Norfolk is set to become the East Coast’s newest year-round cruise port. Carnival Cruise Line’s expanded schedule will boost tourism to the region

Norfolk’s cruise port is gearing up to welcome more passengers than ever before.

Starting in February 2025, Carnival Cruise Line’s 3,875-passenger Carnival Sunshine will begin sailing out of Virginia’s fourth-largest city year-round, offering a departure each week from the downtown waterfront next to Nauticus maritime museum. She will offer trips to the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Eastern Caribbean.

Cruise Terminal Improvements in Norfolk

In preparation for the influx, Half Moone Cruise Center, Virginia’s only cruise ship terminal, is closed this year to Carnival ships while it undergoes $12 million in enhancements. Upgrades will include an inclined walkway for debarking passengers, additional seating for guests waiting to board and an improved ground transportation design. (Even while the terminal is being upgraded, ships of other lines doing East Coast itineraries will be docking there this year.)

Carnival Cruise Line has been sailing from Norfolk since 2002, and in 2023 the Carnival Magic operated a six-month cruise schedule from May to October. A total of 250,000 cruise passenger visits last year made it the busiest cruise season in the city’s history. 

Structural improvements made at the cruise terminal in 2020 paved the way for larger ships coming to Norfolk’s sparkling waterfront, a lively area filled with green parks, shopping malls and restaurants. 

Carnival Cruise Line ships have been sailing out of Norfolk since 2002. (Photo credit: Nauticus)

Carnival Cruise Line ships have been sailing out of Norfolk since 2002. (Photo credit: Nauticus)

Expanded Cruise Business Will Benefit Attractions

The Carnival expansion “is a game-changer for our community and positions Norfolk as a major destination for visitors from across the country, says Stephen E. Kirkland, president and CEO of Nauticus, which operates the cruise terminal. “We will see visitors flying in and out of town for these sailings, further expanding the economic benefits these cruises provide to Norfolk and the Hampton Roads region.”

Nauticus, one of the East Coast’s leading maritime museums, features live science demonstrations, 3-D movies, and hands-on exhibits that explore the naval, economic and natural power of the sea. Berthed next door is the historic Battleship Wisconsin, where guests can walk the decks of the mighty vessel used in World War II, the Korean War and Operation Desert Storm.

Narrated harbor cruises on the Victory Rover, another visitor favorite, afford views of Naval Station Norfolk and its aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and guided missile carriers. Also from the downtown waterfront, lovers of colonial history can take a ferry to the Old Towne Historic District in Portsmouth. 

The area known as Virginia’s Historic Triangle, home to Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, will be a magnet for Carnival Sunshine passengers arranging pre- and post-cruise stays in Norfolk. It’s always been a favorite for shore excursions offered by cruise ships in town for the day.

For example, passengers on Princess Cruises’ “American Heritage” itinerary, a 10- or 11-day spring or fall roundtrip from New York, may opt for an all-day excursion to Colonial Williamsburg or one to Jamestown Settlement and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. Other tour choices for guests of the 2,200-passenger Island Princess include a Norfolk city highlights tour and one that combines Norfolk Botanical Garden with the boardwalk and Old Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia Beach. 

Princess Cruises’ 14-day “Canada and Colonial America,” operating in spring and fall between Quebec City and Fort Lauderdale, also makes a stop in Norfolk, which is centrally located on the mid-Atlantic Coast.

Besides Carnival Cruise Line’s, mega-ships, the small ships of American Cruise Lines also call at Norfolk. (Photo credit: American Cruise Lines)

Besides Carnival Cruise Line’s mega-ships, the small ships of American Cruise Lines also call at Norfolk. (Photo credit: American Cruise Lines)

Small-Ship Cruising in Virginia

Not all cruise guests in Virginia are sailing on mega-ships, though. American Cruise Lines, the largest small-ship and river cruise operator in the U.S., has an 11-day “American Revolution Cruise” that devotes two days to Norfolk. The new series operates roundtrip from Washington, D.C. in spring and fall on the 170-passenger American Constitution or 100-passenger American Glory. Among the many excursion options are a Victory Rover harbor cruise, Norfolk Botanical Garden, Chrysler Museum of Art & Douglas MacArthur Memorial, and the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach. The cruise also visits Yorktown for tours of Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown.

Other cruise lines that visit Norfolk from time to time include Viking, Holland America, Norwegian, Regent and Oceania.

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By Randy Mink

Lead photo – Carnival Cruise Line sailings depart from Norfolk’s Nauticus maritime museum. Battleship Wisconsin, at right, is one of the museum’s prime components. (Photo credit: Nauticus)