On our way to Washington, D.C., we stopped off in Norfolk to visit my friend Marci, who was kind enough to show us some of the coastal Virginia highlights. She took us through the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, the world’s largest bridge-tunnel complex that spans nearly 18 miles from one side of the bay to the other. On the north side sits the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge. We walked a few trails with our binoculars, spotting assorted waders and shorebirds as well as a bald eagle and several nesting ospreys from the observation deck.
We moved on to Kiptopeke State Park and went for a beach stroll, getting great views of red-breasted mergansers, buffleheads and even a loon in the bay. Our last stop was the cute little coastal town of Cape Charles. In search of Virginia peanuts (those bubbly, blistered, extra-crunchy ones that are at the opposite end of the peanut spectrum from the boiled variety to the south), we popped into a small gourmet shop, where to our delight they were holding a complimentary wine tasting (and found the peanuts, too). A big thanks to Marci and her partner, John, for their hospitality, enjoyable conversation, and solid advice for our onward journey to the D.C. area.
On the way we drove a stretch of the Colonial Parkway and stopped at Historic Jamestowne, part of Colonial National Historical Park, a site co-managed by the National Park Service and the private nonprofit group Preservation Virginia. It pays tribute to this country’s first English settlement and to extensive archaeological fieldwork done at the Old Towne, which at one time was thought to have been washed away by the James River that flows through the site.
Settlement at James Fort began in 1607 with the arrival of 104 British colonists (all men and boys) who almost didn’t survive because they were so ill-prepared to fend for themselves in a new and strange land. It was only through the help of the local Powhatan tribes and additional shipments of fresh supplies and British settlers that the colony was able to eventually get a foothold. Interestingly, this was a purely economic venture underwritten by shareholders, unlike the settlements in New England motivated by religious freedom.
Because it was extremely windy outdoors, the usual ranger tour was moved inside the Archaearium. Both the Visitor Center and the Archaearium provided a wealth of fascinating information and nicely curated displays of artifacts, including a more historically accurate version of Pocahontas’ involvement with the early colonists than what the Disney movie portrays.
Our guide, Amber, gave an engaging talk on what scientists have been able to piece together from combining archaeological finds with Captain John Smith’s written narratives, noting that the words of this great exaggerator require a grain of salt and many turns of the archaeologist’s spade to see history in a less florid light. Nevertheless, the Jamestowne colonists overcame starvation (in part through cannibalism), Indian attacks when they wore out their welcome, and several attempts at producing different goods until they finally figured out that tobacco would be the most lucrative crop. Even so, that venture required slaves to make it profitable.
Up in the greater Washington, D.C., area, we went to the Great Falls Tavern Visitor Center on the Maryland side of the Potomac River at the suggestion of Marci and John. We highly recommend this site for its peek into history and its outdoor recreation opportunities.
This section of Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park marks one of the stopover points along the canal that moved goods 184 miles up and down between Washington, D.C., and Cumberland, Maryland. Boatmen found lodging and refreshment here in the 1800s, and we wished we could hop in a time machine to see the place when it bustled with patrons.
For those wanting to be transported back in time, however, next to the tavern, the National Park Service offers a boat trip through the locks that used to lift and lower boats on their canal journeys. Although the canal is no longer in use commercially today, costumed actors operate the boat and the gates that control the water levels to allow movement up or downstream, and horses drag the boats through the locks on the adjacent towpath just like in the old days.
The even bigger attraction here, though, is the Great Falls of the Potomac River. Many people joined us for a sunny Sunday outdoors in the city’s backyard, walking, jogging and hiking on the towpath and the system of Billy Goat hiking trails.
These trails, some of which require the use of both hands and feet, scramble over rock faces to overlooks offering wonderful views of the Potomac and the islands in its midst. Looping around on sections of the canal towpath and additional trails that weave through the riverside woods, we thoroughly enjoyed one last bit of nature before hitting the city sights.
We recap those city sights in our next post.