INTERSTATE 64 reaches deep into Tidewater Virginia south of Richmond through some of the handsomest and flattest country in the Old Dominion. It cuts through fertile farmland heavy with the scent of wild lilacs in the spring, crosses the port of Hampton Roads and ends up in the mixing bowl blend of Norfolk and Virginia Beach. With only a tiny detour it puts you within reach of Yorktown and williamsburg.

Put together, it's a smorgasbord of history and resort, well worth the painful boredom of the superhigh ways south from Washington.

Hardly any of us could escape knowing that Norfolk is a Navy town, head-quarters of the Atlantic Fleet. A quarter of the country's sailors live within a 25-mile radius of Norfolk. But the city is also a southern port with a history stretching back to 1682 and, though it was shelled by the British and later burned by the colonists, much of the past survives. Norfolk is a burgeoning manufacturing city, but neither its southern charm nor its hospitality has suffered. The first evidence of this is that all the parking lots are free for the first two hours. e

The Navy knows that the public buys its ships, and every weekend between 1 and 4:30 p.m. it invites vistors in for open house on two vessels. Naval bus tours run hourly on the base with a guide aboard to point-out the sights. The tours are remarkably interesting. They tell you that 10,000 messages a day are proceesed here and that the firetruck motor is always kept running, but you also learn a little about a sailor's life.

You find out what it's like to live on a carrier for six months with your only privacy a sleeping compartment the size of a coffin and planes catapulting off the deck overhead. You hear about what goes on the control damage school where they learn to cope with a fire at sea, and you might even hear it whispered that some enlisted men are now holding down outside jobs to make ends meet.

You'll be impressed by the spick-and-span look of the base -- litter trucks are always on the go -- and by the charm of Admiral's Row, built in 1907 to mark the 300th anniversary of Jamestown. Each house in the row was built by a different state.

After you check out the Navy, pay a call on Norfolk's Gardens-by-the-sea. Board the canal boat that drifts lazily through the 175 acres of gardens, raise your parasol and trail your fingers in the water to enjoy perhaps the nicest 30 minutes offered anywhere. The camellias and the azaleas are no longer in blossom but it is rose time now, and (at any time of year) there are the fragrance gardens for the blind, the Japanese gardens and the sunken gardens. If you prefer, you can walk through. Or take a trackless train.

There are reminders of the past everywhere in Norfolk. The cannon ball fired at St. Paul's Church in 1776 by Lord Dunmore is still sticking in the wall. For more recent history, the mementos of the life of Gen. Douglas MacArthur were gathered together in a memorial museum at City Hall Avenue and Bank Street. It's a stop on nearly every tourist schedule. They eye MacArthur's West Point bathrobe and his wife's salt and pepper collection; listen enrapt as the documentary film unfolds the MacArthur story, depicting a larger-than-life hero; stare wordlessly at the Chrysler staff car that carried him about his duties. The MacArthur statue in the courtyard is always surronded by amateur photographers.

Nobody who comes here will miss the sense of drama that cloaked the life of the general. His imposing final resting place recalls Napoleon's grave, the handwriting in the manuscript for his reminiscences is strong and nearly always a final draft. The picture of him as a young man, popping the buttons of his West Point uniform, presages great things. His mind, it seems, was never far from his military career. Among the books in his footlocker (found by chance at an auction) is a copy of "Napoleon's Expedition to Russia."

When you leave the memorial, you might spend a pleasant moment or two at the Norfolk home of Moses Myers. If you ever wondered about the life of an 18th-century gentleman of means, this is the place to dine out. Myers was many times a millionaire, owner of five ships plying Norkfolk's harbor, put what gives his house its special flavor is that six successive generations of his family continued to live here when he was gone. The costumed hostesses are steeped in the Myers family gossip and they give a lively tour, not forgetting to include remarks of reluctant schoolchildren led through on field trips. (Gazing with glazed eyes at the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Mrs. Myers, one small boy remarked that she looked a good deal like George Washington.)

With their knowledgeable chatter, the hostesses make you feel as if you are being led through by a friend of the family. They fling open the closet to show you Myers' waistcoat and beaver hat, dig in the buffet to show you the marrow spoons, confide that the Sully portrait of one of the sons was said to be very flattering. It's all good fun, and afterwards you can go to the giftshop and buy sweet potato biscuts stuffed with Virginia ham. A mouthful of these and you'll know you're really in the south.

The Omni International on Waterford Drive is the hotel and reasonable: In the downtown section a number of good restaurants off Norfolk's seafood. Courtney's in the Ghent area, reminiscent of Georgetown, is good for lunch. Le Charlieu in Knickerbocker Square is very popular.

