It has been a half-century since “Virginia Is for Lovers” became the Old Dominion’s official tourism slogan, and in that time the commonwealth has only become more popular with group travelers.
According to the Virginia Tourism Corporation, the economic impact of travel there skyrocketed from $1.3 billion — $8.6 billion in 2018 dollars — in 1969, the year the slogan kicked off, to $26 billion in 2018. From 2017 to 2018 alone, visitor spending jumped 4.4%.
Iconic though the catchphrase is, these increases are no doubt due less to its ubiquity than to the growth of superior attractions in Virginia’s communities, which are so diverse they promise something to please every group member. From spectacular shorelines to flourishing culinary scenes, world-class cultural institutions to locales of deep historical significance, places like Richmond, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, the Historic Triangle and Loudoun County give group travelers plenty to love.
Virginia’s capital is hot, and we’re not just talking about its sultry summer weather. Richmond is bursting with creative energy. That extends to its booming foodie scene, which snagged four James Beard Award semi-finalist nods this year, including Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic for Sunny Baweja, proprietor of the sleek eatery Lehja. The restaurant dishes up elevated Indian cuisine carefully crafted by the always charming Baweja; if groups get lucky, he might come out from the kitchen and gab with them for a spell.
Richmond has a lot more going for it than superb cuisine, however.
“We have an award-winning beer scene — Richmond was named the No. 1 World’s Top Beer Destination in 2018 by VinePair.com — and plenty of historic sites and museums,” said Meghan Gearino, travel media manager for Richmond Region Tourism. “That includes the newly expanded American Civil War Museum; St. John’s Church, where Patrick Henry gave his ‘Give me liberty or give me death’ speech; and the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. And art enthusiasts can enjoy blocks of art galleries and locally owned boutiques in the Richmond Arts District.”
More adventurous group members might want to raft the James River — Richmond is the only city with Class IV rapids running through it — but the area offers quieter pleasures, too. Powhatan County’s Chadwick and Son offers groups customizable tours of its 18-acre orchid nursery, filled with the dazzling flowers in every shape and color imaginable.
If you think Norfolk is just about sailors and ships, think again. Home to the world’s largest naval base, this charming city on the Chesapeake features a commercial center that’s excellent for groups.
“It’s a very walkable downtown, and it’s all waterfront, so you have beautiful views of our harbor area,” said Sarah Hughes, media relations manager for VisitNorfolk. “And then you can easily walk into different neighborhoods that are a little bit more quaint; so people can split up into smaller groups or stay as one big group, depending on their interests.”
Those neighborhoods include Freemason, with fetching cobblestone streets and Colonial-style homes; Ghent, which offers great shops, restaurants and breweries: and NEON, or New Energy of Norfolk, the city’s arts district. There, groups will find some 100 outdoor murals, “so no matter where you turn, you’ll find art,” Hughes said. “Groups can also book tours of NEON with Norfolk Tour Company. He gives you the background and history of not only the neighborhood but also the different murals, which makes the whole area come to life.”
Groups will want to make time for the Chrysler Museum of Art, which offers 50 galleries with more than 30,000 objects, including the country’s largest glass art collection. The museum gives glassblowing demonstrations and classes at its studio across the street.
No visit to Norfolk is complete without paying tribute to America’s seafaring service men and women at Nauticus and the Battleship Wisconsin, a maritime museum and U.S. Navy ship visitors can tour. For a closer look at the mighty Atlantic fleet, groups should book a two-hour, narrated trip with Victory Rover Naval Base Cruises, which departs from the museum.
Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown
Known as America’s Historic Triangle, Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown are linked by the 23-mile Colonial Parkway and a series of events that tell the story of the creation of this country.
Groups should visit the towns in chronological order. Begin with Jamestown, where the first permanent English colony was founded in 1607, before moving on to Williamsburg, established as the Virginia colony’s capital in 1699 and home to men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Finish up in Yorktown, site of the last great battle of the Revolutionary War.
“The American Revolution Museum at Yorktown is the latest museum,” said Visit Williamsburg marketing director Dave Potter. “It’s a first-class museum with both indoor and outdoor exhibits. There’s a companion museum in Jamestown Settlement. Yorktown is a quaint little village with a nice waterfront. They have schooner sailings available, and you can do Segway tours or kayak. Historic Jamestowne is where the archaeological dig is, and then, of course, groups could spend a couple days in Colonial Williamsburg if they want to take in all of the historic buildings and trades and things.”
Even if you aren’t a history buff, there’s plenty to do in the area, according to Potter. That includes following the Williamsburg Tasting Trail, which features wineries, distillers and breweries, like Billsburg, at the James City County Marina. “And then we’ve got Busch Gardens,” Potter said, “which is a world-class theme park with really great roller coasters. There’s an awful lot here for groups to enjoy.”
Nestled at the point where the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean meet, Virginia Beach makes good on its name with a spectacular stretch of sand and surf that boasts a three-mile boardwalk. In the summer, things heat up on the boardwalk, with four stages interspersed along it providing a regular assortment of live entertainment. Still, according to Erin Goldmeier, Visit Virginia Beach director of public relations, the city is much more than its signature attraction.
One of the most popular stops for visitors to the area is the historic Cape Henry Lighthouse, “which was authorized by George Washington and completed in 1792,” Goldmeier said. “Groups often climb to the top for a 360-degree view of where the first settlers landed, the Atlantic Ocean and all the beautiful, pristine land.” Afterward, she said, “everyone can head to an oyster tasting at one of our restaurants. Virginia Beach is home to Lynnhaven oyster, a larger species that’s indigenous to these waters. They have an interesting history — they were served on the Titanic — but that’s just one type we have. Virginia is famous for its oysters.”
Other attractions in Virginia Beach include the Military Aviation Museum, which features one of the planet’s largest private collections of aircraft from World War I and II. Groups can dine in the hangar among the airplanes, watch a flight demonstration or even take to the air in a 1941 biplane. More thrills await at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, where groups can head out on a dolphin-watching cruise narrated by an aquarium educator.
Lovely Loudoun County may be part of the Washington metro area, but make no mistake: It has an identity all its own.
“Loudoun County offers a variety of elevated experiences for groups,” said Visit Loudoun director of media relations Jennifer Sigal, “and they’re all within a setting that’s easily accessible but feels a world away. We have a very diverse wine, beer and culinary scene that’s pretty much unmatched on the East Coast. And then you couple that with great Southern hospitality. When groups come into our attractions, they’re going to be met by owners and winemakers and farmers, so they get that personal touch.”
Wine aficionados touring Loudoun will want to take a taste at Stone Tower Winery, a premium producer that customizes vine-to-glass tours, wine-pairing dinners and other experiences for groups. Meanwhile, Bluemont Vineyard recently debuted a sangria class: Guests pick their own fruit from the farm across the street and then use it to make the beverage. For an even sweeter adventure, The Conche, a chocolate-themed eatery helmed by Food Network celeb chef Santosh Tiptur, hosts cocktail- and chocolate-making classes, chocolate-sculpting demos and more.
Groups that would like a peek at one of the world’s oldest team sports can catch polo matches on summer Saturdays at Morven Park and then discover more about the well-heeled pastime at the National Sporting Library and Museum.
“It’s a hidden gem in Middleburg, which is one of Loudoun County’s great, historic towns,” Sigal said. “It’s where the Kennedys used to go when they were in office. They do a tour of their rare book library, which has some really unique items — they have a handwritten speech from FDR and books that date back to the 1500s. It’s fascinating.”