Norfolk, VA: Long, Hard and Full of Seamen
But as summer dawns (however slowly) on the East Coast, it’s not like there is a vacuum between Provincetown, Rehoboth Beach, and Ft. Lauderdale. In looking for more budget-minded locations for a little beach bumming, I found that several seaside towns serve up serene Atlantic breezes with a dash of the rainbow flag thrown in for color.
And as I saddled up to the bar at the leather-and-Levis bonanza going on at The Garage, with a gin-and-tonic that came in - no lie - a tankard (and costing all of $2.50), I had to admit, Norfolk turned out to be a pretty good choice.
All Hands On Deck
Rising from the shores of the Hampton Roads, one of the world’s great natural harbors, Norfolk from the start was tied to the sea, but in 1917 and the advent of World War I that bond became iron-clad in the form of a home-hunting U.S. Navy. Today the site of Naval Station Norfolk (the base of the U.S. Navy and the largest naval station in the world), this slice of Tidewater Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay is soaked in all things militarily maritime.
The entire metro area is in on the act: The Norfolk Naval Shipyard, one of the largest in the world, is right next door in the town of Portsmouth; the Mariner’s Museum, site of the USS Monitor, is across the bay in Newport News; and to top it off, my room at the Sheraton Norfolk Waterside overlooked a frigate getting a new paint job across the Elizabeth River at Washington Point. Only from the prow of a tour cruising the harbor did the extensive infrastructure really dawn on me. For anyone with a swabbie fetish, welcome to paradise.
And if you don’t, don’t worry - they can fix that! To come to Norfolk and not meet a sailor in full uniform is a challenge, and like every other base-town, Norfolk embraces its armed forces with pride, not least of which is Nauticus, one part aquarium, one part battleship. Floating fortresses come and go by the fleet in Norfolk, but the Iowa-class Wisconsin, star of the Pacific Theater through to Operation Desert Storm, is moored alongside the museum and whose turrets are just begging for a "Cher moment." Frozen in time after she was decommissioned in 1991, "WisKy" has much of her sea-going life still very much intact, right down to the graffiti sailors left behind after each mission.
But unlike a lot of base-towns, I found Norfolk to be far from one-note. It happens to be the home of Doumar’s, birthplace of the waffle cone. Its retro-future parlor is like stepping into "The Jetsons."
I discovered Norfolk’s non-beach charms thanks to some non-beach weather - as the meme said, we had such a lovely winter this spring. To its credit, Norfolk has enough cards in the deck to keep one distracted during at least a short Ice Age. Say "glass" and Corning or Murano probably come to mind, but Norfolk sparkles with the stuff, in its shops, in its street fairs, and most of all in its Chrysler Museum of Art.
A Greek Revival gem sitting prettily at the head one of the many inlets of the Hampton Roads, glass - from tiny perfume bottles made by ancient Egyptian masters to the fairy-spun filigree of Tiffany - is front and center. While the statues and paintings from Ancient Greece to Rodin are familiar to any culture vulture, scattered among the exhibits in a curious simpatico are modern glass approximations of the poses. In front of a Roman sarcophagus from 300 BC is "Reclining Drapery Impression," a 2009 cast-glass sculpture by Karen LaMonte whose blissful repose mirrors that of the figure resting atop the ancient coffin. Over in a wing dedicated to Mid-Century Modern work, a whole hamburger entree made entirely out of glass segues flawlessly with the work of Warhol and "Mad Men" muse Idelle Weber.
Anybody wanting to try his hand at glass-as-art only has to hop across the street to the museum’s Perry Glass Studio and associated in-house artisans for a good blow - and trust me, that was the most vanilla of the puns taking flight. I had never seen molten glass before, much less handled it. It looks like glowing water, and is as fluid. But the principle of glassblowing is the same as blowing bubbles - too much and it pops, too little and it dribbles off the blowpipe. A little puff here, some decoration there, and presto! I have my very own glassware. And did you know the furnace used to reheat a work in progress is called a glory hole?
If I found any downside, it is that Norfolk is spread out like Los Angeles. The Garage and Nauticus are within easy walking distance of the Sheraton, as is the stately city center, but you need to be fit to hoof it all the way to the Chrysler. Getting a car or learning the trolley routes of The Tide, the local mass transit system, puts far more of the city within easy reach, particularly if you are into that exploring the city’s growing food culture.
Norfolk is on the front lines of a culinary invasion of the Tidewater. Todd Jurich’s Bistro, also near the Sheraton, is the place to go if you want to impress (especially if you get the she-crab soup), but over on Colley Avenue local staples like grits, mussels and lobster are getting a healthy retrofit by the chefs at The Green Onion.
Even the imports aren’t safe: Luna Maya, gives typical Mexican stand-bys like tamales a hard Bolivian twist. Andean food, it turns out, is sweeter and lighter than its Central American cousins, and not nearly as starchy. Another perk: The Wave, the best gay club in town, is a Colley Avenue resident.
But the big surprise of Norfolk was that I found myself deep in the heart of Beer Country. It’s so deep, in fact, they have a festival for it: the Virginia Beer Festival. Setting up shop in the harborside Town Point Park, the festival (in mid-May) pulled in breweries - and their fans - from all over the state and world for what amounted to an outdoor, all-day, 124-way kegger. Attendees get their own little tasting glass and are let loose to sample whatever they want in whatever quantity; big boys Heineken and Sapporo jostled among local players like Back Bay Brewing from Virginia Beach.
The Beer Festival is part of the larger Virginia Arts Festival, practically a year-round event but coming to a head throughout April and May. For a smaller city, Norfolk’s contemporary art scene is surprisingly vibrant: Earlier this year, residents beheld the unusual sight of a Gulliver-sized rubber ducky merrily floating in the front of the Chrysler. The canary-yellow brainwave of Belgian artist Florentijn Hofman, far from being a head scratcher, Rubber Duck became the mascot of town (of course, they made glass miniatures). Once the sun sets on the suds, revelers can head inland to the city’s Scope Plaza for outdoor spectacles; I caught the particularly dazzling pectoral displays on show at Cirque Mechanics, a "Cirque de Soleil" for the steampunk crowd.
And even a rampaging cold front could keep me indoors for that.
Greyhound and Amtrak both have service to Norfolk. Norfolk International Airport is serviced by all major U.S. airlines and recognizes military discounts.
Consult Norfolk Tourism for planning your trip: