Just up the road from Virginia Beach, the city of Norfolk has its share of military and nautical heritage, as well as a number of cultural institutions that have created some innovative and experiential activities for groups.
Every group touring the city should make time for a cruise on the Victory Rover, a boat that operates a two-hour narrated tour of Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base. Another tour boat, the American Rover, is a classic sailboat that offers leisurely sightseeing cruises in the harbor. For an exclusive touch, groups can charter the American Rover for private events with full bar and catering.
If you have sea lovers in your group, treat them to sailing lessons at Sail Nauticus.
“It’s a sailing school that has been open for two summers, and all types of groups love it,” said Erin Filarecki, media relations manager for Visit Norfolk. “You can learn to sail in a couple of hours. You’re in tiny sailboats, but you don’t get wet.”
The sailing school is based at Nauticus, a marine science center located on Norfolk’s waterfront. Nauticus is also home to the Hampton Roads Naval Museum and the Battleship Wisconsin, one of the largest battleships built by the U.S. Navy. The ship earned five battle stars during World War II and is now open for tours. Groups learn about naval history firsthand as they tour the ship, including bottom decks that were only recently opened to the public.
For a completely different experience, take culture lovers to the Chrysler Museum of Art, a wide-ranging institution that features one of the world’s top collections of Tiffany glass. After touring the museum, groups can try the art form themselves in the adjacent glass studio.
“I highly recommend the glass studio, where you can go and learn to blow a piece of glass yourself,” Filarecki said. “The classes aren’t cheap, but it’s a state-of-the-art facility. You can make a Christmas ornament, a candy dish or a paperweight. It’s a several-hour process.”
History and Revelry in Hampton
Located halfway between Virginia Beach and Williamsburg, Hampton offers groups a blend of historic attractions and waterfront fun.
The city’s premier historic attraction is Fort Monroe National Monument, a site that has seen many events in national history from early Colonial days to present times.
“Edgar Allen Poe was stationed at the fort for a little while, and President Lincoln visited there as well,” said Ryan Downey, media relations manager for the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The fort has the Casemate Museum, which chronicles its history. It has a special emphasis on the Civil War and has the cell where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held during the war.”
There’s more military and aviation history on display at the Virginia Air and Space Center, which has more than 100 hands-on exhibits. Highlights include the Apollo 12 command module as well as test capsules from the Orion, Mercury and Gemini space missions. Visitors can try their hand at flight in a number of simulators at the center.
At Hampton University, the oldest African-American college in the United States, the Hampton University Museum has more than 9,000 cultural artifacts as well as African and Native American art.
After serious learning, arrange for your group to have some serious fun in Hampton. The Paradise Ocean Club opens this month in the former officers club at Fort Monroe and is being touted as the largest tiki bar on the East Coast, complete with a private beach and rental cabanas.
For some swashbuckling fun, plan your Hampton trip to coincide with the city’s Blackbeard Festival, which was recently named one of the top five pirate festivals in the United States by USA Today Travel.
“The festival celebrates the demise of Blackbeard here,” Downey said. “They have over 100 pirate re-enactors down on the streets, and sea battles take place. There are fireworks and a grand pirate ball that kicks off the festival.”
Newport News’ Dynamic Duo
Practically adjacent to Hampton, Newport News has a pair of dynamic attractions to round out a group tour through coastal Virginia.
The cornerstone of the city’s cultural scene is the Mariners’ Museum and Park, which covers humans’ relationship with the ocean, from the early days of sea voyage to present times. The museum’s galleries feature dozens of vessels from throughout history and pay homage to the shipbuilding and maritime trades in southeast Virginia.
Among the most interesting components of the Mariners’ Museum is the USS Monitor Center, where artifacts, original documents, paintings and interactive exhibits tell the story of the USS Monitor, the ironclad ship built by the Union during the Civil War. The ship sank in 1862, but pieces of it are being restored at the Monitor Center.
“When the Monitor was found off the coast of the Outer Banks, they raised up the turret and were able to find pieces of that ship still intact,” said Barb Kleiss, group marketing manager at the Newport News Tourism Development Office. “So we have the turret, some of the cannons and a lot of other pieces of it. Groups can go in and see how they’re restoring the Monitor and look at some of the things they’ve found.”
Groups visiting Newport News also enjoy touring the Virginia Living Museum, an interactive museum, zoo, planetarium and aquarium that showcases all manner of animals, fish, fowl and plants indigenous to Virginia.