By Molly Fellin Spence
Let’s be honest: It’s been a while since you’ve spent some good, quality time with your dear, old dad. Now is the time to plan a special getaway where the two of you can eat good food, check out the world’s largest naval installation, play around at the official visitor center for NASA Langley, and view by boat the location where the infamous pirate Blackbeard’s head was posted on a stake as a warning to other pirates in 1718.
The place where all of this is possible is Hampton, Va., where the Chesapeake Bay meets the James River and Atlantic Ocean, just north of Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
There’s plenty to do year-round in Hampton, but a visit in the spring, summer or fall will allow you to better take advantage of the town’s oceanfront location.
You’ll need a few days to take advantage of all the area has to offer. Start your trip at the Hampton History Museum, to give you the lay of the land. The museum has an educational focus and aims to show, in nine galleries arranged in chronological order, the 400 years of development of the city of Hampton and it surrounding areas, known as the oldest continuous English-speaking settlement in America.
Here you’ll get an understanding for how the city developed from Native American settlement by the Kecoughtan tribe through modern times.
Before you leave, make sure to purchase your tickets ($1 apiece) for a ride on the Hampton Carousel. Now housed in a glass pavilion on the downtown waterfront, the prancing horses and stately chariots were carved from fine-grained hardwood and painted by immigrant artisans. Its restoration occurred in 1920, and it is one of the few antique wooden merry-go-rounds still in existence in the country.
Before you go for your joy ride, step out the back door of the museum and walk through the grounds of St. John’s Church, the oldest Anglican parish in continuous existence in America. Be sure to have a look at the stained-glass artwork depicting the baptism of Pocahontas.
A short walk takes you to the carousel, which is conveniently located steps away from the entrance to the Virginia Air & Space Center, an impressive facility that serves as the visitor center for NASA Langley Research Center and Langley Air Force Base, but is so much more than just a visitor center. Save plenty of time to get interactive with the more than 100 hands-on exhibits. You’ll see the Apollo 12 Command Module, a Mars meteorite and a 3 billion-year-old moon rock.
As you walk through the front doors, prepare to be awestruck at the dozens of full-size airplanes and space vehicles that dangle from the rafters. Included are a replica of the Wright Flyer as well as a full-size DC-9 passenger jet that is a sight to behold in person. A “Huey” military helicopter, commonly used for reconnaissance and security during the Vietnam War, and the “Starfighter” single-engine supersonic aircraft (nicknamed “the missile with a man in it”), developed by the U.S. Air Force by Lockheed, are among the impressive vehicles on display.
Ask for a free docent-led tour when purchasing your entrance tickets. These museum volunteers are extremely knowledgeable and have a keen interest in aviation. The docents’ enthusiasm is infectious, and they help the exhibits come alive as they describe interesting facts and details about each of the items on display.
While at the center, take a ride in MaxFlight, a simulator that allows riders complete control to 360-degree pitch, roll, loop, spin and spiral action while viewing virtual flight combat on a 58-inch screen in the cockpit. And save time for an IMAX film, with documentaries and 3-D feature films shown during museum hours for an additional fee.
Next, head to the Fort Monroe and Phoebus areas of Hampton. If you’re visiting in the summertime, you could spend the entire day at Paradise Ocean Club, sunning yourself on its private beach. Treat yourself by renting a cabana for the day and allow the club’s servers to bring you food and drinks as you gaze at the shore. An Olympic-size pool, tiki bar, live music and restaurant provide food and fun for the whole family all summer long.
On your way back to downtown Hampton, take a tour of St. George Brewing Company and enjoy a sample of the seven brews on tap in the tasting room. The brewing company, named for the patron saint of chivalry and patron saint of England, creates 22 varieties including ales, lagers, IPAs, stouts and more. A highlight of the product line is Larry’s Lemonade. Though it is technically a malt beverage, the “lemonade” starts out the same as beer, with malted barley, water, hops and yeast. It tastes and looks like lemonade and is lightly sweet and amazingly refreshing.
For the grand finale of your trip, treat Dad to a cruise on the Miss Hampton II. Its three-hour harbor tour departs from the downtown Hampton waterfront and proceeds out to the Hampton River, passing by Hampton University and Blackbeard’s Point, where the notorious pirate’s head was set on a pike after his capture and execution. The tour passes by Fort Monroe and the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in America. On good-weather days, the tour stops for a 30-minute guided walking tour of Fort Wool, important for its Civil War history.
The highlight of the cruise is a close-up view of the massive warships parked at the Norfolk Naval Base, home to aircraft carriers, nuclear-powered submarines and support ships.
The base takes up about 4 miles of waterfront and 7 miles of pier and wharf space in the Hampton Roads peninsula, known as Sewell’s Point. The world’s largest naval station houses the largest concentration of U.S. Navy forces, including 75 ships and 134 aircraft alongside 14 piers and 11 aircraft hangars.
The ships are an impressive sight, so bring your camera and a jacket no matter the season—the swift bay breeze chills even on a hot summer day.
Once your cruise is over and you return to the waterfront, your adventure in Hampton has come to an end. But you and your dear, old dad won’t soon forget all the adventure, food, and fun you shared while exploring this unique region.