Virtual Cruise of the East Coast: Portsmouth, Virginia

Portsmouth offers great sightseeing, seafood and a view into U.S. naval history.

Attending the Annapolis boat shows in October has always been a sign for us to think about winterizing our boat or to start heading south. Luckily, our one-year East Coast Virtual Cruise is allowing us to choose the latter, a much more enjoyable way to welcome the fall season. After months of exploring our favorite cruising grounds between the Chesapeake Bay and New England, we’re looking forward to a leisurely trip down the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Last month we ended on the Chesapeake Bay’s Smith Island, where we traveled back in time to observe watermen and their families living the way their ancestors have for hundreds of years (click here to retrace our voyage to date).

Our next stop is Deltaville, Virginia, 35 miles down the bay at the mouth of the Rappahannock River, where it is said the boats outnumber the residents. We get a slip at the popular Dozier’s Regatta Point Yachting Center and arrange for our boat’s oil change and some minor maintenance work. Deltaville is a favorite stopover for boats heading north and south. It has a variety of good boatyards, mechanics and technicians capable of just about any kind of service. For dinner, we take a mile-and-a-half walk to CoCoMo’s and discover it’s oyster night. The fresh, raw oysters are plump and delicious, the beer is perfectly chilled, and the water view at sunset is spectacular. Life is good.

Our next leg takes us 50 miles south to Portsmouth, Virginia, where we plan to stay a couple of days to reprovision, see the sights and visit family in Virginia Beach. The marinas in the area are spread out between Hampton and Newport News on the north side of the Hampton Roads waterways, and Norfolk and Portsmouth on the south. Virginia Beach, southeast of Norfolk, also has a number of marinas accessible from the Atlantic Ocean by navigating the sometimes-tricky Rudee Inlet.

As we make our approach to Portsmouth, we pass Naval Station Norfolk on Sewell’s Point, where we get a glimpse of a couple of aircraft carriers and guided-missile destroyers in port. Naturally, we give this area a wide berth, staying closer to the west side of the deep channel. This impressive facility supports up to 75 ships serving in the Atlantic and Indian oceans as well as the Mediterranean Sea.

Over the years, we’ve found the Portsmouth area to be the most accommodating for us when traveling up and down the ICW. It’s close to mile zero of the ICW, and its renovated waterfront provides an attractive expanse of public green space and walking paths. An added bonus is that it’s just across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk’s Nauticus marine museum and science center, the tourable battleship USS Wisconsin and the Waterside Festival Marketplace. We choose the Tidewater Yacht Marina for its comfortable amenities and convenient location to Portsmouth’s Olde Towne section.

After getting settled in at the marina, we walk to North Landing Park, one of the landings for the ferry to Norfolk’s Waterside. Following the waterfront for a couple of blocks, we come to High Street Park, another ferry landing where we find a number of cruising boats tied to the bulkhead for free. There’s no electricity or water, and while there are signs posted that say overnight docking is not allowed, we’re told that a couple of these snowbirds have been here for a day or two without being hassled by city officials.

On the corner of High and Water streets is the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum. Covering 250 years of maritime history, the museum offers a look back at how America’s oldest and largest naval shipyard came to be so influential during Colonial days, the Civil War and especially recent times. Nearby, the U.S. lightship Portsmouth, built in 1915, is on display. We continue our walk along the city’s Path of History and discover a pavilion displaying the immense Fresnel lens from Hog Island Light, which began its service in 1896. At 10 feet high and weighing 1,500 pounds, it’s one of the largest and brightest lenses of its kind.

Walking west on High Street toward Olde Towne, we pass the Children’s Museum of Virginia, which we’ve heard is the perfect place to stop when cruising with kids. Fun train rides and the new Bubble Room are designed to keep the little ones entertained for hours. For us, though, it’s happy hour, so we stop at the recently reopened Gosport Tavern on High Street for an early dinner of good old-fashioned fish ’n’ chips.

The next morning we take the ferry across the Elizabeth River to Waterside and begin our day with a tour of Wisconsin at the Nauticus. A guided tour has us climbing up four decks to inspect the administration area, radio room, enlisted berth area, captain’s cabin, flag bridge and combat engagement area. Launched on Dec. 7, 1943, she served in World War II and the Korean War, and after being recommissioned in 1988 she served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991. She was the last U.S. battleship to go to war. The massive size of this ship is simply breathtaking.

Our afternoon is spent roaming Nauticus’ marvelous science center and museum that highlights the naval and natural power of the sea. After viewing the fascinating 3-D movie Wild Sea, we try our hand at navigating a tugboat through a busy waterway at the interactive Mighty Seaport exhibit. Between all the interactive displays, historical presentations and live-sea-creature exhibits, we are exhausted by day’s end.

My oldest son, who lives and works in Virginia Beach, picks us up and takes us to dinner at the award-winning Salacia, one of the restaurants he runs in the area. It turns out to be a fine evening of fine dining. Remembering what it cost to send him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, I don’t feel guilty when he graciously offers to pick up the check. Soon after, we check out the sport-fisherman charter fleet docked inside Rudee Inlet, and we agree to charter one of these sleek beauties on our return trip in the spring.

