I recently wrote about Fort Bragg North Carolina, the largest Army base east of the Mississippi River, and in a month I will visit Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, home to the largest air combat training base in the world, but it was the Navy’s turn on this long weekend in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Norfolk is less than a 1 ½ hour flight from the New York area and about a 3 1/2 hour drive from Washington DC.
Did you know that Virginia Beach is the largest city in Virginia, with a population of almost 450,000 and over 2.7 million visitors? The Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach is the largest Master Navy Jet Base in the US and home to the F/A 18 Super Hornet aircraft. Continuing our superlatives the Naval Station Norfolk is the world’s largest naval base and is home port to 78 ships and 113 aircraft. Then there is the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in nearby Portsmouth (not to be confused with the Portsmouth New Hampshire shipyard). It is the oldest shipyard in the USA, dating to 1767, dealing with ship repair and overhaul. And lets not forget about the Newport News Shipbuilding operation, which is the largest non-government owned shipyard in the USA.
Norfolk is now headquarters of ACT, the Allied Command Transformation ,which is responsible for training NATO forces. Those four cities plus Hampton, Chesapeake, and Suffolk are all part of the area known as Hampton Roads, a large metro area in southeastern Virginia with 1.6 million people. Here the James River meets Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The Hampton Roads area is supported financially by over 85,000 active duty military personnel and their families. It is the birthplace of America and home to Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown. It was the first permanent English settlement and celebrates its 400th birthday in 2007, Both cities are less than one hour’s drive from Norfolk.
The thing I most appreciated about Norfolk (population 225,000 with over two million visitors) was its compact downtown area. The Norfolk Waterside Marriott (near but not on the water) was my home base for two days and was within a few blocks of many of the attractions I visited. I walked part of the 2 ½ hour 40 site “Cannonball Trail” similar to Boston’s “Freedom Trail.” Granby Street has over 30 chef owned restaurants (no chains), but I chose to eat at the nearby Todd Jurich’s Bistro because of its Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence wine list with almost 800 selections.
My other dinner was at The Vintage Kitchen where Phillip Craig Thomason is chef, owner, and sommelier. He had prepared an 8 course tasting menu paired with wine. Over 50% of the ingredients he uses are from Virginia and his wine selection includes 70 Virginia wines. He has a policy that I wish other restaurants would follow: He will open ANY wine on his list if the diner agrees to purchase two or more glasses.
I also walked to the MacArthur Center Mall which anchors the downtown waterfront area with its 140 stores and restaurants. Across the street is the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial. I hadn’t realized that General MacArthur designed his own memorial and gave them his many military and personal artifacts. His mother was born in Norfolk. He and his wife are also buried there. I spent several hours at Nauticus, the maritime-themed science center which included the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the USS Wisconsin, the largest and last battleship built by the U.S.Navy. The Norfolk Cruise Terminal is being expanded with several new companies using Norfolk to take their guests to Bermuda and the Caribbean. The Victory Rover Naval Base Cruise also leaves from this area for a two-hour cruise around all the naval facilities. The Norfolk Wine Festival entrance was only a hundred yards from Nauticus where I was invited to a private chalet sponsored by the Norfolk Convention & Visitors Bureau. Local food and Virginia wines were featured at this 19th annual event attended by over 12,700 people. Unfortunately, it rained most of the second day of the festival, which is located in Town Point Park directly on the James River. Visitors brought blankets, chairs and their own repast.
There were several attractions that were outside the downtown core and required transportation. The two I wished I had time to see were The Norfolk History Museum at the Willoughby-Baylor House circa 1797 and The Moses Myers House built in 1792, home to one of Norfolk’s first Jewish residents. I did get to The Norfolk Botanical Gardens, which is located directly across the road from the airport and features 25 theme gardens on 155 acres with 12 miles of trails. It was started in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). I strolled through 5,000 years of art history at The Chrysler Museum of Art, which also contains Walter Chrysler’s 30,000 pieces collection.
I revelled in a one-hour deep tissue massage at the Flowering Almond Spa at the Founders Inn. I was a new person when I met with Charles Rizzo- the wine director, who was very proud of his Swan Terrace Restaurant’s 200 bottle wine selections being recognized as among the top twelve “wine-driven” restaurants in Virginia. The property is owned by the board of directors of Regent University next door. If the name doesn’t sound familiar the University was founded in 1978 as a center of Christian thought by Dr. “Pat” Robertson. For you TV watchers the 700 Club (started in 1966) is now broadcast daily from the campus. This time I stayed on the beach at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront and had a wonderful seafood dinner at one of the hotel’s restaurants Catch 31, which offered a panoramic view of the oceanfront. Since I had a few extra hours until my return flight I was able to view briefly the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.
I wish I had time to interact with the harbor seals through the Harbor Seal Splash Program (very similar to the swim with dolphins programs). Virginia Beach is only 10 miles from Norfolk and has double its population, yet many people think it is a suburb. It sits on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The city is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as having the longest pleasure beach in the world (35 miles that extends to the North Carolina border and the Outer Banks.) It is located at the southern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the longest bridge-tunnel complex in the world. Over 94% of the visitors arrive by automobile. We drove a few miles to the Sandbridge Beach area at the southern tip of Virginia Beach. There are five miles of pristine beach on the Atlantic Ocean with private homes, condos, and summer rentals. The new convention center will be completed in 2007. During the summer the 20,000 seat Virginia Beach Amphitheater features national acts such as Elton John and Sheryl Crow. In the summer there is free entertainment along the three mile concrete boardwalk, built in 1888.