For most people a trip to Virginia Beach offers sandy beaches dotted with umbrellas, waves breaking over scantily clad swimmers, an array of miniature golf courses, boardwalks filled with amusement rides, video arcades and souvenir shops. It is a place where the smell of vinegar fries and pizza compete with that of the salty sea air. It contains all the essential elements of a touristy beach resort but if you drive just a few short miles north to Fort Story, you will find a wonderful place that literally rises above all others – Old Cape Henry Lighthouse. This octagonal shaped structure, built in 1791, was the first federally commissioned lighthouse. It is now a Registered National Historic Landmark. Though its light has long since been extinguished in favor of its sister lighthouse New Cape Henry Lighthouse, (located directly across the street) the old sandstone structure still acts as a beacon, though these days it beckons visitors by land instead of sea to come and catch a rare glimpse of a lighthouse – from the inside.
For those of you seeking this unique experience, all you have to do is to stay on Virginia Beach’s main drag, Pacific Ave (Rt. 60) north, which will eventually become Atlantic Avenue and then enter the main gate at Fort Story. Do not let the guard post discourage you. The lighthouse, though located on a military base, is open to the public. All you have to do is provide a drivers license and be cleared by the guard. From there, you proceed directly to the Visitor Center where you will again need to show drivers license and vehicle registration to receive a visitor’s pass. It is only a minor inconvenience but I promise it is worth the effort. Once you receive your pass, you proceed straight ahead. You can’t miss the two lighthouses located on either side of Atlantic Avenue.
On your right you will see New Cape Henry Lighthouse, the taller of the two lighthouses (164-ft). As it is an active lighthouse run by the Coast Guard, you are only allowed to view this lighthouse from the grounds outside its surrounding fences. This lighthouse was built in 1881 to replace the old lighthouse which was thought to be cracking and unstable. However, in a testament to its design, the original Cape Henry Lighthouse, which is located on the left side of the street, still looms proudly today over 90 feet above all the activity below.
Access to the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse is obtained by entering the Visitor Center and paying a $3.00 per person admission. While you are there, you can also pick up any souvenirs you would like or chat with the informative staff. When you are ready, exit the back of the visitors center and proceed toward the steps – a sight you will become very accustomed to on this journey. It is essential that you have comfortable shoes and are in basically good physical health because this is definitely a “working” vacation. From this point on all you do is go up, up and up. That only gets you to the base of the lighthouse.
The entryway to the actual structure is impressive in itself. Once you step inside you are surrounded by thick sandstone walls that are showing a bit of wear and tear and what looks like hundreds or wrought iron steps spiraling upward for what seems like forever. The thick walls act as a barrier from all the sounds outside but allow those inside to reverberate throughout. Even though its age is evident, the structure feels very solid and even those of us with a healthy appreciation of heights can feel secure enough to begin the ascent. We did, however, see several people turn back along the way. It is, after all, 90 feet tall.
Initially, I tried to count the steps but gave up and decided to keep my eyes focus toward heaven rather than what was happening below my feet. We spiraled so many times, I was beginning to wonder why I wasn’t feeling dizzy. At last we reached a metal ladder that we needed to climb only to find that when we reached the top, we had to climb yet another spiral staircase. (This had to be someone’s idea of a joke.)
Finally, we reached our goal – the top of the lighthouse. We were rewarded with a private viewing of the most spectacular sights of the sea that seemed to go on forever just below us. Just watching the waves breaking on the rocks nearby and seeing the tiny ships off in the distance, transfixed me. I felt as if I could stay there forever (and not just because I was now dreading the long trip down).
Of course, all good things must come to an end and we did eventually make our way back down. But Fort Story’s story doesn’t end just yet. If you drive just a bit further down the road to Cape Henry Memorial Park you will see the First Landing Cross which marks the spot where the first Jamestown settlers landed on April 26, 1607. Also located in the vicinity is a memorial dedicated to the Battle of the Capes, which played a major role in America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. For those of you who enjoy walks along the beach, here you will also find a nice boardwalk leading down to the ocean front. Though there is no swimming permitted, it does offer the perfect ending to the day by allowing you a leisurely stroll alongside the crashing waves. Although Fort Story is small in terms of its size, its historical significance and unique offerings make it a giant among places to see in Virginia.
Hours: November 1 – March 15 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
March 16 – October 31 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Lighthouse closed December 5 – January 4