NORFOLK, Va. -- When a 58,000-ton battleship drops anchor in the center of a city's downtown waterfront, people take notice. When it arrived for a permanent stay in April 2001, the USS Wisconsin became an instant attention-getter. Of course. How could you miss an 887-foot-long behemoth with 16-inch guns aimed at banks and hotels?
When it comes to nautical activities and attractions, the neighboring port cities on both sides of the Hampton Roads waterway outdo all other East Coast locales. Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, and Hampton all have something to offer. Norfolk's US naval base is home anchorage for the Atlantic Fleet. Commuter ferries, pleasure craft, sightseeing schooners, and Caribbean-bound luxury liners cruise past cranes and drydocks in Newport News and Portsmouth. The Mariners' Museum makes Newport News worth a visit. Portsmouth features the Naval Shipyard and Lightship museums. Planes flown from aircraft carriers and the Naval Air Station Oceana in Virginia Beach buzz overhead.
Norfolk's reputation once was as the ultimate sailors' town: brawls, fleshpots, and smoky gin mills included. Moms, dads, and the kids stayed away. Now they're back, though, thanks to harborfront renewal begun in the 1970s. Gone are railyards, warehouses, tumble-down piers, and weatherbeaten tugboat docks. In their place are Nauticus: The National Maritime Center and the USS Wisconsin, Town Point Park (don't bypass the poignant Armed Forces Memorial), condos, office blocks, a Sheraton hotel, and landscaped walkways along the Elizabeth River. Blue-roofed Waterside is this city's version of Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
As for the Wisconsin, this veteran of World War II, the Korean conflict, and 1991's Operation Desert Storm looks especially daunting when approached by way of Plume Street. Viewed straight ahead, its slender gray bow resembles the snout of a mythical sea monster, higher than the three-story buildings nearby.
A footbridge links the Wisconsin to the Nauticus, which also houses the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. They cover such oceanic stuff as sharks and whales, storm warnings and navigational instruments, signal flags, shipboard artifacts, models and paintings of old-time vessels, and vintage recruitment posters. Plus, the Civil War battle of the ironclads: Monitor vs. Merrimack, a shootout that took place a few miles from the Norfolk shore.
Visitors can wander the battleship's main deck, plus two upper decks. Expect to do some stairway-climbing. Chatty senior-citizen seadogs are on board to explain what's what. Ask and they'll reminisce about their wartime experiences. For even more first-person accounts, spend $5 for the 45-minute audio tour.
A few blocks inland, Granby Street doubles as downtown's main drag and resurgent "restaurant row." Ethnic choices include The Monastery (Czech), The 219 (Asian fusion), Havana (Cuban), and Jack Quinn's Irish Alehouse. Also, Domo (Japanese), Mi Hogar (Mexican), and Bodega (Spanish). For what foodies call nouvelle American cuisine, decide between Bobbywood, Backstage Cafe, and the Blue Hippo. Blues Alley Bistro surprises by blending Down South reliables with Asian cooking.
On intersecting Tazewell Street, Darrell Long's stylish, pricey Clubsoda occupies what had been a pool hall back in the sailors' shore-leave era. Downstairs space, popular with the dating-bar singles crowd, was originally a supersize coal bin. Sip mint tea, order falafel or spanakopita at Mediterrean-influenced Jenna's on Charlotte Street. Nearby, in the Freemason historic district, Tidewater lobster tops the evening menu at Freemason Abbey, orginally a 19th-century church.
Tucked amid high-rises constructed during recent years, Norfolk's former City Hall -- a domed, circa-1850 landmark -- is now the free-admittance MacArthur Memorial, where timeline exhibits chronicle General Douglas Mac
Arthur's tempestuous career. Still sporting its five-star bumper emblem, his black Chrysler limo is on display, kept brightly polished though oddly stashed inside the adjacent gift shop. For another free deal, hop aboard an environmentally friendly Norfolk Electric Transit bus. The bus route zigzags through downtown and goes straight north-south on Granby. Ride northbound to the Olney Road stop in hip, artsy Ghent, the city's unmistakably choicest neighborhood. Restaurants in various price categories, galleries, antiques shops, and funky little trinket boutiques cram
Two buildings accentuate Ghent's cultural prestige. Audiences applaud Virginia Opera productions in the modernistic Harrison Opera House. An automobile tycoon's collection of paintings and sculptures has burgeoned into the Chrysler Museum of Art, a treasure house of paintings (Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and John Singleton Copley among the older artists) as well as Edouard Manet, Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Hart Benton in galleries devoted to 19th- and 20th-century art. Allow time to view the gorgeous array of glasswork creations by Lalique, Galle, and Tiffany (especially a dozen or so multicolored Tiffany lamps, each an art nouveau classic).
Tom Bross is a freelance writer from Boston.