Aerial View of Norfolk at Night
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Mermaids are everywhere in Norfolk -- though they are not necessarily alive! Throughout the city are colorful mermaid sculptures (the mermaid being the symbol of this, one of America's greatest ports). The street art display is known as Mermaids on Parade.
The city with the world's largest natural harbor naturally has strong ties to the sea. The New Norfolk, as tourism officials like to call it, is a city with a storied maritime history, located at the junction of the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. And though it's a longtime cargo and U.S. naval port, Norfolk has, since the advent of homeport cruising, gained popularity as a seasonal point of departure for cruises to Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Canada/New England.
"Norfolk Towne" was established by English settlers in 1636. The city's importance as a port dates to 1680 when King Charles II ordered the building of storehouses for imports and tobacco exports. By 1775, it was the colony's most profitable locale. The city was bombarded by the British in 1776 (on New Year's Day). Only the walls of what is now St. Paul's church survived.
Fort Norfolk (on the Elizabeth River) was built to protect the harbor during the period of tensions that became the War of 1812. The city was incorporated in 1845. The first city hall in 1964 became the final resting place of five-star Army General Douglas MacArthur; it's now the Douglas MacArthur Memorial.
Norfolk was surrendered to union troops during the Civil War (but not before an 1862 battle in which the U.S.S. Monitor engaged the C.S.S. Virginia). The city has housed a major Naval base since WWI, and today is home to the world's largest Naval installation.
On a visit here you'll notice a few things right away, including the friendliness of the locals (even the security guard at the pier may quiz you to make sure you've seen all the important sights). It's Southern hospitality at its best.
You can walk right into the city center from the ship. In addition to being an important Naval town, you'll find Norfolk steeped in Colonial American history. The sights on the Cannonball Trail are well marked, and take you through 400 years of Norfolk history. But you may be surprised to find that history interspersed with plenty of modern touches.
Up from the waterfront, for instance, are big bank buildings and commercial high rises with historic gems hidden in between. Head to the giant MacArthur Center (named for the general, of course) shopping mall and you'll discover it's built between St. Paul's, with its historic graveyard, and the 1848 Freemason Street Baptist Church, designed by the same architect (Thomas Walter) who did the giant dome of the U.S. Capitol. Also next to the mall (itself noteworthy as home to a Nordstrom's; important for shoe-lovers) is the 1794 Willoughby-Baylor House.
Culture vultures will be pleased to discover Norfolk's lively arts scene, which includes the Virginia Opera and Chrysler Museum. Dining-wise you'll find everything from down-home country cooking to fine cuisine.
Norfolk hosts more than 130 festivals year-round, most at Town Point Park, including the big Harborfest in June, a waterfront celebration with tall ships, fireworks, music and lots of partying.
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Other U.S.A. Cruise Ports:
Baltimore • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charleston • Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades) • Galveston • Honolulu • Houston • Jacksonville • Key West • Los Angeles • Miami • Mobile • New Orleans • New York (Brooklyn, Red Hook) • New York (Manhattan) • Norfolk • Orlando (Port Canaveral) • Philadelphia • Port Canaveral • Portland (Maine) • San Diego • San Francisco • Seattle • St. Louis • Tampa
A mermaid belly ring from Treasures, Feathers and Fins is sterling silver with a pink rhinestone.
Where You're Docked
Ships use Norfolk's Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center. Parking for embarking passengers is available downtown via Cedar Grove Parking; complimentary shuttles provide transportation from the Cedar Grove facility to Half Moone.
The Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, which opened in April 2007, is more than just your average cruise terminal. It's also a maritime museum of sorts, showcasing one of the largest privately owned collections of ocean liner memorabilia in the country. The cruise ship pier is also adjacent to Nauticus, The National Maritime Center; the center is home to the Battleship Wisconsin, one of the largest and last battleships built by the U.S. Navy. Open daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (One Waterside Drive; 757-664-1000)
Many of Norfolk's best-known attractions are within walking distance of the pier. Taxis are available at the pier if you want to venture further, say to the artsy area known as Ghent. There are also free NET (Norfolk Electric Transit) city buses that operate around the downtown area Monday – Friday 6:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., Saturday noon – midnight and Sunday noon – 8 p.m. For excursions beyond the downtown area, a car is necessary.
Norfolk's waterfront maritime attractions: At the Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, the main attractions include Nauticus, a hands-on ocean-related science and technology center, and battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin, one of the last battleships built by the U.S. Navy; it earned five battle stars during World War II and is docked adjacent to the center. Inside Nauticus, there's also the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, focusing on all things naval. Nearby on the waterfront is the Armed Forces Memorial (look for the large American flag) which features poignant letters, cast in bronze, from soldiers who did not make it back from battle. Take the two-hour Victory Rover Naval Base Cruises to see the world's largest Naval facility; the narrated cruise goes past aircraft carriers, nuclear subs and guided missile cruisers. Tickets are available at Nauticus or buy a combo with Nauticus admission. (One Waterside Drive; 757-627-7406)
Another fascinating military-oriented museum is the Douglas MacArthur Memorial, which features exhibits and artifacts from the Spanish American War, World Wars I and II, the occupation of Japan and the Korean War. Open Monday - Saturday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. (MacArthur Square, 421 E. City Hall Avenue; 757-441-2965)
Tour historic Norfolk on foot via Journey to Freedom, Hampton Roads' Cannonball Trail and the Underground Railroad. It begins at 401 Freemason Street and winds through the city, pointing out some 40 points of historic interest.
The Chrysler Museum of Art is the city's art showplace, featuring permanent exhibitions of American and European masterpieces along with collections of decorative arts and glass. It's in the historic Ghent neighborhood. Open Wednesday 10 a.m. - 9 p.m., Thursday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday noon - 5 p.m. (245 W. Olney Road; 757-664-6200)
Shopping fanatics should head to Norfolk's premier mall -- MacArthur Center -- right downtown and featuring some 140 stores (including more than 50 not found anywhere else in the area) anchored by Nordstrom's and Dillard's, movie theaters and restaurants. Open 10 a.m. – 9 p.m. (300 Monticello Ave.; 757-627-6000)
Been There, Done That
Ghent is Norfolk's arty, fashionable historic neighborhood, with plenty of boutiques, antique shops, restaurants and cafes. Drive there from the ship pier.
Catch a ballgame. The AAA Norfolk Tides is the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, and a member of the International League.
Go for a sail on a three-masted ship. American Rover Tall Ship offers two- and three-hour narrated trips on schooner-style vessels. (333 Waterside Dr.; 757-627-7245) The Carrie B Showboat, a 19th-century riverboat, also offers an over-water expedition. (1238 Bay Street, Portsmouth; 945-609-4735)
Sun lovers should head to nearby Virginia Beach (a 20-minute drive) where there's a rollicking boardwalk (you can rent bikes and roller blades) and beach scene. Beyond beaches, key attractions in Virginia Beach include Virginia Marine Science Museum with its 800,000-gallon open-air ocean aquarium (717 General Booth Blvd., Virginia Beach; 757-385-7777); First Landing State Park, with some 2,888 acres of marshes, mosses, and forests plus 27 miles of hiking and cycling trails (2500 Shore Drive, Virginia Beach; 757-412-2300); and, for new-agers, the programs and a fabulous book/gift shop at Association for Research and Enlightenment, devoted to the study of Edgar Cayce, a major 20th-century psychic. (215 67th St., Virginia Beach; 800-333-4499/ 757-428-3588)
Take a drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The 17.6-mile span connects Virginia with the Eastern Shore. The views are fabulous -- it's a great place for birdwatching, as well -- and there are numerous scenic pull-offs.
