Senior editor Jody Argo Schroath picks five surprising reasons why you should choose Norfolk as a summer destination.
by Jody Argo Schroath
I was in love with Norfolk even before I stumbled upon the four-story-tall bright yellow duck. The duck merely sealed the deal. How can you not love a city that has a 40-foot-tall rubber duck floating behind its art museum? I had been delighted with the city from the moment ship’s dog Skipper and I first stepped ashore in the pouring rain at Waterside Marina. It was mid-May and my husband Rick, Skipper and I had taken refuge there aboard our sailing cat Moment of Zen, after a stormy end to our trip up the ICW by way of the Dismal Swamp. We had locked through Deep Creek just as the first drops of rain developed into a torrent. We had circled in front of Gilmerton Bridge for 20 minutes in the rain, waiting for it to open, and in the rain we had traversed the East Branch to the main stem of the Elizabeth River. At Waterside Marina, five minutes before closing time, we had apologetically dragged the dockmaster out of his dockmaster office and into the bucketing rain. Then Skipper and I stepped ashore for our evening walk, and things took a definite turn for the better. First of all, the rain promptly let up, and second of all, I could tell right away that Norfolk was going to be an agreeable place to spend a few days. In fact, by the time the weather had straightened itself out several days later and we resumed our trip up the Bay, we were all of us quite in love with the place. And when I say “we,” I include our friend Kathy, who came down to Norfolk from D.C. to visit and to see what all the fuss was about. So with that in mind, I’ve made a little list of my favorite Norfolk things. It is by no means a definitive list. There were a lot of other things that I liked very much, but didn’t have room to put down. So here goes:
#1 Ships in the Night
To begin with, I’m not even listing one of my favorite things about Norfolk, which is that the downtown is thoroughly walkable. The ship’s dog and I consider this essential in any port of call, and Norfolk does a better job than most. There should be parks, we feel, preferably along the waterfront, and good crosswalks and reasonably polite drivers (Washington, D.C. take note). Also there should be plenty of trees for shade and esthetic purposes and an abundance of interesting and attractive things to look at—and sniff, Skipper adds. On all counts Norfolk excels. On that first rainy evening, Skipper and I were both pleased with Norfolk at once. After a short walk up a floating dock from our slip, we came to Waterside and a nice park right next to it. Waterside, after providing a spark for downtown redevelopment in the 1980s, has lately fallen into an economic pothole, empty of shops, except for several popular restaurants. But Norfolk’s city council last year approved a $40-million renovation, so the facility should be back in action in another year or two. Waterside also houses the marina’s restrooms, showers and laundry through an entrance on the side.
The park, on the other hand, is lovely and connected to a series of other parks that lead to Nauticus, the city’s imposing maritime museum, and beyond. But on this occasion, Skip and I set off through the city streets. We crossed Waterside Drive at the convenient crosswalk and meandered through the downtown, which was a mix of tall modern buildings, mostly banks, and low neo-classical government buildings, and a lot of other picturesque period architecture—the kind with acanthus leaves and other decorative curlicues. Skip and I turned down Main Street and then up Granby, where the city’s restaurant district is flourishing after a long and sad decline of that shopping district in the 1970s. At this point, I decided that we should cut back toward the water (which is a handy feature for finding one’s marina, no matter how big or strange the city; find the water, find your marina). So on reaching Plume Street, we left Granby and turned the corner, at which point I jumped about 3 inches off the ground. Ahead of us was the nose of a gigantic battleship, looking for all the world like a friendly dragon that had dropped in to look through the window of the cartoon hero’s castle. Behind the nose, of course, lay the rest of the dragon, in the person of the Iowa-class battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin, one of the world’s largest battleships, commissioned in 1943 and veteran of three wars (World War II, Korea and Gulf). With the sun going down behind it, partially obscured by the departing rain clouds, it could hardly have looked more beautiful. Right then and there, I fell head over heels in love with Norfolk. Any city where you could just round a corner and run into a battleship had to be a great place.
The following day, Rick and I visited Nauticus and then toured the Wisconsin, climbing up and down its ladders, peering into its crew and officer’s quarters, examining its mess. It was fascinating, to be sure, but not nearly as fascinating to me as the simple fact that it was just there, a colossal and unanticipated work of public art, all 887 feet and 40 thousand tons of it.
