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Gateway to Colonial Virginia & home to Maritime Heritage

If you love the water--as all cruisers do--then you’ll fall for the port of Norfolk, Virginia. With a long legacy of water-based sightseeing and activities, it’s obvious why the waterfront city of Norfolk has quickly grown into a popular port of call--as well as a unique port of embarkation and debarkation. “Cruise ship passengers simply love Norfolk,” said Stephen Kirkland, manager of cruise operations and marketing for Cruise Norfolk. “In fact, we’ve been so successful that we’re building a brand new 80,000 square-foot terminal that will open in early 2007.”

The new $36 million terminal (see rendering on page 12) will include a dramatic entrance and rotunda, as well as a huge amount of exterior waterfront terrace space overlooking downtown Norfolk and Norfolk Harbor on the Elizabeth River. There will also be a large waiting lounge for boarding passengers, as well as a new baggage area for disembarking passengers.

The contemporary new terminal will surely be welcome by cruise passengers, but Norfolk has already been welcoming to ever-growing numbers of cruise ship passengers. More than 110,000 passengers enjoyed Norfolk in 2005, which was a dramatic increase from less than 50,000 in 2003. The reasons for this growth include: the rise in North America-based cruising in general; the easy accessibility of Norfolk to both ships and those driving to the port (it’s within a day’s drive of half the nation’s population); and the wide range of activities once in the Hampton Roads region. Along with growth as a port of call, cruises out of Norfolk to Bermuda, The Bahamas, the Caribbean, and northeast North America have also grown in popularity.

For instance, Holland America’s success with Caribbean cruises out of Norfolk in 2004 and 2005 led the line to plan 14 southern Caribbean itineraries out of Norfolk in 2006. “Norfolk is easily reached by car from the mid-Atlantic states, making it a convenient alternative to our Florida homeports for many guests,” said Richard D. Meadows, Holland America’s senior vice president of marketing and sales.

The Hampton Roads area has long been a preferred port of call with sailors of all sorts. From early English settlers to giant Naval vessels and, today, modern cruise ships, this region has always been a welcoming harbor.

Though early explorers from Spain and France were in the area about five years before the British, much of the history in the Norfolk area originated around English exploration and settlement. Early forays were launched in 1497 and 1498, but the British didn’t get serious about colonizing until 1578, when Queen Elizabeth I granted permission to Sir Humphrey Gilbert to colonize the area.

After two failures (Gilbert died in his second attempt), colonization rights went to Gilbert’s half-brother, Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh’s “Lost Colony” in the Outer Banks of North Carolina is an important part of early colonization lore, but settlement in Jamestown in 1607 marked the first permanent English settlement in America.

Nearby Yorktown was established in 1697 and grew into a large 18th century trading port (much of it tobacco). The town is best remembered as the site of the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, which led to the end of the Revolutionary War. Both Yorktown and Jamestown are well worth visiting.

Williamsburg was a Jamestown outpost that grew out of farm called Middle Plantation in the 17th century. It was built as a planned community starting in 1699, when colonial settlers moved their capital to there from Jamestown. Virginia was still a colony at the time and the new capital was named after King William III. Williamsburg had grown into a major east coast city before Thomas Jefferson moved the capital to Richmond in 1780. Today, of course, rebuilt Colonial Williamsburg is now one of America’s top tourist destinations for good reason.

Norfolk’s history may not be quite as well-known as that of Yorktown, Jamestown, and Williamsburg, but the city’s water-based heritage is just as fascinating. The city was actually founded way back in 1682 and a number of historic houses open to the public reveal early city life to visitors. All of this history means daytrips to Williamsburg, Yorktown, and Jamestown are definitely popular shore excursions (or on your own). However, downtown Norfolk offers a boatload of options--all within walking distance of the passenger-ship terminal.

You don’t have to go far to start exploring Norfolk. Nauticus at the National Maritime Center is literally a few short steps from where the cruise ships tie up. Nauticus is a sprawling multi-level maritime showcase of interactive nautical exhibits, theaters with live actors, and high-definition films on a giant screen. Among many possibilities, visitors can explore the deep blue sea with many saltwater aquariums, get touchy-feely with sharks, rays, and more at the popular touch tank, and do battle in a simulated interactive naval destroyer.

