WHY GO: There is so much approachable, invigorating, epic history packed into Hampton VA, it makes this average American wonder how it’s escaped more national attention all these years. Four hundred year old Hampton is the country’s oldest English-Speaking settlement. It’s where the first twenty African slaves were deposited in 1619, it’s the site of the first African-American Art Museum on the campus of one of the country’s first Black colleges (established in 1868), and where the pirate Blackbeard met his bloody, head-on-stick end. Edgar Allan Poe was enlisted and Jefferson Davis served time in jail at our nation’s newest National Historic Site, Fort Monroe. And Langley Air Force Base Research Center, based, you guessed it – right in Hampton, established NASA’s Mercury Project, literally sparking the space race. You’ll eat well, sleep well and have a blast (off) learning about our country’s origins – to infinity and beyond – in this Chesapeake Bay town.
Things to Do in Hampton VA
VISIT: Hampton History Museum. Pocahontas’s father lived on the land where our country’s first Space Center was built. That’s in effect the span of time covered in this delightful local history museum. An exhibit that should be titled “White Men Behaving Badly” follows merchants from Europe looking for a shortcut to China who found generous Native Americans bearing tobacco instead. So, said Europeans returned with guns in the mid 1600’s to tame or wipe out the indigenous tribes and cultivate the tobacco-rich land for themselves.
The Tobacco Trade saved Colonial Virginia, and due to the wealth it created, gave rise to a cosmopolitan aspect unmatched in the colonies. This area became one of the biggest tobacco ports by the early 1700’s: large barrels full were shipped to England which were jammed on the return trip with wine, textiles, Chinese Porcelain, Dutch Delftware and other civilized comforts. These riches drew a nefarious element offshore: pirates intercepted merchant ships, taking all the booty for themselves. How to put an end to the pilfering? By capturing Captain Edward Teach – aka – Blackbeard, the most fearsome of them all. Decapitated, his head was impaled on a ships bowsprit, sailed back to Hampton and hung from a pole on what is now Blackbeard’s Point. After the Civil War, the Oyster, crab and seafood industry kicked into gear and Hampton became known as “Crab Town.” (the High School football team remains the Hampton Crabbers). In the mid 1900’s, NACA (National Aeronautics Civilian Agency) situated at Langley AFB begin training jet fighter pilots with the Right Stuff. And the rest, they say, is history. $11.50 adults, $9.50 kids, open winter Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun. 12-5, summer Mon-Wed10-5, Thurs-Sun 10-7.
VISIT: Virginia Air and Space Center. Also serving as Langley AFB official Visitor’s Center, this is an OMG kind of place: vast, sun-lit, and with over a hundred interactive exhibits and dozens of whole airplanes, many suspended from the Rocket-Hanger height ceiling. Walk through an entire AirTran Airways DC-9 and try out one of the most realistic and stressful flight simulators anywhere. The Center covers flight from the Paris, France launch of the first Hot Air Balloon in 1783 to the remote Mars explorers now in use.” Project Mercury was headquartered in Hampton, so this museum is home to some famous NASA artifacts, including the original Apollo 12 Command Module.
Perhaps most intriguing is the simulated Lunar Lander used to train astronauts at Langley. Suspended by cranes above a landscape that replicated the surface of the moon, the astronauts “landed” their mock Lunar Module via small rocket motors. Armstrong’s first words when touching down on the real moon were, “Houston, it was just like landing at Langley!” Newest exhibits focus on that “big rusted ball” – Mars, with full-scale mock-ups of Spirit and Opportunity – the Mars Landers. Now, getting ready to go further, the Air and Space Center will be following Curiosity – the largest Rover to date with a self-contained bio-lab right onboard – which is heading off in the never-before seen mountain ranges. Mon-Sat. 10-5, Sun. noon – 5, $11.50 adults, $9.50 kids.
TOUR: Fort Monroe Casement Museum. Ducking under low stone arches from one casement (rooms in a fort) to another, discover the history of Fort Monroe – the largest all-stone fort ever built in the U.S. and just decommissioned in 2011. Storms destroyed prior forts on this property over the years, but after the War of 1812, when unprotected Hampton was sacked by the Brits, Congress authorized a fortification to be built for coastal defense. Encompassing 63 acres, it was, at the time “the most powerful military installation in the New World.” Young engineer, Robert E. Lee saw his first child, George Washington Custis Lee, born here while supervising Fort Monroe’s construction and enlisted man, Edgar Allan Poe spent a few months here in 1828 before heading to West Point (from which he was ousted the following year).
