Nowhere but Norfolk can a yachtsman better appreciate the steely sinews of the American Republic. Boats arriving from points north will pass to port some of the biggest warships ever built. Depending on deployments, yachtsmen will behold some combination of five aircraft carriers berthed at Naval Station Norfolk at the mouth of the Elizabeth River. The big five, including USS_ Enterprise_ (The Big E) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (The Big Stick), make up nearly half of the entire U.S. carrier force and are part of a fleet of more than 100 naval vessels stationed here.
This exhibit of military might is best seen by water, and it’s on the way. Norfolk is the official Mile Zero of the Intracoastal Waterway, a protected 1,240-mile route to Key West. At mile 7.3 on the Elizabeth River, skippers have a choice of two routes, the Dismal Swamp Canal or the Virginia Cut, which rejoin at the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina. If Key West is “the end of the road,” Norfolk can rightly lay claim to its beginning.
Insurance policies for vessels have actually contributed to Norfolk’s status as a way station for the southbound, because some insurers, trying to minimize storm losses, insist that customers not cross into North Carolina until the end of hurricane season in November. Now more boats than ever tarry in the lower Chesapeake, their crews enjoying the attractions of Norfolk and Portsmouth, the city on the opposite bank of the Elizabeth.
Truth be told, it is the Portsmouth side that beckons most brightly for transient vessels because of the Tidewater Yacht Marina, a quality facility strategically situated at Mile Zero. With up to 100 of its 300 slips available for transients—including six megayacht slips—Tidewater has hosted as many as 4,000 visiting yachts in a single year. Waterside, once hailed as the economic engine to restore the city’s waterfront, was recently taken over by the city. Waterside includes a marina, with a convenient face dock, but the mall itself has become increasingly deserted as its shops and restaurants have closed or moved elsewhere.
The city is rethinking what to do with Waterside, but that sign-of-the-times setback does nothing to diminish Norfolk’s other attractions, foremost among them: Nauticus and the battleship USS Wisconsin on the riverfront, and the McArthur Memorial a few blocks away. A dramatic addition to the skyline, Nauticus blurs the distinction between a science museum, game room, and theme park, all devoted to seafaring and ocean life. For anyone with kids aboard, Nauticus is must-see and hands-on, whether to pet a nurse shark or design a battleship on computer. Nauticus also offers transient dockage, administered by Waterside Marina.
Getting to Nauticus from Portsmouth is easy. A pedestrian ferry plies a regular route between the Norfolk waterfront and a dock near the entrance to the Tidewater Yacht Marina. Portsmouth’s Lightship Museum is nearby, and also close, about a third of a mile from the marina gates, is a vibrant nightlife district along High Street. Among several standouts is The Bier Garden, a German restaurant and sidewalk café specializing in Bavarian fare and offering a selection of more than 100 beers. What a way to spend an autumn night in Virginia!
When the time comes to cast off lines and head south again, you will be treated to seven more miles of naval and industrial scenery—frigates in drydock, submarines and their tenders, entire mothballed squadrons. Then say goodbye to the rumbling of heavy equipment and the ringing of hammer blows as you steer for the quietude of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Tidewater Yacht Marina, (888) 390-0080; www.tyamarina.com
Waterside Marina, (757) 625-3625; www.watersidemarina.com