NORFOLK, Va. -- The expression on my face must have shown my sheer frustration. I had been waiting half an hour for Fred -- make that F.R.E.D. (Free Ride Every Day.) This eco-friendly taxi comes equipped with battery power and solar roof and is available on request for those in need of a ride to a specific Norfolk destination.
As luck would have it, I needed F.R.E.D. on the day it was scheduled for routine maintenance. I was disappointed, but not meeting F.R.E.D. led to meeting Raleigh, a jovial gent who approached me and offered to walk me to my destination, chatting all the way about the virtues of his hometown.
Raleigh, it turned out, was one of a cadre of roving ambassadors whose sole job is to help visitors navigate their way around this southeastern Virginia coastal city.
My destination was the waterfront and the American Rover Cruise Company. Home to the world's largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk, and NATO's Strategic Command Headquarters, the city is as much about water as it is land. My sunset sail courtesy of American Rover would allow me to get the lay of the land (or I should say water).
Departing from the marina on the downtown waterfront, the ship, with its red tan bark sails, has been a Norfolk fixture for more than three decades, taking visitors on an informative tour of the harbor.
If big battleships are more your thing than pleasure craft, the USS Wisconsin juts out of the water like a 60,000-ton steel behemoth. One of the Iowa class battleships known for their speed, she performed gallantly in World War II, the Korean War and the Gulf War before being retired here and opened as a museum.
Pleasure boats cram the downtown marina; water taxis are a common form of transportation between the Norfolk and Portsmouth waterfronts, and if you need any further proof of the water's importance, the city's ubiquitous mermaid symbols should clinch it.
More than two decades ago, a local sculptor mass produced the casts for 130 mermaids, and then invited artists to design and paint the sea sirens. While no one seems to know exactly how many there are today, most believe they have doubled in number over 20 years.
There's a baseball-themed mermaid at Harbor Park, home of the Norfolk Tides, and a chocolate mermaid at MacArthur Center Mall. There are mermaid cocktails (try the mermaid water cocktail, a frothy concoction of Captain Morgan Spiced Rum, Blue Curacao and Cruzan Coconut with a splash of pineapple juice, at Stripers).
There's wine at Mermaid Winery, the first urban winery in Virginia, and mermaid-themed merchandise at the Mermaid Market. You can even design and paint your own wooden mermaid at the Mermaid Factory in the Ghent Historic District.