The communities comprising the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia truly have one common denominator: H2O. In fact, the name Hampton Roads itself refers not to solid roadways, but to the system of waterways wending their way toward the mighty Chesapeake Bay.
This maritime presence—in addition to the area’s general appeal—has led to the region being selected this year as one of the sites for Operation Sail Inc., better known as OpSail. While Norfolk is officially designated as the host city from June 1-12, the entire Hampton Roads region will benefit from the electrifying sailing event and its impressive parades of tall ships from all over the globe.
And planners will discover an ocean of options when incorporating this seaside setting into their agendas, from a museum showing off nifty nautical wonders to seagoing sojourns sure to make memories.
Here’s a look at some of the very best maritime moments groups can capture.
While it is officially the state’s largest “city,” Virginia Beach is truly an outdoor playground, holding the Guinness World Record for the longest pleasure beach on the planet. Groups seeking to savor its maritime flavor will have an easy time of it, particularly with a pair of promising possibilities: the Cape Henry Lighthouse and the Old Coast Guard Station.
“Once you reach the summit, enjoy a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay—the same view once seen by ship-watchers more than 200 years ago,” says Ron Kuhlman, vice president of Tourism Marketing for the Virginia Beach CVB, of the Cape Henry Light.
Just across the roadway lies a newer version of the Lighthouse (1881) that is still operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and groups might also enjoy the neighboring Cape Henry Memorial Park. The Old Coast Guard Station, meanwhile, is located at 24th Street and Atlantic Avenue, housed in a 1903 former U.S. Life Saving Station.
“This oceanfront museum features rescue equipment used by turn-of-the-20th-century surf men to save shipwrecked crews from a watery grave,” Kuhlman says. “[Visitors can] learn about shipwrecks that occurred off the Virginia Beach coast and the history of lifesaving service from World War II to the present, or peek through TOWERCAM, a roof-mounted video camera that zooms in on passing ships dotting the horizon.”
The camera transmits its pictures to a 27-inch television monitor, affording visitors the same view crewmen had nearly 100 years ago.
“Norfolk has a rich maritime history,” says Erin Filarecki, media relations manager for Visit Norfolk. “The city is bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and Elizabeth River, making it the perfect spot to experience a variety of water activities.”
She adds that popular offerings in that vein include the American Rover Sunset Cruise, a tour of Naval Station Norfolk and the annual Harborfest. American Rover is a topsail schooner able to host up to roughly 150. It offers daily sunset cruises and other outings from spring through fall, and private events are also a possibility. The naval station is actually the largest in the world and provides group tours of its sprawling compound. Harborfest is essentially the Mardi Gras of maritime, with endless electricity ranging from street fairs and live bands to tall ship parades.
Another can’t-miss option is Nauticus, brimming with nautical artifacts, exhibitions and experiences. The facility is also popular for events, with function spaces ranging from high-tech theaters to landings alive with aquaria and interactive exhibits.
Virginia’s sixth-largest city is home to endless miles of beach and waterfront, so it’s only natural that groups might gravitate toward its seductive seaside selections.
One of the best is undoubtedly a harbor cruise outing on the Miss Hampton II, a double-decker tour boat taking groups of up to 117 past small fishing boats and massive cargo ships to vistas of Blackbeard’s Point, Old Point Comfort and much more, including the impressive “gray fleet” at Naval Station Norfolk. Attendees can learn about local lore ranging from Blackbeard the Pirate’s past visits to the legendary Civil War “battle of the Ironclads,” and customized jaunts are also an option, including outings that explore the meandering intracoastal waterways and even a James River Ghost Tour. The tour boat operates from April through October; and private rentals are an option in the off-season, depending on the weather.
Another Hampton option worth considering is an excursion to Grandview Nature Preserve in the city’s northeast corner. The oceanside oasis covers more than 475 acres of salt marsh, tidal creeks and beachfront, and is a perfect spot to comb the beach for seashells, go bird watching and simply savor a supremely unspoiled seaside stretch. Canoeing and hiking programs are available as well at nearby Buckroe Beach Park.
Greater Williamsburg is famous for its Colonial history, the sprawling Busch Gardens theme park and even one of the oldest college campuses in the U.S. at William & Mary. But groups seeking memorable maritime moments will have a great time as well, particularly via a jaunt on the schooner Alliance or schooner Serenity, both operated by Yorktown Sailing Charters.
