Getting to know the royal history of Norfolk, United Kingdom

Norfolk is a mainly rural county in the United Kingdom that offers many experiences for visitors, such as historical market towns and villages, nature reserves, wildlife, excellent dining and shopping options, unique heritage sites, and, of course, chances to experience the royal history of the area.

Visit Castle Rising Castle (shown right), which dates back to the 12th century and was owned by various members of royalty, Holkham Hall, which was once occupied by Princess Victoria and holds a quirky story, or Sandringham Estate, which celebrates its 150th year of royal ownership this year.

These are just a few of the royal history experiences that are possible in Norfolk. To get a better idea of the royal history, check out the gallery below.


Norfolk, Virginia: Thanks to PETA, it’s the next best destination for vegetarians

It seems likely that the site of the world’s largest Naval would be a place where meat monopolizes the menu. But in Norfolk, Virginia that’s simply not the case. The small city has truly embraced vegetarianism (and veganism as well), with nearly all of the restaurants featuring an ample list of veg-friendly options-plus plenty of places that cater solely to the meat-free crowd.

Obviously, larger cities like New York, San Francisco, and Toronto or towns that attract more eclectic inhabitants such as Portland, Bloomington, and Austin have plenty of demand for vegetarian eateries. In Norfolk, however, something else seems to be at work. The big influencer is actually the world’s largest animal rights organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is based there. For many positions at the organization, it’s actually a requirement that the employee is vegan-and it’s a bit of a no-brainer that the office culture probably dictates most employees stray from meat.

As the sailors filter in and out of the city, the PETA employees stay. As a result, there are plenty of places for vegetarians to eat morning, noon, and night. In the funky neighborhood of Ghent alone, there is a laundry list of over two-dozen restaurants that cater to vegetarians-and all seem to have mastered clearly marking menus for easy perusal.

Just a few of the favored pit-stops for vegetarians around Norfolk include Machismo Burrito Bar for Tex-Mex covered with nondairy sour cream and cheese, Rajput for Indian cuisine like veggie samosas and tofu palak, and Azar’s Market & Cafe for over 40 meat-free Mediterranean options. The menu at The Ten Top is dominated by veggies, and at Dragon City you can get cheap Chinese takeout that is assuredly vegan. Bella Pizzeria serves up pizza with soy cheese, and Yorgo’s Bageldashery goes above and beyond tofu cream cheese by serving a tempeh BLT wrap and “egg” salad. Even a local greasy spoon, the Donut Dinette, serves soy sausage with breakfast and vegan chicken salad for lunch.

Of course, the food isn’t the only draw to this seaport. There’s wine, too. Each year in May, the city’s waterfront becomes home to the Spring Town Point Virginia Wine Festival, when visitors pack the downtown area to sample Virginia’s finest vino and listen to live music.

But seriously: Besides food and wine, Norfolk has historical and cultural attractions that draw visitors year-round. History buffs will want to explore the naval museum Nauticus, where you can walk the decks of the impressive USS Battleship Wisconsin, a retired ship that’s storied history launched during World War II and continues through firing the first four missiles in Operation Desert Storm. Art lovers, on the other hand, should head to the Chrysler Museum of Art to peruse the expansive collection of 62 galleries or partake in a glass blowing workshop at the museum’s brand new studio. It’s also a good idea to weave through the local artist studios at d’ART Center, or possibly even plan a visit around the Stockley Gardens Arts Festival, a free event that brings 25,000 people to a local park (and just so happens to coincide with the Wine Festival in May).

No matter why you choose to come to Norfolk, it’s a city that is sure to surprise you once you arrive. My advice is to come for the food and wine, and stay for the great festivals and museums.

[Photos by Libby Zay]

Virginia hosts ‘100 Miles of Lights’ this holiday season

It might not even be Thanksgiving yet, but holiday travel planning is well underway. If you’re looking to be razzle dazzled this holiday season, the state of Virginia offers a festival of lights that has been bringing visitors back year after year. The 100 Miles of Lights celebration is a series of world-class light displays spread across six cities: Richmond, Williamsburg, Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk and Virginia Beach. While exploring the glitzy trail, visitors will find drive-through light displays, twinkling cityscapes, and other sparkling spectacles.

The whole shebang kicks off in Norfolk this Saturday with the Grand Illumination Parade, an event that sets downtown Norfolk ablaze in lights and is followed by a parade featuring festive floats, marching bands, giant balloons, dancers and more. Nearby, the Virginia Beach boardwalk will also be shimmering with Holiday Lights at the Beach (pictured above), which is expected to draw 30,000 cars to the boardwalk before the new year begins.

Newport News Regional Park will become home to Celebration of Lights (picture above), a two-mile drive of 750,000 lights and 200 displays, including the animated “Winter Wonderland” and “Santa’s Enchanted Kingdom.” Over in Richmond, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden will features more than half a million lights, botanical decorations and trains for GardenFest of Lights. New this year, the “Virginia is for Lovers” LOVE artwork will be on display, allowing families and couples to take holiday photos.

Besides these long-running events, Colonial Williamsburg will host a Grand Illumination on December 4, while Hampton will host the Holly Days Parade on December 11.

If getting the whole family to go to Virginia seems like a Christmas miracle, you may be in luck: The Virginia Tourism Corporation also just announced the “Virginia Snowmotion Sweepstakes.” The grand prize includes a free ski or snowboard lesson, complimentary equipment rental and lift tickets, a $200 gift card for dining, and a three-night, four-day stay at Wintergreen Resort for a family of four. Also included in the promotion is round-trip airfare and car rental to explore the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains. To enter, visit

Not able to make it to Virginia? Check out more of the best Christmas light displays in the United States.