Nauticus is also home to the fascinating Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Located on the second floor, this popular museum covers more than two centuries of naval activity in and around Norfolk Harbor. Among many excellent exhibits (including Civil War artifacts from the USS Cumberland and USS Florida), the largest and most popular artifact is the 887-foot USS Wisconsin. Officially launched in 1943 as part of America’s largest battleship class, the ship is berthed next to the museum and is open for self-guided tours at no cost.

Also within a short walk, The Tugboat Museum features an actual 1933 tugboat that assisted in piloting thousands of ships--ranging from aircraft carriers to (more recently) cruise ships. Fully restored, the tug offers tours of the decks, engine room, crew and captain’s quarters, and the wheelhouse.

One great way to explore Norfolk’s waterfront is to get on a boat. Spirit of Norfolk Harbor Cruises are the city’s largest harbor cruise offerings, with a wide array of options (including narrated historic harbor tours). Two other unique options are Carrie B Harbor Tours (on a replica of a 19th century paddle wheeler) and American Rover Tall Ship Cruise (aboard the state’s only three-masted topsail passenger schooner).

Back on land, many more Norfolk attractions are within easy walking distance. From shopping ‘til you drop, stopping by one of many cultural attractions, or enjoying a meal, Norfolk is as interesting on land as it is on the water.

The cultural scene in downtown Norfolk is alive and well, thanks to a number of galleries, museums, organizations, and festivals. For starters, every Norfolk visitor will find something of interest at the Chrysler Museum of Art. Described by The New York Times as “one of the pleasantest places in the United States to while the day away,” the museum is home to more than 30,000 original works of art displayed in 55 galleries. The museum has especially rich collections of American, Italian, and French paintings, as well as a world-renowned glass collection and a gallery devoted solely to photography.

Art lovers will also enjoy D’Art Center, which is a working studio and marketplace for painters, potters, jewelers, glass artists, and more. Other museum-oriented options include: the Hermitage Foundation Museum (a huge private art collection); the Hunter House Victorian Museum (a view of Victorian life); and the historic Moses Myers House (the restored downtown home of a prosperous Jewish merchant).

Norfolk’s military connection is continued with the MacArthur Memorial, located in the heart of the city at MacArthur Square. Located in one of the region’s best remaining classical revival buildings (it was city hall from 1850 to 1918), this tribute to Army General Douglas MacArthur is made up of nine galleries. Visitors can watch a short documentary about the famed military leader, as well as view artifacts about his life (his mother was born in Norfolk).

Adjacent to the memorial is MacArthur Center . This $300 million three-level urban showcase features more than one million square feet of shopping, dining, and other diversions. There are more than 150 nationally known retailers, specialty shops, restaurants, and entertainment options.

With such a long history, Norfolk has also become a haven for antiques shopping. With more than a mile of antiques dealers, “Antique Alley” is one of the largest enclaves of antiques shops in the world (currently 125+ stores and counting!). In addition, the Ghent Market and Antique Center features an entire city block of dealers offering diverse wares. Historic Ghent is also great for exploring by foot, but you’ll have to reach it by taxi. Back downtown, the Waterfront Business District offers a blend of old and new shopping options along or near the water.

Whether you’re in Norfolk for the day or a longer pre- or post-cruise stay, be sure to sample one or more of downtown Norfolk’s creative restaurants. Todd Jurich’s Bistro is just across the street from the terminal, while “Restaurant Row” choices like Sterling’s and Havana’s are just a short stroll up Granby Street. Those cruising out of Norfolk should ask about “park-and-cruise” packages offered by several downtown hotels.

Norfolk’s new terminal in early 2007 will certainly make the port more popular than ever. However, there’s no reason to wait until then to enjoy this wonderful water-oriented city.

Know Before You Go

Ships That Call: Most major cruise lines now call on Norfolk and several use the city’s port as a base from spring to fall. Lines currently out of Norfolk include Carnival and Holland America, while Princess plus Norwegian (and surely others when the new terminal opens) call on the city. A great update and overview of cruises out of Norfolk, as well as those lines calling on the port, can be found by visiting www.cruisenorfolk.org.

Weather: Most days from spring to fall in Norfolk are warm. Average annual highs are in the low-70s (higher in mid-summer), with the low average around 50 (again, higher in mid-summer).

For More Information: Contact your travel agent or the Norfolk Convention and Visitors Bureau (Cruise Travel Magazine), 232 East Main Street, Norfolk, VA 23510; call toll-free 800-368-3097 (or 757-664-6620); or log on to www.norfolkcvb.com.