#2 If Books Could Fly
While I’m on the subject of public art, I should probably put it on the list, because Norfolk is awash in it. And I mean that in the best possible way. Like the big battleship around the corner, public art in Norfolk is everywhere. And I mean everywhere. First, there are the ubiquitous mermaids. Yes, when you spot your first mermaid (which, if you are berthed at Waterside Marina, is just as you step off the dock), you ask yourself: Um, why a mermaid? It’s not a species indigenous to the Chesapeake. Yet after you’ve spotted the fourth, fifth and sixth—all different and all ingenious—you start to think nothing of it, as if you expected to find a mermaid doing the sidestroke on every corner all along. I don’t have a favorite, because I haven’t found them all yet, but I do particularly like the two on the grounds of Nauticus. The first of these is a rather dressy mermaid fountain that might be at home in the gardens of Versailles (if you make the leap of logic that they had polished aluminum in 18th-century France). The second is much smaller and informally but colorfully dressed in discarded admission stickers, placed there by visitors leaving Nauticus. About 130 of mermaids were cast in 2000 and auctioned off by the city to be decorated and displayed. Even the city doesn’t know how many are left and on their website ask that people “report a mermaid” (www.norfolk.gov). Stephen Colbert himself decorated a version of the Norfolk mermaid during the Colbert Report’s “Know A District” segment on Virginia’s 3rd Congressional district.
But mermaids are the tip of the iceberg, public-art-wise. For example, you would be hard put to find a downtown parking garage without its own high-concept art project. “Eyes” at the MacArthur Center North Parking Garage, for instance, was created from pieces of aluminum made to mimic computer pixels, which themselves mimic the traditional summer camp craft project called “God’s Eyes.” (Hey, I said they were high concept.) There is also the “Good Fortune Garage” on Freemason Street, where eight high school students stenciled 617 positive message fortunes, one on each parking space. And in possibly one of the worst puns ever, the 1st Union Garage features an ocean-theme mural titled “Whaling Wall #47.”
There is plenty of free-standing art, as well, like my particular favorite, the 5-ton, 22-feet tall “Undetermined Line” that wraps itself into a curl in front of the World Trade Center on Main Street. Along less abstract lines, I like “The Lone Sailor,” who stands gazing at the U.S.S. Wisconsin from nearby Freemason Harbor walkway, his dufflebag set down casually at his side. Skipper and I discovered this one early in our visit and returned often on our walks through town. Elsewhere, General MacArthur famously wades ashore at Inchon, Korea, along a wall of the MacArthur Memorial (and ex-Norfolk City Hall), and a family is reunited in “The Homecoming” near Nauticus in Town Point Park. This park, while we’re on the subject, also contains one of the most moving memorials to war I’ve seen. The Armed Forces Memorial consists of 20 letters cast in bronze and that had been written by servicemen and -women who never returned from war. Representing all of American wars, the letters lie “strewn” about the ground, as if they’d blown in from over the water or had fallen from the hands of grieving relatives and friends. And you would be mistaken if you were to think that they were all full of the gung-ho spirit of the fight. Some of them are that, certainly, but others are full of fear or anger or disillusionment.
Our friend Kathy and I stood there reading the letters for a long time one day. As I mentioned earlier, Kathy had decided to pay us a visit after getting tired of listening to me go on and on about the virtues of Norfolk. I have her to thank for what knowledge I have of Norfolk’s public art because it was she who became a bit obsessed with our finding as much of it as we could. We ticked off a fair bit of the pieces listed in DowntownNorfolk.org’s more than usually useful 56-page guide (available all around town and on the website), but had to come away with a lot of it yet to be visited. One of the first installations we tracked down—and the one alluded to in the subheading above—was called “Book Migration” and consisted of a series of five panels on aluminum depicting the “flight” of books from the main Norfolk library to its branches. Splendid! Although the competition is stiff, it has my vote for most unlikely art subject. You can find it for yourself at the corner of Plume and Atlantic streets.