Serial public art around the world

Public art exhibitions featuring a common sculpture that is multiplied and then embellished by various artists have been popping up in cities worldwide since 1998. Artistic director Walter Knapp first came up with the idea and convinced artists to dot Zurich, Switzerland with a collection of artfully-decorated lions. Within a year, Chicago businessman Peter Hanig had taken the idea and ran with it, using life-sized cows for an exhibition titled CowParade that is still circling the world today.

This idea of serial public art spread like wildfire into over 70 cities across the United States and many other locations worldwide. Tourism administrations seem to think the installations draw a crowd, while the exhibitions typically end in pieces being auctioned off to charity. It’s a win-win for all–unless, of course, you think the artworks are an eyesore.

From mermaids to gorillas, click through the gallery below to see a sampling of serial public art from around the world.


Blickling Hall: a living British comedy

There are two ways to experience Blickling Hall in Norfolk, England: straightforward or quirky. The former is intended, with a veritable army of committed volunteers on hand to explain every detail of the Jacobean house. Soak in the tapestry, portraits and antique furniture. Learn the history associated with each of the many rooms in the major … or, look just below the surface to see how crazy this place can be (unintentionally, of course). As you move from room to room, you can see the oddity that has crept into this National Trust property.

In nearly every room, you’ll be introduced to the ceiling. Except in a few cases, what covers your head dates back 400 years. You’ll hear this a lot. The expression “17th century ceiling” is spoken in nearly every room in Blickling Hall by the cadre of zealous volunteers who are quite proud of their overhead cover. It looks about the same in every room – except at the entry, where one of my fellow journos explained a tad condescendingly that the ceiling dates back only to the 18th century (silly me for not catching it). Once you get passed the obviously impressive stuff above, most rooms are packed with furniture and paintings that reach back centuries – they are certainly worth a close look.

None of this matters, however, when you get to the mysterious “17th century cabinet.” On its own, this classic piece is rather plain. Sure, it’s an antique – just like everything else in Blickling Hall. The volunteer staffing the room was great about talking up the cabinet, revealing that the inner artwork was a sight to behold. So, I asked that he throw open the doors for all to enjoy. Instead, he showed me photos of the inside, because the doors are only once a year. “I’m told the pictures don’t do it justice,” the volunteer said.

I’m told?


Alas, he has not been in the house the past several years the cabinet was opened and has not been able to enjoy the experience. But, he’s hopeful for 2009. The doors will be opened sometime in September or October. There is no pomp. There is no ceremony. Hell, there’s no warning! Apparently, the much discussed cabinet is opened sans publicity and sans any sort of planning. So, if you want to peer into the hidden treat at Blickling Hall, it would be smart to call ahead (though you may not get much in reply). Lean on the dedicated volunteers of Blickling Hall, and you may even be able to influence the schedule.

Lobby the volunteers for answers.

If you think a closed cabinet is fun, you’ll be blown away by the rooms downstairs. Before descending to the kitchen where the staff works, take a look at the staff organization chart provided by Blickling Hall. The two positions that stand out are the “footman” and the “odd man.” The former tended to be selected for his “physical attributes,” as the footman traditionally ran behind the carriage to make sure journeys proceeded smoothly. In the modern era, the footman’s duties included schlepping dishes up and down several flights of stairs.

Up until World War II, that was good for a mere £1 a week, though occasional generosity in the form of tips could bump a week’s take to £5. It’s hardly surprising that the last man to have the job didn’t return after serving a hitch in the war.

The odd man’s role at Blickling Hall remains a mystery, as the footman appears to steal the spotlight. I assume he did odd jobs – as the title implies – around the manor, but it’s unclear. Odd man out, perhaps?

When the footman took off for the war, did the odd man get promoted? Or, did he become the mildly strange man? One can only speculate.

Among the last rooms you’ll see is a stunning library containing 10,000 volumes, which Blickling Hall received in the middle of the 18th century. Before that, it was the exercise room. On many days, the children were set loose in the oversized chamber. But, what about the adults? When asked how adults exercised in 1745, the room’s volunteer offered a perplexed look before offering, “I guess they walked … and gossiped.” Dishing burns calories!

One can only assume that the footman and the odd man didn’t use the exercise room much, as they were kept busy enough.

A walk through Blickling Hall is a step back in time, and you can explore the world through lenses that are four centuries old. At the same time, it’s a contemporary comedy, in which volunteer retirees wax in serious tones that can’t help but make you chuckle. It almost seems like a British comedy written by an American.

Either before or after you tour the house, do check out the adjacent gardens. There’s no hint of quirk in this carefully manicured landscape. Wander the trails and hedges … and take a minute to chill (unlike the odd man, who I doubt ever had that luxury).

Whether you see Blickling Hall as a taste of classic England or a bunch of crazy Brits obsessed with ceilings and odd men, the experience is well worth the trek out to Norfolk. Time your stay to correspond to the grand cabinet unveiling – whenever hit may be – and you’ll pick up the rare experience that some on the staff have yet to enjoy!

Disclosure: Visit Britain shelled out some cash for this experience, and British Airways supplied the flights. Any questions about my objectivity? Read the article again. This is far from what they wanted from me.