Nor­folk’s var­ied virtues sure to en­chant

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL - By Patti Nickell

NOR­FOLK, Va. — The ex­pres­sion on my face must have shown my sheer frus­tra­tion. I had been wait­ing half an hour for Fred — make that F.R.E.D. (Free Ride Ev­ery Day.) This ecofriendl­y taxi comes equipped with bat­tery power and so­lar roof and is avail­able on re­quest for those in need of a ride to a spe­cific Nor­folk des­ti­na­tion.

As luck would have it, I needed F.R.E.D. on the day it was sched­uled for rou­tine main­te­nance. I was dis­ap­pointed, but not meet­ing F.R.E.D. led to meet­ing Raleigh, a jovial gent who of­fered to walk me to my des­ti­na­tion, chat­ting all the way about the virtues of his home­town.

Raleigh, it turned out, was one of a cadre of rov­ing am­bas­sadors who help vis­i­tors nav­i­gate their way around this south­east­ern Vir­ginia coastal city.

My des­ti­na­tion was the wa­ter­front and the Amer­i­can Rover Cruise Co. Home to the world’s largest naval base, Naval Sta­tion Nor­folk, and NATO’s Strate­gic Com­mand Head­quar­ters, the city is as much about wa­ter as it is land. My sun­set sail courtesy of Amer­i­can Rover would al­low me to get the lay of the land (or, I should say, wa­ter).

De­part­ing from the ma­rina on the down­town wa­ter­front, the ship, with its red tan bark sails, has been a Nor­folk fix­ture for more than 30 years, tak­ing vis­i­tors on an in­for­ma­tive tour of the har­bor.

If big bat­tle­ships are your thing, the USS Wis­con­sin juts out of the wa­ter like a 60,000-ton steel be­he­moth. One of the Iowa class bat­tle­ships known for their speed, she per­formed gal­lantly in World War II, the Korean War and the Gulf War be­fore be­ing re­tired here and opened as a mu­seum.

Plea­sure boats cram the down­town ma­rina; wa­ter taxis are a com­mon form of trans­porta­tion be­tween the Nor­folk and Portsmouth wa­ter­fronts, and if you need any fur­ther proof of the wa­ter’s im­por­tance, the city’s ubiq­ui­tous mer­maid sym­bols should clinch it.

More than two decades ago, a lo­cal sculp­tor mass pro­duced the casts for 130 mer­maids, and then in­vited artists to de­sign and paint the sea sirens. While no one seems to know ex­actly how many there are to­day, most be­lieve they have dou­bled in num­ber over 20 years.

There’s a base­ballthemed mer­maid at Har­bor

Park, home of the Nor­folk Tides, and a choco­late mer­maid at MacArthur Cen­ter Mall.

There’s wine at Mer­maid Win­ery, the first ur­ban win­ery in Vir­ginia, and mer­maid-themed mer­chan­dise at the Mer­maid Mar­ket. You can even de­sign and paint your own wooden mer­maid at the Mer­maid Fac­tory in the Ghent His­toric Dis­trict.

Speak­ing of Ghent, Nor­folk may be a wa­tery won­der­land, but there’s a lot to do on terra firma as well, and no bet­ter place to start than in Ghent. A walk­ing tour of the neigh­bor­hood re­veals block after block of Queen Anne, Tu­dor and Colo­nial Re­vival homes sur­round­ing Smith Creek, a Y-shaped in­let of the El­iz­a­beth River, now known as the Hague.

Book­end­ing one end of the dis­trict is the mar­velous Chrysler Mu­seum of Art. With 50 gal­leries and 30,000 works of art, the mu­seum opened in 1933, but re­ally gained stature as one of Amer­ica’s best mid­sized mu­se­ums in 1971 when Chrysler heir Wal­ter P. Chrysler Jr. do­nated his col­lec­tion of 10,000 works of art. While the mu­seum has a wide range of ob­jects, it’s best known for its in­com­pa­ra­ble glass pieces, which make up one-third of the col­lec­tion.

After ad­mir­ing the mu­seum’s glass col­lec­tion, wan­der over to the Glass Stu­dio and ob­serve the glass­mak­ing process at the only fa­cil­ity of its kind in the midAt­lantic re­gion. Ad­mis­sion to both the mu­seum and Glass Stu­dio is free.

For art of a dif­fer­ent kind, head out to the Nor­folk Botan­i­cal Gar­den, the largest of its kind in Vir­ginia. It’s cel­e­brated for its spec­tac­u­lar dis­plays of camel­lias, aza­leas and rhodo­den­drons.

In re­cent years, Nor­folk — with its bounty of fresh seafood — has de­vel­oped into a fa­vorite with food­ies. Try some of this seafood — es­pe­cially James River oys­ters and Ch­e­sa­peake

Bay crabs — at Sal­tine, a gor­geous space in the down­town Hil­ton Ho­tel.

Freema­son Abbey Res­tau­rant, housed in a 146-year-old ren­o­vated Pres­by­te­rian church, has been a lo­cal hang­out for 30 years. Their mouth-wa­ter­ing, award-win­ning She Crab Soup prac­ti­cally had me lick­ing my bowl.

Todd Jurich’s Bistro of­fers the chef ’s mod­ern take on time­less South­ern fare. For ex­am­ple, crispy fried chicken is the main in­gre­di­ent in a curry with spicy mus­tard and sweet plum sauce, while the fried day boat scal­lops are driz­zled with lemon scal­lion but­ter and served with truf­fle fries and re­moulade.

Top off your din­ner with a sweet treat at Hum­ming­bird Mac­arons & Desserts. A few blocks from down­town on the Freema­son Har­bor, the El­iz­a­beth River Trail leads to an un­ex­pected sight: a brightly painted pagoda sur­rounded by koi-pond foun­tains and guarded by Chi­nese lions.

You’ll be need­ing a place to stay — one that ex­em­pli­fies Nor­folk’s charm and friend­li­ness. I rec­om­mend the Page House, a Ghent Dis­trict jewel just a fiveminute walk from the Chrysler Mu­seum.

Own­ers Karla and Donya have turned this red-brick build­ing, listed on the Na­tional Regis­ter, into a be­dand-break­fast with seven guest ac­com­mo­da­tions. This bas­tion of South­ern hos­pi­tal­ity has a loyal clien­tele who re­turn ev­ery year to rock away their cares in one of the front­porch chairs or sip a glass of sherry in the draw­ing room be­fore re­tir­ing for the night.

VISIT NOR­FOLK PHOTOS

A lo­cal sculp­tor mass pro­duced the casts for 130 mer­maids about two decades ago and in­vited artists to paint them.

The glass col­lec­tion is the star at­trac­tion at the Chrysler Mu­seum of Art in Nor­folk.

Sal­tine, in the down­town Hil­ton, is a pop­u­lar din­ing spot for lo­cals and vis­i­tors.

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