PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- Possibly the Hampton Roads area hasn't heard there's a bad economy going on, that we need to be thrifty and not squander our resources.
Instead, this happily cluttered corner of Virginia luxuriantly overflows with fascinating places, vistas and events to visit. There is history and natural beauty and industry and agriculture and big urban centers and beautiful rural scenes. There's culture and entertainment and sports and footprints from every era of the nation's past. They have so much to offer that they need at least four distinct cities to handle it all.
The nation began here in 1607. Some of the Revolution's earliest battles were here. The Monitor and the Merrimack fought here. Lincoln came here to meet with Confederate leaders trying to end the Civil War. They build great warships here. You can go to the beach here. There is food, music, scenery, museums galore and so much more here. The weather can be great here.
The "Roads" in Hampton Roads may stand in nautical terms for a place of safe anchorage, but here it can also mean a great place to hang your hat. It's nothing so hokey as a Southern hoo-ha theme park; it is merely a wonderful place to sample the vast diversions of the region and its culture.
In a radius of only a dozen miles in the neat southeastern corner of the Commonwealth of Virginia, you can find just about anything that amuses you.
Central to the region, Norfolk offers a rich variety of history and culture. The Chrysler Museum of Art is noted for its diverse collection, which includes works from ancient Greece, Rome and pre-Columbian America as well as modern artists such as Pollock, Picasso, Rothko and Warhol. It is also home to the Virginia Symphony. The Virginia Opera works out of the Harrison Opera House.
Not surprisingly, there is a distinctly naval presence to the city's attractions: The USS Wisconsin is berthed here, and tours of the Naval Station are available. The Gen. Douglas MacArthur Memorial in the old city hall memorializes the controversial old warrior.
It's not all martial in Norfolk, though. Besides all the museums, the city offers a large zoo and the Norfolk Botanical Garden. Extended and short boat tours of the shipyards are available frequently every day. Don't forget the sun block. A huge air show is held each Fourth of July.
Officially just at the outer edge of the Hampton Roads communities, Virginia Beach is as much a part of the region as the seagulls and buoys. There's ticky-tacky here and some real cornball stuff along the boardwalk, but Virginia Beach, the community, is justly famed for its waterfront and natural habitat preserves.
With 30 miles of Atlantic beaches and the 7,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia Beach offers enormous diversity for the outdoorsy sorts. It has the mandatory museums -- the Old Coast Guard Museum and Virginia Marine Science Museums among them -- but it is walking, recreation and nature that attract so many to this large community.
Southern anchor to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel complex, Virginia Beach sees a lot of traffic, and the bridges themselves offer some panoramic views of the bay.
Historic and romantic Portsmouth features a variety of cultural and scenic attractions. And its waterfront is a pleasant place simply to stroll, studying the old houses and the nautical activity in abundance. Or, to just daydream away a few moments.
Highlights include the popular Children's Museum of Virginia, wonderful and distinctive old churches and a variety of special interest museums. Notable are the Portsmouth Lightship Museum, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum and the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
The Courthouse Galleries on High Street feature the work of local artists and craftsmen and host a variety of festivals throughout the year. Ferry services link Portsmouth with Norfolk across the Roads. They are cheap, frequent, speedy and fun.
The Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. has produced some of the nation's premier warships and commercial vessels.
More, the city offers tours of the Endview Plantation, Huntington Park, the Lee Hall Mansion and the usual array of museums. Scenic cruises of the Hampton Roads harbor are held daily, and golf and other sports are available in abundance. (See www.newport-news.org/itineraries for suggested programs and itineraries.)
Across the region, in easy driving distance, there are any number of sites and sights worth a visit. At Fort Eustis, there is the Army Transportation Museum. At Fort Monroe, museum displays honor the only major military facility that remained in Union hands during the Civil War. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science at Gloucester Point, a function of the College of William and Mary, has aquariums and exhibits of saltwater life from the area.
Hampton itself was settled in 1610 and is billed as the oldest continuously English-speaking settlement still in existence in the nation. It was the site of important battles during the Revolution, War of 1812 and Civil War. (The locals burned the town to the ground in 1861 to keep it from falling into Union hands; there is logic in that somewhere, but it takes a little work.) Fortunately, it has been spared wars since and is now a center of the region's fishing industry. The Hampton University Museum features exhibits of American Indian life and traditional art from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Hampton area also boasts a vibrant African-American scene -- with a steady schedule of cultural, musical, theatrical and social events. See www.hamptoncvb.com.
With more than a dozen military memorials and battlefields across the entire region, with about 45 historic attractions and nearly three dozen museums large and small, visitors need a program to tell the players apart. Among the more handy Web sites are www.visit hamptonroads.com and www.hamptonroads.com/travel.
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