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Norfolk: A Navy town turns the tide

| Sunday, Sept. 12, 2010

Having lunch at Rowena's Tea Shop in Norfolk is like dining inside a nursery rhyme. One wall features a garden mural with larger-than-life images of Mr. Jellyford Jam III and other whimsical characters that owner Rowena Fullinwider has created. Quiche, sandwiches and the desserts that have been featured in Gourmet and Bon Appetit are delivered on tiered silver platters.

Fullinwider began making cakes from her home to raise money for the Norfolk opera. Today, her shop ships tons of gourmet food across the country.

Her progress is emblematic of what has been happening in Norfolk the past decade or two, as government and private entrepreneurs have worked to transform a deteriorating Navy town into a thriving, attractive, fun city for residents and tourists alike.

A recent visit proved that the effort has paid off. Norfolk is ready for prime time. A long weekend provided art, history, gorging and an outdoor adventure.

It started with a Segway tour that begins and ends along the waterfront, where tall ships and tugboats, sailboats and barges traverse the Elizabeth River near the Chesapeake Bay. Until the city completes a tramway that eventually will run all the way to Virginia Beach, Segways and bikes can ride along the tracks through town.

The city has invested millions in its waterfront, including a recent renovation of Town Point Park, where kids run through water fountains and play on grassy fields in front of an outdoor concert stage.

Norfolk is a city of waterfront festivals: One of the biggest, the wine festival, coms to town Oct. 16-17. Vintners from 30 wineries will join restaurateurs and musicians and sailors who parade and race on the river.

The waterfront is dotted with outdoor sculptures. During the Segway tour, we stop to read the collection of bronzed letters sculpted to look as if they're blowing in the wind. Each letter is the last written by an American serviceman or servicewoman killed in war. The dates range from 1777-1991.

On Aug. 29, 1862, Robert Henry Miller wrote to his mother: "War looks a great deal better in the newspapers than anywhere else." On Oct. 21, 1944, a nurse named Frances Slager wrote: "They are brought in bloody, dirty, and most of them so tired. Somebody's brothers. Somebody's fathers. Somebody's sons."

I've been looking forward to renting a bike and riding a miles-long path along the water, through a park and a wildlife sanctuary. The heat of a late July afternoon, however, drives us inside. No sweat: The Chrysler Museum of Art is a gem, the building itself a monument to beauty.

That evening, after a fabulous dinner in the historic neighborhood of Ghent, we stroll the lively streets. Night life is centered on Brandy Street and Colley Avenue. The Granby Theater, opened in 1915 as a vaudeville theater, operates on weekends as a nightclub and concert venue. Live music is playing at Fahrenheit, famous for its exotic martini mixes.

Night life of a more cultured variety begins in the fall. Highlights: the Harrison Opera House, which opens its season Oct. 2 with Verdi's "Rigoletto." The Attucks Theatre, once known as the "Apollo of the South," has hosted most of the great African American performers — musicians including Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole — since opening in 1919. Among upcoming events: a Black Film Festival in October.

The grandest theater in town is the Wells, a beaux-arts National Historic Landmark restored not long ago to its original 1913 splendor. Its season begins Sept. 21 with "The Diary of Anne Frank" and ends April 17 with August Wilson's "Radio Golf."

The rest of our trip is devoted to history, including a stop at the Black Soldiers Memorial in Elmwood Cemetery. It stands, in the heart of Dixie, honoring African- Americans who fought for the Union in the Civil War.

After a tour of the USS Wisconsin, one of the largest battleships built, we board the tour boat Victory Rover for a narrated trip to the huge Norfolk naval base. One fact stands out: A single nuclear-powered ship we saw cost $8 billion.

Mostly, I remember the cool breezes and the views of a city that takes full pride in and advantage of its beautiful waterfront location.

If you go

Staying there

• Sheraton Norfolk Waterside: 777 Waterside Drive, 757-622-6664, www.sheratonnorfolkwaterside.com. Waterfront, with a pool. Rooms start at $139.

• Tazewell Hotel and Suites: 245 Granby St., 757-623-6200, www.ascendcollection.com. A 1906 property that recently underwent a $9 million renovation. Rooms start at $99.

• The Freemason Inn, 411 W. York St., 757-963-7000. B&B in a Victorian mansion. Start at $125.

Eating there

•The Green Onion, 603 Colley Ave., 757-963-1200. Gourmet fare. Entrees from $16 to $30.

• The Boot, 123 W. 21st St., 757-627-2668, www.insidetheboot.com. Local foods emphasized. Entrees from $17 to $26.

• Rowena's Tea Room and Gift Shop, 758 W. 22nd St, 800-980-2253, www.rowenas.com. Tea with food ranges from $7.95 to $20.95.

Playing there

• Segway of Hampton Roads, 2800 Shore Drive, 757-412-9734, www.segwayofhamptonroads.us. 90-minute tours $75 per person.

• Chrysler Museum, 245 W. Olney Road, 757-664-6200, www.chrysler.org. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free.

• Victory Rover, 757-627-7406, www.navalbasecruises.com. Two-hour tours are $18, $10 age 12 and younger.

Information: www.visitnorfolktoday.com

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