#3 All in a Good Day’s Mirth
I love a city with friendly people, and as we walked from one public art project to the next, Kathy and I decided that Norfolk must be one of the friendliest of all. Even parking meter attendants—a necessarily single-minded lot—smiled at us and said hello. In fact, as Kathy and I wandered around town, everyone smiled at us. Truck drivers, police officers, office workers. We were amazed and impressed. “It’s not like that up home in D.C.,” Kathy commented, after a pizza delivery man on Granby Street had flashed us a broad grin as he stepped up into his truck.
It was about midway through the day’s excursion when it dawned on us just how much silly fun we were having. It should have occurred to us earlier in the day, when Kathy was posing with a public art sculpture called “The Tourists.” This depicts an elderly couple—a tall, severe-looking woman and a short walrus-mustachioed man—gazing from the steps at Waterside out across the Elizabeth River to Portsmouth. We thought it was rather funny, and Kathy decided to pose for a photo as a third member of the group. Ha, ha, very funny. But it was only later, when we caught sight of ourselves reflected in a shop window, me with a big camera grasped in one hand and a notebook jammed in my shorts pocket, and Kathy with her guidebook and map unfurled, that we got it. There we were, a pair of gray-haired women laughing their way merrily from one Norfolk sight to another. It’s no wonder that we were creating mirth as we went. Well, we had to laugh at that too. It was just as well, I thought, that Rick was spending the day on the boat with Skipper grading exams. He might not have found it quite as amusing as we did.
We shrugged and went on to spread mirth to the guards at the Norfolk Southern Railway Museum, where we enjoyed playing with the engine control simulator, even though it wasn’t turned on, and to the wait-staff at Granby Bistro, where we sat outside and were able to offer a fine view of our delicious lunches to passersby, many of whom stopped to peer over the low fence to admire my Greek salad and Kathy’s sampler platter. As well they might. They were very good. After lunch, we walked back toward the water along Tazewell Street to Freemason Harbor, where we marveled at the Taiwanese Pagoda and Oriental Gardens/Marine Observation Tower—an interesting combination, if ever there was one. Just as interesting to me was that the pagoda/observation tower, a gift to the city and Virginia from the Taiwanese government, was built around the pillars of an old 500,000 gallon molasses storage tank. I’m afraid I don’t know any more about it than that.
By the time we were through wandering around the pagoda gardens—130 varieties of trees and plants of Asian origin and a 75,000-gallon pond with colorful koi—we were beginning to feel all the tourist miles we had put on our feet. We followed the walkway around the harbor, past “The Lone Sailor” and around the Wisconsin (I had pulled the “around the corner there’s a battleship” trick on Kathy earlier in the day), past Nauticus and back around through Town Point Park, where we watched the tour boat Victory Rover pull away from the bulkhead to start her second Navy Base Tour of the day. “That’s a great tour,” I said.
#4 I Come From a Long Line of Ships
Rick and I had taken the Rover’s Navy Base Tour soon after we arrived and on the same day we had visited Nauticus and toured the Wisconsin. I had been up and down the Elizabeth River by boat perhaps a dozen times, and Rick perhaps a half-dozen, but we’d never had anybody there to explain it all to us. Now for the first time, the whole patchwork quilt of Navy piers, cargo piers, coal piers and commercial fishing piers began to make sense. I wish I could share all that new-found knowledge here, but there wouldn’t be room. The two-hour tour took in the area from the General Dynamics repair facility just to the west of downtown Norfolk to the Navy’s outermost dock, Pier 14 (which should be Pier 13, but the Navy is superstitious), where the aircraft carriers tie up. The second reason is that I couldn’t if I wanted to. The Rover‘s captain gave so many dates, names, tonnages and history that I was soon drowned in numbers, all of them fascinating, but impossible to take in. It was like standing in a shower of statistics. I thought maybe I could get a copy of his tour later, but he said that it’s not written down. It’s all in his head. Well, as far as I’m concerned, I guess that’s where it’s going to stay.
I did, however, manage to come away with a few random bits of know-ledge, which I will now share. For example, the inflatable dry docks used to raise the Navy ships at the yard closest to town are named Titan and Speede. These are placed under the ships and then inflated, raising them out of the water. Pretty nifty. Heading out the river, we passed the Coast Guard station, Army Corps of Engineers building, the site of old Fort Norfolk, J.H. Miles & Co. seafood docks—which has been there for about a hundred years and whose clams end up in Campbell’s Clam Chowder—and the break-cargo dock. In between Miles & Co. and the cargo dock, if I’m remembering this correctly, lie two particularly interesting Navy ships: the U.S.S. Cole, which suffered a terrorist attack in Yemen in 2000, and the U.S.S. Bainbridge, one of the ships involved in the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates.