Fort Monroe played a significant role in African-American history. During the Civil War, Abe Lincoln assigned a Union officer, the canny Massachusetts’s lawyer, Ben Franklin Butler, to oversee the fort. On his first day in residence, three escaped slaves sought asylum. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, Butler was required to return them to their owners but he found the perfect loophole. As a Confederate State that seceded from the US, Virginia was considered a “foreign country at war with the US,” so Butler seized the slaves as “contraband,” which led to the Contraband of War Decision which evolved into the Emancipation Proclamation. Slaves in the Hampton area got the memo quickly, “If you can get to Fort Monroe, you can be free!” and so Fort Monroe became “Freedom’s Fortress.”
Stand inside the cell where Confederate General, Jefferson Davis was held – allowed only a Bible and Book of Episcopal Prayer. He was charged with, among other things, treason and mistreatment of Union prisoners, but by 1867, was released on bond and by 1869 all charges were dropped.
From 1870-1930’s, the breezy, waterfront Fort Monroe included a resort with 2,600 hotel rooms, and was such a popular destination, mothers sent their daughters here to “catch a soldier.” Some really offbeat trivia; the fort was home to the longest contiguous 24/7 poker game that ran from just after the Civil War to World War I. And, mysteriously, 244 pets are buried on the parapet. Open Tues-Sun. 10:30-4:30. Free
VISIT: Hampton University Museum. The oldest African-American Museum in the country was established in 1868 on the campus of Booker T. Washington’s alma matter, Hampton University. One of the museum’s prized possessions, a riviting Kuba mask from the Congo, was brought back by Black missionary William Sheppard who was believed to be a reincarnated King, and thus accepted into the mask-bestowing Royal Family. (The current Kuba King’s young brother attended Hampton for his MBA, and so the tradition continues). In 1878, Hampton University opened its doors to Native Americans, and has been multi-cultural ever since. Though the University’s founder, General Samuel Chapman Armstrong, a son of Hawaiin-based missionaries, was white, he led several black troops during the Civil War, and modeled Hampton College after his parent’s motto: Hands, Head, Heart. While the Museum showcases 200 years of African-American Fine Art, as well as emerging contemporary artists and African, Native American, Asian, and Pacific Island artifacts, one of the most thrilling pieces on display is one of the three pens that Abe Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
DO: Take a 3-Hour Harbor Tour in Miss Hampton II. Not so offbeat, but it’s a cool and easy way to see the area. You’ll drift past Fort Monroe into Chesapeake Bay and stop for a 45 minute tour of Fort Wool before heading to the Norfolk Naval Base (the world’s largest). Memorial Day – Labor Day Tues – Sat 10am, 2pm, $25 adults, $12 kids.
SPIN: On the Hampton Carousel. Built in 1920 and restored to it’s original luster, this is one of only 170 antique wooden merry-go-rounds left in the United States. Rides $2 each.
BARGAIN CITY PASS: Sea to Stars. For $39 adults, $25 kids you’ll get one time admission to: Virginia Air and Space Center, Riverside IMAX Theater, Hampton Carousel, Miss Hampton II Harbor Tour, Hampton History Museum. Purchase pass at the Hampton Visitors Center.
Best Places to Eat in Hampton VA
EAT: Surfrider Restaurant. Tucked inside the Bluewater Yachting Center overlooking a picture-perfect inlet, Surfrider is famous for its crispy dense impeccably fresh crab cakes ($14.99 for one, $24.99 for two.). It’s the perfect rainy day shoreline comfort food.
Best Places to Stay in Hampton VA
STAY: Crowne Plaza Hampton Marina Hotel. Boaty bright blue/white palate with shellacked teak floors, all views from lobby and restaurant are to the docks outside. Rooms have been renovated in similar décor: teak and leather headboards, dreamy bedding, picture windows with harbor views. Right next to the Air and Space Museum, this makes walking to attractions easy and reminiscent of a true maritime town. Rooms and suites $129-$450.
STAY: Magnolia House. Only three rooms, Lankford and Joyce Blair have created a lovely, upscale B&B with a unique feature; it doubles as a small wedding venue for up to 20 guests. Lankford is a Mental Health administrator, Joyce has been a surgical nurse for 22 years, and though they are both “grounded in their careers,” took on innkeeping as a natural extension of “wanting to take care of people.” Baronial rooms with extravagant bathrooms come with full breakfast, and wine and soft drinks are available to take out to the inviting wraparound porch. Rooms $160-$275 include hot multi-course breakfast.