Back on our boat the next morning we discuss our two options for heading south down the ICW: The Virginia Cut has just one easy lock to navigate at Great Bridge, Virginia, and would take us to Currituck Sound and Coinjock Bay before crossing Albemarle Sound at the mouth of the Alligator River near Mile 79. This route has a controlling depth of 12 feet and is well marked and always open for navigation. The alternative route has the unfortunate name of the Great Dismal Swamp, but it is actually quite beautiful. Since we have a relatively shallow-draft vessel, we decide to take the latter, picturesque route, which has a controlling depth of 6 feet. It will take us to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, one of our favorite stops on the entire ICW.

Heading South On The ICW

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Dismal Swamp Route MM0 to MM51 As we leave Portsmouth, Virginia to head south on the ICW we decide to take the Dismal Swamp route which cuts through a wildlife refuge on its way to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. It is a weekday morning, and we have to plan for the restricted opening of the nearby Gilmerton Bridge as well as the scheduled opening for Deep Creek Lock, the first of two locks along the route. Although we are only 55-miles from Elizabeth City, the speed limit between locks and their scheduled openings mean we will be pushing it to arrive in Elizabeth City before dark. While the colorful foliage along the way is spectacular, we keep our eyes ahead of us, as half-submerged tree branches and logs threaten our props. Using extreme caution doesn't prevent the repeated bumps and bangs from rattling our nerves. Sailboats and displacement trawlers with protected running gear definitely have an advantage on this route.

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Elizabeth City, NC MM51 We arrive at Mariner's Wharf, a row of complimentary, first come, first served transient slips in downtown Elizabeth City as the last light dips below the cityscape. While the slips are a bit tight and there's no electricity, we can stay here for 48-hours as a guest of the city. For over 25-years, a welcoming committee named the "Rose Buddies" greets visiting boaters with a little wine, cheese and helpful information about the area. We also get a free copy of a handy brochure entitled, "Cruise the Carolina Loop," which provides information about a round trip featuring both the Dismal Swamp and Virginia Cut routes. Dubbed the "Harbor of Hospitality," Elizabeth City truly encourages boaters to stop here, and its revitalized waterfront, shops, restaurants and Museum of the Albemarle are good reasons to do so.

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**Oriental, NC ** MM182**** Every once in a while we cruise to a place where we have thoughts of retiring to. Oriental is such a place. Known as "The Sailing Capital of the Carolinas," Oriental is a small, quiet town located on the Neuse River off Pamlico Sound, a large estuary second in size to the Chesapeake Bay. Cruising, sailing and fishing are an integral part of the area's culture, and the town enthusiastically welcomes transients. Our slip at the Oriental Marina and Inn is convenient to a Tiki Bar and Restaurant, where we enjoy happy hour and an excellent meal. A public dinghy dock encourages anchoring in the small harbor or up Greens Creek, just beyond the 45-foot high bridge. Besides boating activities, Oriental seems to inspire healthy doses of walking and talking. My morning stroll along the river's Lou Mac Park is followed by breakfast at The Bean, where locals gather to discuss sports and politics, all with a dash of good 'ol boy, Southern humor.

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New Bern, NC ** 31-Miles above MM205 ** Although New Bern is not on the actual ICW route, we run 31 miles up the Neuse River to visit old friends. The town's Southern charm is certainly worth the detour for anyone doing "The Ditch." We get a slip at New Bern Grand Marina, which now offers amenities through the adjacent DoubleTree by Hilton. The hotel's shuttle will even take transients to the airport or car rental office. We take a tour of Tryon Palace, the Colonial Governor's mansion built in 1770 and opened to the public as a historical sight in 1959. Surrounding the mansion are several other historic homes that are part of North Carolina's history. Downtown New Bern offers a variety of specialty shops and restaurants that attract visiting boaters. We especially enjoy visiting the old Mitchell Hardware store, first opened in 1898, and located just a couple blocks from the marina. It's fun just roaming the aisles and finding things you never knew you needed.

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**Wrightsville Beach, NC ** MM283 ** **We get back on the ICW and after arriving at Beaufort, NC we decide to jump offshore and head to Wrightsville Beach. The weather is perfect for the 80-mile ocean run, and we enter the wide, well-marked Masonboro Inlet at Wrightsville Beach in the early afternoon. After getting fuel and an overnight slip at Seapath Yacht Club (a well maintained public marina), we walk to the thriving beach community for dinner. On our 2-mile walk, however, we are passed by one young jogger after another. It seems as if the entire town of 20-somethings is training for a marathon. Our waitress at the South Beach Grille explains, “Everyone in Wrightsville Beach loves to run**** before dinner.” Well, perhaps not everyone. The area is definitely popular with those who love the outdoors, however, and we see many paddle boarders and surfers taking advantage of the less crowded conditions during the mild fall season. The next day we continue south on the ICW, being careful to follow the warnings in our cruising guides about the shoaling conditions through Mansonboro Sound and Myrtle Grove Sound. __

Our next major stop will be the charming, southern city of Charleston, South Carolina at MM430.