“This is such a unique experience to step back into history and join the crew of the schooner Alliance,” says Kristi Olsen, tourism development manager for York County Tourism Development. “Participants can lend a hand at setting sail, take the helm and steer the ship, or look for dolphins and osprey as they glide along the York River.”
Daytime and sunset sails are available regularly, and the vessel can be chartered by corporate groups for private events. The outfitter operates in the region from April until November before heading south to the Caribbean.
Another intriguing option for groups in the Greater Williamsburg community is the Yorktown Waterman’s Museum, set in the recently added RiverWalk commercial area. Visitors can explore the small but lovely grounds, make a pit stop at the quaint and quirky gift shop, or rent out the charming Carriage House, with capacity for 49 and a sublime setting along the York River.
“We have the largest naval base in the world in Hampton Roads, plus we’re ‘the gateway to the sea,’” says Rebecca Cutchins, media relations manager for the Newport News Tourism Development Office. “So Newport News is a fitting location for The Mariners’ Museum.”
Through handcrafted models of ships, rare wooden figureheads, paintings, small craft from around the world, navigational instruments and other artifacts, the museum celebrates the spirit of seafaring adventure—as well as preserves and interprets maritime history.
Among the highlights is the recently integrated USS Monitor Center, created to preserve and display the remains of this great ironclad Civil War ship. Artifacts recovered from the sea bottom and now displayed include the ship’s anchor, propeller, steam engine, guns, and perhaps most fascinating of all, its revolving gun turret.
The museum offers a number of event areas and can host functions ranging from intimate affairs to gatherings of more than 1,000.
Another worthwhile stop is the U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis, which has a number of nautical and maritime artifacts among its sprawling collection, from full-scale tugboats to scale-model ships.
In Chesapeake, maritime memories are made around groups getting active via the community’s countless waterways, with the city situated by the massive Great Dismal Swamp and also along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
This inclination for waterborne activity is exemplified by the annual Paddle for the Border in May, where hundreds of paddlers paddle from the North Carolina border to Chesapeake’s Dismal Swamp Canal Trail, says Susan Drewery, media and public relations manager of the Chesapeake CVB.
“This event is so popular that it typically sells out within a few weeks of open registration,” she says, adding that a brand-new event launching this year is also generating buzz.
“KayaXpedition is an inaugural event that will be launched in June 2012 and give visitors the opportunity to experience Chesapeake’s waterways in various ways,” Drewery says. “From hands-on experience and demonstrations directed to the novice and the experienced paddler, to refining your skills in a masters course.”
Strolling through the historic seaport of Portsmouth is practically a maritime experience in itself, with its iconic seawall and location right along the water. But groups wanting to take the nautical fun to the next level will have no shortage of options—including waterborne adventures ranging from established to brand-new.
On the established side is the Carrie B, a beautifully replicated 19th century Mississippi riverboat available for private charters of up to about 300. Groups can have catering arranged or choose their own, with outings normally running from April through October.
“I’ve been doing this for about 40 years,” says proprietor Steve Jordan. “And we see everything from weddings to reunions to corporate events.”
Fresh on the scene is the Spirit of Independence, a new schooner sailing out of Olde Towne. The ship has two masts, wide decks and more than 1,700 square feet of sail—giving groups a true participatory sailing jaunt. The schooner operates three sailings per day.
Maritime and waterborne excitement in Suffolk is everywhere to be found and includes plenty of active adventure.
“Suffolk’s water activities are more of a recreational nature and revolve around canoeing, kayaking, boating and fishing,” says Theresa Earles, tourism development manager for Suffolk Tourism. “However, we’re ‘Swamped and Loving it’ in Suffolk! We recommend visiting the Great Dismal Swap National Wildlife Refuge, and we actually offer guided canoe tours for groups of the Swamp’s 3,100-acre, circular Lake Drummond.”
For groups wishing to experience the refuge on dry land, Earles adds that biologist-led Great Dismal Swamp Safaris, which are bus and walking tours, are another possibility.
She also recommends a waterside setting offering a hive of activity regardless of the season.
“Our historic downtown Suffolk is home to Constant’s Wharf Park & Marina, a six-acre park and 28-slip marina located behind the Hilton Garden Inn and Suffolk Conference Center,” Earle says. “We have regular TGIF Concerts, festivals and events at the park throughout the year.”