As our group floats down Norfolk’s Elizabeth River aboard the 135-ft American Rover sailboat, we’re all enjoying a delicious breakfast of Belgian waffles, fresh fruit and mimosas in the clear crisp air while the sun casts gentle diamonds of light on the calm water. The vessel features an inviting lower deck with plenty of room for buffet tables while the upper deck seats 120 pax.
Norfolk is incredibly proud of its maritime history, and with good reason. Founded 400 years ago, the city weathered several attacks from sea in its early days, and today, the city is a meetings hot spot with weathered brick streets, a US Naval base, a wealth of waterborne group experiences and high-end seafood restaurants that speak to that history.
“Most people don’t realize that Norfolk is almost completely surrounded by water,” says Donna Allen, VP of Sales/Marketing for Norfolk CVB, citing the Elizabeth River, James River and Chesapeake Bay. “Our location makes us the ideal spot for maritime activities.”
GUNS, SWEAT + GEARS
Seeing action from WWII through Operation Desert Storm, the 880-ft USS Wisconsin battleship is moored in the heart of downtown within walking distance to a nice variety of hotels, restaurants and shops. Any private group touring this beast will immediately feel dwarfed by the 880’ x 36’ deck with massive protruding cannons and coiled ropes the size of tree trunks.
Last April, the ship was decommissioned and given to the city of Norfolk. Presently there are plans to open up the deck for large private events by summer once the ship is retrofitted with the appropriate facilities. Presently, the “wardroom” (officer dining area) is open below deck for 80-pax rentals.
The best part of the tour are the guides who years ago worked the guns and manned the winches during active duty.
We could have spent all day talking with our guide John Cummisk, who regaled us with stories about his life at sea.
The warship is berthed at Nauticus, the most fabled maritime museum on the east coast welcoming guests with a 2,000-gallon touch tank filled with Chesapeake Bay marine life.
In July, the museum opened “Guns, Sweat & Gears: Anatomy of a Battleship”—an exhibit featuring artifacts from the Wisconsin such as a 2,400-pound computer, a 48-star flag and an optical range finder. The museum also offers exhibits detailing the country’s naval history and an intriguing, interactive “multimedia battleship design simulation center” where groups can re-enact shipboard procedures.
Corporate dinners and receptions are often booked at Nauticus where groups up to 2,000 can rent out the entire facility. The museum’s main exhibit area is available for 800; the changing exhibits gallery, with a deck overlooking Elizabeth River, hosts 400; the Living Sea Landing aquarium section caters up to 400; and the A/V-equipped Living Sea Theater seats 350.
Right next to that, the 80,000-sf Half Moone Cruise & Celebration Center opened in 2007 as a spiffy cruise terminal with a Grand Rotunda overlooking the water and Adirondack chairs for 150-pax groups. Inside, the Bermuda and Virginia boardrooms each host 25 guests, while the 13,500-sf Half Moone Vista features outdoor patios, walls of windows overlooking the harbor, and room for 1,500 attendees.
For 70-pax semi-private dinners, check out the Byrd & Baldwin Bros. Steakhouse built in 1906 with a Beaux Arts façade, 2-story waterfall and menu items like my fresh caught salmon and crab cakes. The steakhouse is upscale with white table linens and original paintings of colorful street scenes.
“It’s a great restaurant,” says Betty Schultz, Director of Meetings at ASTM International in West Conshohocken, Pa. “The service is good and the food is delicious. Every time I go to Norfolk, I’m always impressed with the restaurants.”
Three blocks north, the Granby Theater is a beautifully restored 1900s vaudeville movie house and a great place for after-dinner private gatherings of up to 650 guests. The outside marquee welcomes event advertising, and the inside is gorgeous. Rectangular in shape, the venue includes a stage on one end and semi-private balcony areas with tables and couches able to hold 15-25 people each. The theater features two bars, three screens and full A/V.
MARRIOTT + SHERATON
The 397-room Norfolk Waterside Marriott is within walking distance of Nauticus, the USS Wisconsin and the Half Moone Cruise & Celebration Center. Last renovated in 2008, the hotel’s lobby is finished with dark wood and plush couches in rich, textured fabrics, but most stunning is its Titanic-inspired double staircase, inspiring a mental picture of a Greta Garbo movie set. The staircase leads up to an expansive reception area with a bar and shiny black grand piano for private 60-person events.
The regality is consistent throughout the hotel, including the 60,000 sf of meeting space, encompassing 23 meeting rooms and a 14,400-sf ballroom.
“I really love the meeting space,” says Schultz. “It’s conveniently spaced out and plentiful. I also like that it is connected with escalators, which is always helpful when you have a full group in the house.”
Two blocks away, the 468-room Sheraton Norfolk Waterside Hotel is the only Norfolk property directly on the water, which regularly caters to large groups. In 2008, the hotel was gutted and rebuilt during a $35 million renovation. Today, the lobby has a minimalist vibe with high ceilings, neutral colors and fresh flowers everywhere. Total meeting space is 35,000 sf including a 12,000-sf ballroom.
“I really like the location of the Sheraton,” Schultz says. “They did a fantastic job with their renovation.” I really like the airy City Dock Restaurant with lovely unobstructed views of the Chesapeake from its dining area and breezy patio.