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TRAVEL Norfolk, Virginia: Naval-gazing--and much more
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Andrew Davis, Windy City Times

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Norfolk, Virginia has certainly changed a lot since I grew up in the Hampton Roads area ( which includes such cities as Norflk, Chesapeake, Williamsburg and Portsmouth, among others ).

Of course, there are some things that will never change, such as the ability to chalk up conversations with random strangers. ( Also, the Norfolk Scope will be there forever; if it's not a national landmark, it should be. ) However, in other aspects—such as the culinary scene and, yes, the growth of the LGBT community—Norfolk has grown by leaps and bounds.

Page of reckoning

While exploring Norfolk, I stayed at the Page House Inn ( 323 Fairfax Ave.; ), a historic bed-and-breakfast in the city's Ghent neighborhood that manages to be luxurious at the same time. ( By the way, the Page family that's associated with the spot includes legendary pin-up model Bettie Page, who's photo is displayed in one of the front rooms. )

The rooms have names such as "Mr. Herman's Room" and "Miss Diane's Suite," and have a cool retro feel about them—even if my room seemed a tad too frilly. Housekeeping assistant Kim laid down the rules immediately ( with most being common-sense regulations, like "Don't open someone else's door" ), but she was also extremely friendly: We spent a good 15 minutes talking about the classes she's taking for a nursing degree. A sumptuous breakfast awaits guests each morning—and there are loads of ( free ) food and drink around the house, including homemade chocolate-chip cookies and bottles of brandy.

Another advantage of Page House is its proximity to points of interest, including the Chrysler Museum ( more on that later ) and its glass studio, for instance. Guests would be wise to steer clear of the local YMCA, however, as I was issued a stern warning that walk-ins were not allowed.

Also, visitors should note that some of the streets around Page House Inn can be submerged during high tide, as I found out after traveling down one road around noon—and being unable to do so an hour later.

Points of interest

When it comes to spots to explore, look no farther than the Chrysler Museum ( One Memorial Pl.; )—which is actually named after an openly gay man, Walter P. Chrysler Jr. ( That fact is now being told to visitors. ) However, the museum has some striking exhibitions, including "Multiple Modernisms" and my favorite, "Rene Lalique: Enchanted By Glass," which covers the artist's work with glass as he moved from Art Nouveau to Art Deco. Unfortunately, the Lalique exhibition will only run through Jan. 21.

There's also The Chrysler's Perry Glass Studio, which is across the street from the main museum. I was fortunate enough to witness a demo, and learned more than I ever thought I would about glassblowing. ( There are free demos at noon on Tuesdays through Sundays, and people can also take family-friendly special sessions. )

Of course, Norfolk is known for its naval connections. ( Naval Station Norfolk—the world's largest of its kind—supports supports naval forces in the United States Fleet Forces Command, as well as those operating in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. ) Nauticus ( 1 Waterside Dr.; ), located in the downtown Norfolk waterfront district, is a maritime-themed science center and museum that also includes the U.S.S. Wisconsin, which led the Navy's surface attack on Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. It's extremely intriguing to go aboard and see a ship that's frozen in time—down to the computers with floppy-disk drives and the claustrophobia-inducing bunkers.

However, for those who may not be into naval history, Norfolk also has its own burgeoning arts district. The very colorful NEON ( New Energy of Norfolk ) District, the city's first official arts area, includes the aforementioned Chrysler Museum of Art and the Harrison Opera House as well as art venues like Glass Wheel Studio and Work|Release.

What's cooking?

Even growing up in the area, I knew that Norfolk excelled when it came to seafood—and this recent visit reinforced that notion even more.

One of the best spots I visited was Todd Jurich's Bistro ( 150 W. Main St.; ), which serves seafood and much more. There are items such as buttermilk-fried oysters, the revered she-crab soup and pan-seared lump crab cakes ( with crab-bacon slaw ), but the bistro also offers patrons dishes as varied as roast rack of lamb, crispy Peking duck roll and Our French Kiss ( with seared foie gras, strawberry-vanilla cream shortcake and duck bacon ).

Saltine ( 100 E. Main St.; ) is a bustling spot in the Hilton that offers a raw bar and a ceviche/poke cart ( capitalizing on one of the latest culinary trends ). In addition, there are offerings such as ahi, Alaskan king-crab legs, seafood chowder, New Zealand lamb chops—and baked eggplant crepes of the vegetarians/vegans. ( By the way, this Hilton has some cool shops on the first level as well. )

And then there's Nouvelle ( 217 Grace St.; 757-248-3712 ). Just a stone's throw from the Chrysler Museum and its glass studio, this small ( but lively ) casual restaurant must be experienced. Chef Rina Estero ia a whirling dervish at the grill as she prepares dishes such as pork belly—and even the burgers are quite extraordinary.

The LGBT scene

I often joke that when I was in high school, the only LGBT-related outlet was the drama club.

How things have changed.

Hampton Roads Pride ( ) is a progressive sign of the times. I had the opportunity of meet a few members of the organization at the Chrysler, where Board President Michael Berlucchi informed me about the group's expansion but also discussed "managing perspectives," which he said is the growing organization's biggest challenge.

Juji Li, a gallery host at the museum, added that youths were just about clubs—but have evolved. "They're about much more now," she said.

Board member Dr. Virginia Jenkot—a longtime Norfolk resident who is originally from the Chicago area, and who came out a few years ago—said that Norfolk "was dead when I moved here. Now, there are all sorts of things happening," adding that there are approximately 900 people in Hampton Roads Pride.

Also, Norfolk Pride has one of the more unique annual Pride celebrations, marked by a parade—of boats. In addition, there are all sorts of Pride-themed events; last year, said events ranged from interfaith meetings to a glass-blowing demo to the huge Annual Pride Block Party in the Scope.

Many thanks go to Visit Norfolk and Erin F. Goldmeier in arranging this trip.

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