. We took a Lyft to the Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach. Museums face the challenge of making themselves interesting to younger generations. The aquarium did a great job. The tanks with stink rays, sharks and sea turtles were fantastic. Have you heard about those poisonous tree frogs living in the Amazon? They have them here. How about the cobra snake. They have one too. Fortunately, these are all behind thick glass.
- Rooftop and other outdoor bars. The pandemic lockdown managed to wipe out happy hours, but a couple of years after lockdown, they have returned. You would expect fancy cocktail lounges and rooftop bars to have high end pricing, but the Happy Hours we encountered were great. Pints of beer at $4.00! On Saturday we felt like a drink, visited our hotel bar and bought a Gin & Tonic plus a martini, respectively priced at $8.00 and $11.00. The gin they used was Tanqueray, as I recall.
If you are sailing from Norfolk, it makes sense to extend your vacation on one or both ends. There is a lot to recommend this area.
Cover photo ©Dennis Cox/WorldViews: Crowded South Miami Beach on a Sunday in winter
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