Next came the impressive Lamberts Point, where up to 48 million tons of coal a year are transferred from Norfolk Southern railroad cars to colliers for shipment around the world. It’s perhaps the biggest coal-loading facility in the world and everything about it is appropriately black, which makes it particularly easy to identify. Then we passed the enormous Norfolk International Terminal with its new Suez-class cranes, the world’s largest and fastest. (The Port of Baltimore has these too.) They can stretch 235 feet to load and unload the new bigger and wider ships that can carry 26 containers across their beam. Finally, we came to the Norfolk Naval Base, and here I’ll shower you a short burst of numbers and be done with it. The base is homeport to 75 ships and 134 aircraft at 13 piers and 11 aircraft hangars. It is the largest concentration of U.S. Navy forces, and its port services control more than 3,100 ship movements in and out of the port every year. The air operations conducts an average of 275 flights a day, or one every 6 minutes. And for sheer size and scope, consider that the base stretches along four miles of waterfront where Hampton Roads meets the Bay.
While we’re on the subject of Navy-ness, this seems like a good time to mention an inescapable feature of any visit to downtown Norfolk—one that’s not mentioned in the brochures: Navy ships. The fact is they are always there, as much a part of the city’s skyline as the Norfolk Southern Railroad building or Nauticus. Because they are so large, the ships play with our sense of perspective, making tall buildings seem shorter and distances unreliable. And since the ships are often in a state of partial disassembly, they create the feeling that we are backstage for some monumental play while the scenery is still under construction. It’s all very invigorating.
#5 A Little Gim-Quackery
Of course, a 40-foot-tall floating duck can be a shock to your perspective too. As my friend Kathy and I were trooping around town in search of public art, we noticed a number of signs stuck to the sidewalk advising us to “Waddle This Way.” And so, of course, we did. We ran the daffy duck to ground at Ghent Inlet, where it was creating a big stir as it floated serenely in its pond. “Rubber Duck” is the creation of Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman and has made guest appearances all over the world, from Berlin to Azerbaijan. Its visit to Norfolk coincided with the reopening of the Chrysler Art Museum after a year-long remodel. It was a big hit. When Kathy and I arrived, the Ghent Inlet shoreline was full of people drawn by the size, scope and sheer yellowness of the duck, and they were taking photos, hundreds of photos.
As might be expected, “Rubber Duck” created a big draw for the art museum, which averages 1,000 people through its doors daily. During the visit of the duck, that grew to 8,000 visitors a day. After Kathy and I had snapped a dozen or so iPhone photos of the big canard, we strolled over to the museum, whose doors were wide open and its admission free. It was a wonderful art museum! The light flowing through skylights into the entrance hall was worth the trip all by itself. It was soft and magical, and criss-crossed with a pattern of shadows created by the roof beams. The exhibition galleries, too, were a delight, with walls of both muted and bright colors, and doorways succeeding each other to form new patterns of light and dark. There seemed to be no dead ends, and the rooms went on and on like some kind of mystically endless Borges library. And I won’t even go into the art, which was the point of it all, of course, because I would just go on and on. And that would assume I knew what I was talking about.
The down side is that “Rubber Duck” has moved on. It left town at the end of May, so it’s too late to put that on your list. The upside is that the art museum is so special that it doesn’t need a duck, no matter how cool. And that goes for Norfolk as a whole. Everything else will still be there—the public art, the Wisconsin, the restaurants on Granby Street, Nauticus, Waterside, the Pagoda/Observation Tower and the Navy. Take my word for it, it’s a great place to visit, and the best way to do it is, of course, on your own boat.
The following day, Kathy returned to Washington, foot-sore but happy, and Rick, Skipper and I took a final walk about town before setting off up the Bay and back home to Annapolis after an absence of seven months. Gosh, it was great to be back on the Chesapeake!
[July 2014 issue]