Seek history, tourist-style. Historic Colonial Williamsburg is just 45 minutes away; this living history museum features a view of American life from 1699 to 1780 and encompasses more than 500 buildings, homes, trade shops and taverns. (E. Francis St., Williamsburg; 757-229-1000/ 800-447-8679) Also near the city of Williamsburg is the fabulous Busch Gardens, a European-themed theme park with main stage productions and some 35 rides. (One Busch Gardens Blvd.; 800-343-7946)
Visit the animals. The 100-year-old Virginia Zoo in Norfolk has an exciting new exhibit called Africa which features creatures from the Okavango Delta including giraffes, zebras, elephants, lions, white rhinos, baboons and more. Open daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.(3500 Granby St.; 757-441-2374)
In Norfolk, many of the city's fun and/or fabulous restaurants are clustered into areas, such as:
Downtown's Granby Street:
Jack Quinn's Irish Pub offers Irish pub fare. Open weekdays 10:30 a.m. – 2 a.m. and weekends 10 a.m. – 2 a.m. (241 Granby; 757-623-2233)
Freemason Abbey Restaurant & Tavern is a casual eatery coolly located in a converted Victorian church. Open Monday – Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., Friday – Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 11 p.m., and Sunday 9:30 a.m. – 10 p.m. (209 West Freemason St.; 757-622-3966)
For down-home Southern cooking like fried chicken and mac and cheese, try Cora. Open Monday - Thursday 11 a.m. - 10 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. – 12 a.m., Saturday 5 p.m. - midnight, Sunday 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. (723 W. 21st Street; 757-625-6100)
No Frill Bar and Grill at the corner of Colley Avenue and Spotswood has an energetic vibe with its bright art and varied menu. Open daily 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. (806 Spotswood Ave.; 757-627-4262)
Lunch is served all day at The Ten Top, but they also serve dinner, dessert and Sunday brunch. Open Monday – Saturday 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. Sunday brunch is served 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. (748 Shirley Ave., just off Colley Avenue; 757-622-5422)
Near the Zoo:
One fabulous not-to-be-missed experience is at Doumar's, a drive-in, opened in 1904 and still offering curbside service and carhops. The ice cream is served in handmade waffle cones and the burgers and barbecue are also tasty. Open Monday – Thursday 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. and Friday and Saturday until after midnight. (20th Street & Monticello Avenue; 757-627-4163)
Near the Pier:
Norfolk Waterside Marriott is not on the water but has great views and all the usual amenities -- even a kosher kitchen. (235 E. Main Street; 757-628-6440/ 800-228-9290)
Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel is right on the water near the Waterside Festival Marketplace (which has restaurants, shops and clubs) and has an outdoor pool. (777 Waterside Drive; 757-622-6664/ 800-325-3535)
Near the Pier:
Courtyard by Marriott has an indoor swimming pool and is within walking distance of nearly everything. (520 Plume Street; 757-963-6000)
On A Budget:
Days Inn Military Circle is just minutes from downtown Norfolk. (5701 Chambers Street; 757-461-0100)
The four-room Freemason Inn Bed & Breakfast offers gas fireplaces and whirlpool tubs in three out of four of their guest suites. The fourth has a claw-foot tub. (411 W. York Street; 757-963-7000/ 866-388-1897)
Centrally located in downtown Norfolk, Crowne Plaza Norfolk (700 Monticello Ave.; 757-627-5555) offers a great Cruise and Stay package, where for a reasonable room rate for a double or king, they will also give you free parking for the length of your cruise, transfers to and from the cruise port, and up to 2 p.m. late check-out.
Staying in Touch
Fair Grounds Coffee Shop has free Wi-Fi and fair-trade coffee, in addition to plenty of indoor and outdoor seating in Ghent. (806 Baldwin Ave.; 757-640-2899)
Panera Bread has free Wi-Fi. (1140 N. Military Hwy.; 757-623-9669)
Bardo Edibles Plus Elixirs is a fun tappas restaurant in Ghent. Open weekdays 11 a.m. – 2 a.m. and weekends 5 p.m. – 2 p.m.(430 W. 21st St.; 757-622-7362)
For More Information
Call the Norfolk Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-368-3097
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-- By Fran Wenograd Golden, former travel editor of The Boston Herald and co-author of Cruise Vacations for Dummies. Updated by Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor.
All images appear courtesy of the Norfolk Convention and Visitors Bureau.