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Beach Bound

7 Reasons to Visit Norfolk Now

Norfolk celebrates all things related to the power of the sea. Here, your family can climb aboard a decommissioned battleship, visit a fantastic maritime museum and take any of four local cruise, ferry and water taxi trips sure to satisfy the curious.

For a great orientation, start at Waterside Marketplace and walk to the adjacent Town Point Park which connects a marina, where cruise boats dock, to the maritime center, Nauticus. Approach Nauticus from a distance and it’s easy to see that this unusually shaped building resembles a ship. Once inside, this multi-faceted museum is filled with hands-on opportunities for kids and adults alike, with exhibits designed for a slightly older, school-aged child. Families can captain a simulated ship, join a fantasy crew on an aircraft carrier, conduct a simulated dig for sunken artifacts, create a tornado, and touch sea creatures like horseshoe crabs that are native to Virginia waters. The mission of this terrific place is to educate visitors about the significant contribution nautical life makes to our everyday world. Mission accomplished.

At Nauticus, you and your family will stand in complete amazement before the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Science on a Sphere (SOS), a giant exhibit that shows patterns of major storms using historical data that’s been converted into visual imagery. You can watch storms begin to form and move across the earth’s spherical landscape thanks to the technology created with scientific data and four projectors. Within steps of the must-see SOS is a tactile exhibit that demonstrates how a tornado is formed.

You’ll have to pull your family away from the exploratory wreck exhibit – another hands-on opportunity – which features real artifacts from the USS Monitor shipwreck. When you try your skill at this exhibit, you and your family will attempt to dislodge and collect artifacts from a seabed with the aid of an actual nine-foot-long robotic arm. The lines form here with patient visitors, so be aware of the time you spend on your own expedition.

Several action-packed exhibits educate visitors about the many roles of the modern Navy, and historical exhibits at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (housed in the same building) take you on a trip through time to learn the stories of the last 200 years of naval might. In a real eye-opening experience, you can climb aboard one of the world’s largest battleships, the retired USS Wisconsin, to hear how naval crew members lived and worked aboard this ship during war and peace time. The 887-foot-long battleship was commissioned in 1944 and was decommissioned and moved to its present berth adjacent to Nauticus in December of 2000.

You must not leave Nauticus without seeing the award-winning film, “The Living Sea,” and stopping into the nautically-themed gift shop. Here, you’ll find everything from mermaids to battleships, including model replicas of the famous Civil War Monitor and CCS Virginia, also known as the Merrimac.

When you disembark from Nauticus and the USS Wisconsin, take a walk along the Waterside Harbor and Town Point Park and enjoy the spectacle of world-class cruise ships, private yachts, and public cruise boats. Take the Norfolk naval base tour aboard the Victory Rover tour boat, which highlights some of the world’s most sophisticated naval vessels while it sails. For a romantic trip, board the tall sailing ship, the Rover, which provides an open-air ride along the Elizabeth River. Lunch and dinner cruises with entertainment are available on the Spirit of Norfolk. On Mother’s Day, May 9, children’s tickets are half of the adult cruise prices for the Spirit. If you want to stay on land and enjoy a great view of the Elizabeth River harbor, have a bite to eat at Joe’s Crab Shack or the Marriott Hotel.

Within walking distance of Waterside Harbor, make the free D’Art Center a stop on your visit to Norfolk. This interactive art center is home to 50 artists. Rotating exhibits feature art educators who engage visitors in the process, discussing various art forms including painting, sculpture and more.

One of the top museums on the East Coast is the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk with a collection that includes 40,000 objects and spans nearly 5,000 years. Well known for its outstanding glass collection and rich photography program, it hosts various contemporary exhibits throughout the year.

If your schedule doesn’t allow for a riverboat cruise but you still want to feel the laps of the tidal river waves, you’ll enjoy taking a water taxi or the Elizabeth River ferry from Waterside Marketplace across to Portsmouth, home of the Children’s Museum of Virginia.The Children’s Museum, designed for preschoolers to tweens, is undergoing extensive restoration and is scheduled to re-open in early 2011. Many of the Museum’s permanent exhibits, such as Thomas the Tank Engine and the shopping town, have taken up residence in a place called Andalo’s Clubhouse, a short walk from the Portsmouth waterfront. Children under age two are admitted free. Your CMOR membership is good for admission to the Children’s Museum of Virginia. Portsmouth is a beautiful area filled with eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture in its Old Towne district, so do take time for a stroll to appreciate the historical ambience.

While there’s plenty of waterside fun for families in Norfolk, a couple of entertainment options make a short inland drive well worth it. The Norfolk Botanical Garden and the Virginia Zoo are both thoughtfully designed for families with children. The sumptuous botanical garden with its 30-minute tram ride, includes a special children’s section, the World of Wonders, replete with a water section where kids can cool off under fountains. At the Virginia Zoo near Lafayette Park, families can see more than 350 animals, from elephants and lions to meerkats, crowned cranes, and bald eagles, and enjoy a short ride aboard a one third sized scale model of a steam train before heading home in the car.

Sue Bland
Sue Bland lives in Hanover with her husband and two kids. She writes about travel in the mid-Atlantic.
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