There’s an enchanting overlap of old and new in the seaports along the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. From Virginia to Maine, sparkling harbors and manicured streets entice groups to soak up town history, walk the waterfronts and get into a boat on the sea itself.
Home to the oldest naval port in the United States, Norfolk, Virginia, draws visitors eager to tour the port at nearby Nauticus, a maritime science museum. Connected to Nauticus is the Battleship Wisconsin, which saw action during World War II through the Persian Gulf War. Visitors get to roam through several of the rooms on a self-guided tour.
Rather than touring the naval base by foot, some visitors prefer to board the popular Victory Rover to get a waterside view of the huge fleet. To see all 400 years of historic Norfolk, visitors can walk Cannonball Trail, which winds along the shoreline of the Elizabeth River and through the districts of downtown.
This old navy town may be quaint and quiet, but it isn’t stuck in history. Norfolk is undergoing a renaissance, one that’s especially visible in the Waterside District.
“For a long time, that area along the waterfront was an eyesore, but the revitalization has exceeded our expectations,” said Erin Goldmeier, media relations manager at Visit Norfolk. The Waterside District opened in May and is one of many spots adding to an exploding art, entertainment and food scene. “We haven’t seen development like this in years,” Goldmeier said.
A good way to see the shoreline is by climbing aboard the American Rover, a three-masted topsail schooner that gives harbor and sunset tours. Equally relaxing is a visit to the Norfolk Botanical Garden, which blooms in every season but comes ablaze with azaleas in the springtime. The 175-acre garden can be explored by foot, by tram or by boat. After dark, groups can settle in for performances by the state’s symphony, opera and stage company.
A final must-see is the Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia’s premier art museum; one of the best glass collections in the United States, it includes celebrated Tiffany glass items.
Newport, Rhode Island
A centuries-old playground for the rich and famous, Newport, Rhode Island, is studded with well-preserved gems from the Colonial and Gilded ages. Picture-perfect mansions sit atop magnificent bluffs overlooking the sea. More than a dozen mansions built by nouveaux riches around the start of the 19th century are open to the public.
“These mansions give a fascinating glimpse into Gilded Age extravagance,” said Andrea McHugh, marketing communications manager at Discover Newport. “Detailed tours of these summer cottages — that’s a most inappropriate name once you’ve seen them — show how opulently these families lived.”
The Breakers, an Italian Renaissance-style palazzo built by the Vanderbilts, is the grandest of them all. Rosecliff, a 1902 party mansion built by a silver heiress, houses Newport’s largest ballroom. The Elms is interesting for its behind-the-scenes look at a wine cellar, a coal tunnel and servants’ quarters. For a breathtaking view of all the mansions, visitors can take the Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile path that runs along the coastline.
Beyond the mansions are several treasures from centuries past. Fort Adams, the largest coastal fort in the United States, includes a maze of underground tunnels and quarters where officers and their families lived more than a century ago. Touro Synagogue, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the United States, dates to 1759.
Because Newport has long been a bastion of world sailing and long-distance races, as well home to some of the most beautiful yachts in the world, the harbor has the largest fleet of retired 12-meter yachts available to the public. Visitors can choose from several top-rated sailing companies that offer everything from hands-on experiences to relaxing cruises where groups get to sit back and enjoy lobster and stuffed clams.