Some 20 minutes away lies Virginia Beach, the resort-suburb to which many Navy officers have retired. The beaches here are amazingly litter free, perhaps because picnicking on them is forbidden. Houses for the summer season rent as high as $2,000 a month, and even then you'd better start looking early. The usual cluster of motels overlooks the beach, dominated by the imposing figure of the old dowager herself, the Cavalier.

When the nightboat plowed its stately way down from Washington in the 1950s, the old Cavalier was one of the great resorts, complete with social hostesses, live orchestras, planned children's activities. cThe Cavalier opened again for the season May 15 with the upper floors renovated, but the ghosts of its illustrious past will miss the carriage trade that once stood in line at its reception desk. The Cavalier, a motel under the same management, stands where the old beach club did, on the other side of the road and not very different from a million other motels.

Seafood is Virginia Beach's strong suit and the Lunnhaven oyster is its pride. Try the she crab soup at the Lighthouse, one of the restaurants specializing in seafood on the beach. While you eat, you can watch the fishing boats out beyond the picture window.

Eighteenth century houses are as plentiful as dropped "r's" in Tidewater Virginia. Many are in private hands, like the one in which my daughter and I were guests, a house built in 1700 which hand-blown windows and mantles carved with a penknife. But even in a state that has erected 1,500 markers to call attention to history, the Adam Throughgood house, oldest dwelling standing in Virginia, is remarkable.

Adams Throughgood, seventh son of a bishop, first came to this country as an indentured servant. By the time he built his house in Virginia Beach in 1626, he had indentured servents of his own who made the brick from which the house was built. Three and a half centuries later you can still see Adam's initials in one of the bricks of the front and the pawprint of a long-ago errant dog on one of the bricks in the rear. Don't fail to climb the stairs of this house to see the two leather mugs representing early 18th-century figures displayed in the winter bedroom. The gentleman's pleasure garden behind the house is a charmer, from its espaliered pear fence to the geometric boxwood patterns.

And then there's Yorktown, planning a celebration of its own next year. Many a tourist, intent on other destinations, speeds by Yorktown on the throughway without stopping. This is a mistake. This little village where Cornwallis surrendered in 1781 is worth a detour, if only to see the corner of Main and Nelson Streets where seven 200-year-old houses are within view. Plans for marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown are going forward slowly, possibly because the Bicentennial took the bloom off with its own big show. But even if you don't want to stop for the audio-visual display at the Vistor's Center, drive along Main Street for a look and go to the battlefield. It is nothing like Gettysburg and you have to use your imagination, but it is beautiful and full of Revolutionary ghosts.

Of all the reminders of what took place in Yorktown, Cornwallis' cave may be the most underrated. The British commander lived here in the cave for the last few days before his surrender, and only a clod could look at it and not be impressed by what happened to this proud man. You can see the cannon ball marks in the cliff around the cave and peer in to see where he took refuge from the ships' fire, though iron bars prevent you from entering. The York River, where the ships stood off, very close.

In Colonial Williamsburg, one-time hotbed of Revolutionary fever, there's a new approach to history. Take the Colonial Parkway over while you're in the neighborhood and check out their pitch for dramatic living history using professional actors. It brings it all alive and may help Williamsburg's mission of guarding 85 years of 18th-century history, now often compressed into a mere day or two in the schools what with the press of recent events.

The emphasis is on everyday life and it may be hard this summer to tell the audience from the actors. A troupe of professional thespians now mingle with the visitors, portraying an array of characters with 18th-century prejudices, problems and duties. Vistors may encounter them almost anywhere in the restoration, recreating anyone from the haughty recruiting officer on Market Square Green to the black scullery maid in one of the houses.

"A Night on Palace Green," Fridays through June 20, will see the royal governor and his neighbors giving a party, and you're invited. You can knock at the door and be greeted first by the footman and then by the governor himself, and might be taken down into the wine cellar where the steward mumbles unhappily about his own Tory sympathies. Across the green you might engage George Wythe in conversation about his garden. The Children can play games in the yard while you watch the costumed guests do the minuet.

Wednesday, June through August, you can sit in the candle-and-cresset-illuminated Hall of the House of Burgesse and join the debate over the Stamp Act. Audience participation, when tried last year, was so intelligent and informed that some viewers accused the restoration of planting actors dressed as tourists.

This year, for the first time, the personal residence of John D. and Abby Rockeffeller Jr. will be opened to the public, beginning June 1. An 18th-century mansion, it was restored by the Rockefellers in 1936 and furnished to reflect their taste. Hirohito, Queen Mother Elizabeth and a plethora of other world figures visited here during the Rockfeller residence, but the furnishing are homey, contrasting vividly with the formal settings of the nearby historic area. The house was willed to Williamsburg after the accident which killed Rockfeller in 1978.