At this time of year some boat owners in frost-friendly climates are making plans to cast off lines and head south, where the boat will live for a long and warm winter. Part of the fun of the delivery trip is deciding where to stop along the way. For many, Hampton Roads is convenient. One of the country’s largest natural harbors and busiest waterways, it incorporates the mouths of the Elizabeth and James rivers and empties into the Chesapeake Bay near the entrance to the Atlantic Ocean. The area is home to great ports for an overnight—places like Norfolk and Newport News—but what if you’re not up for the hustle of those relatively big locations? You could try Hampton.
“It’s a metro area with a nice rural feel,” says Jerry Olson, a town resident, marine surveyor and former delivery captain. “There’s plenty for visiting crews to do here, but the atmosphere is laid-back and folks are very hospitable.”
Olson is one of the people who help make Hampton friendly. One Sunday, he returned to the local yacht club after a day on the water to find a guy from out of town on the dock. The visitor was distraught after bringing his boat in for an unscheduled repair. By the time he had tied up, the club’s restaurant had closed; his family was hungry and had no way to get around. “I gave him my car keys and directions to a good restaurant in town” says Olson. Since then, the men have stayed in touch. “Some of the best friendships I’ve made have been with cruisers passing through the area.”
Established in 1610, Hampton is one of America’s oldest cities. Here, you travel the same waters from which English colonists first saw their new world. In fact, those colonists stopped here before making their way up the James River to settle Jamestown. Today, you can expect to see military vessels at the mouth of the Hampton River as they travel to and from Naval Station Norfolk; there are tugs and ships moving in every direction, too. But after you enter the river, everything slows down.
Once the boat is tied up (there are several options for dockage), you can explore downtown Hampton on the river’s western side. Good luck trying to cram everything into a day, as you can dine, shop, admire world-class art and even study space exploration—the Virginia Air & Space Center can be seen from parts of the waterfront. Nearby is the Hampton Carousel, built in 1920 and completely restored. Across the river is the campus of Hampton University, where an art gallery holds more than 10,000 pieces from around the world. The campus is also home to the historic Emancipation Oak, the site of the first southern reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
One big draw in Hampton is Fort Monroe; it’s tourist gold for any history buff. Constructed in 1819, it’s the largest stone fort ever built in the country, with 10-foot-thick walls that have withstood the test of time and hurricanes. During the Civil War it was a Union stronghold in the Confederate south. Soldiers watched from here as the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack battled on Hampton Roads and changed the course of naval history. Today, it’s a National Monument with sandy beaches, a boardwalk and restaurants.
Hampton hasn’t always been on the radar of cruising yachtsmen. For decades, many crews would stop in places like Norfolk or Portsmouth, where there were more slips for transients. But about 12 years ago, Hampton resident Chris Hall built Bluewater Yachting Center, a facility with 200 slips, a substantial yard for repairs and the ability to accommodate yachts up to 200 feet. It has helped draw more boats to this location.
“Years ago, Hampton was predominantly for sailboats and there weren’t many transient slips,” says Hall. “Now we fuel more motoryachts than anyone else in the mid-Atlantic. The location makes it a great stop-off point for crews moving boats up and down the coast. Hampton is only one mile off the rhumbline of the ICW. Crews like that, because when they’re going from point A to point B, they don’t want to get too far off the compass course. They want to be able to get out easily the next morning.” Hampton is very conveniently located, but locals also like to tell people about the port’s aesthetic appeal. “It’s a real pretty place,” says Hall. “I’ve been to many places by boat, and I still think Hampton has one of the nicest harbors I’ve ever seen.”
Located about one mile from the ICW, Hampton is a convenient location for crews on the move. There’s plenty to do too, including tour the Virginia Air & Space Center.
Things To Do
You can follow the tourist boats out to Hampton Roads harbor and take in the big sights, including warships, submarines and aircraft carriers at the Norfolk Naval Base. Then cruise the waters of the original battle site of the Ironclads Monitor and Merrimack.