Let's face it. Nobody goes to the beach for culture. (And I'm not talking frozen yogurt.) Fine art and sand just don't mix, and the closest thing to a Picasso is often in the postcard rack at the boardwalk T-shirt emporium.

Okay, there is the annual Virginia Beach Boardwalk Art Show, where this past June some 300 artists and craftspeople from as far away as Utah and Ontario congregated over four days and 14 oceanfront blocks to hawk their wares.

But, believe it or not, there are even higher-brow oases of visual refinement flourishing on Virginia's fertile coastal plain (in addition to myriad science, history, marine and military attractions).

Cursed with the brackish-sounding name of Tidewater, the southeastern chunk of the state surrounding the channel that flows between the James River and the Chesapeake Bay is, surprisingly, alive with a number of top-notch art museums and exhibition spaces, all within an easy hour's drive of the ocean.

Let's put to rest the region's reputation as merely a place to stop for lunch on the way to the water. Henceforth, we shall refer to the area (including the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg) by the tonier and vaguely British-accented name of its classy alter ego: Hampton Roads -- the name given to the heavily traveled waterway between the ports of Hampton and Norfolk.

The biggest and best of the area's visual arts institutions is Norfolk's Chrysler Museum of Art, established in 1939 as the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences in an Italian Renaissance-inspired palazzo on the Elizabeth River's Hague Inlet.

Rechristened the Chrysler Museum of Art in 1971 after a hefty gift was dropped in its lap by collector, philanthropist and automotive scion Walter P. Chrysler Jr. (said to have purchased his first Renoir nude as a 14-year-old schoolboy), the collection today consists of some 30,000 items spanning 5,000 years and is widely counted among the top museums in the country.

Imagine finding under one roof a museum whose modern and contemporary holdings rival those of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, whose antiquities and Old Masters can stand shoulder to shoulder with items from the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan, whose storerooms of decorative arts and glass craft (particularly work by Louis Comfort Tiffany) would put the Renwick Gallery to shame.

Now, imagine paying a visit to this dream institution on any day of the week and being able to find parking not 50 feet from the front door.

The Chrysler, you see, undeservedly lives in the shadows of its higher-profile northern neighbors. With an annual attendance of only 225,000, there's never a crowd, whereas a single blockbuster at the National Gallery might draw several times that number -- all of whom, it often seems, are competing for the same 10 parking spaces on the Mall.

With the user-friendly audio guides that are included in the price of admission, it's like having your own private tour of several museums rolled into one.

"Man, this is, like, glass city," one wide-eyed visitor was recently heard to observe upon discovering the glittering display cases of glassware for which the museum is justifiably best known. There, "open storage" vitrines are crowded with vases, bowls and goblets, often unlabeled and organized by color and continent of origin rather than style or maker.

In the Chrysler's vast glass galleries, examples of man's oldest synthetic range from vessels that once held olive oil used on the bodies of ancient athletes to 15th-century Venetian stemware to 19th-century American home products. Be sure to check out the Burmese-style furnishings of the Mount Washington Glass Co. of New Bedford, Mass., colored a delicate pinkish yellow by uranium oxide.

Of course, the cutting edge of the contemporary glass world is also represented, as you would expect, by the phantasmagoric chandeliers of Dale Chihuly. The blown-glass pioneer's "Laguna Murano" has nearly taken over the 16th- and 17th-century Italian gallery, where its amber stalks bristle harmoniously among the heroic canvases.

The Hydra-like installation is only one part of a summer-long, glass-themed exhibition featuring the work of Therman Statom, Stephen Antonakos and William Morris. Statom's paint-and-mirror assemblages and Antonakos's site-specific neon sculptures (one of which graces the Chrysler's facade) dazzle, but they can't compete with the strange and wonderful installations of former gaffer Morris (he was one of the master glassblowers who actually gave shape to Chihuly's molten glass designs).

These sensual and totemistic works -- dealing with "ritual, magic, life and death," according to the artist's statement -- easily steal the show from just about everything else in the museum right now. They alone are worth a trip to Norfolk.

Positioned in a series of dimly lit, ground-floor galleries -- appropriately adjacent to the Pre-Columbian, Asian, Egyptian, African, Greco-Roman, Indian and Islamic collections -- Morris's richly textured bone fragments and potsherds resemble artifacts unearthed from some otherworldly archaeological dig. Appearing at once familiar and utterly new in their glowing, theatrical settings, the pieces provoke both ancient reassurance and the twitching unease of the alien.

Also worth seeking out is the Chrysler's recent acquisition "Hamlet Robot," an uncharacteristically whimsical 1996 piece by video artist Nam June Paik, in which a sword- and crown-wearing android made from TV monitors plays clips from various film versions of the Shakespeare play.

More traditional but equally stunning are the 32 carved marble statues from the James H. Ricau collection of American neoclassical sculpture, although the crowded room into which they have been herded doesn't allow them quite enough breathing room.

Just don't go looking for William Bouguereau's dynamic 1862 canvas "Orestes Pursued by the Furies." The museum is renovating several of its 19th- and early 20th-century galleries this summer, and some of its most powerful works are in storage. They will reopen in mid-September.





All at the Chrysler Museum of Art, 245 West Olney Rd., Norfolk. 757/664-6200. Web site: www.chrysler.org. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 to 5 (the first Thursday of every month until 9); Sundays 1 to 5. $6 admission; $4 for students, seniors, teachers and active-duty military; free for children 12 and under. On Wednesdays admission is by voluntary contribution.

Twenty minutes away is another nonprofit arts organization, this one with no permanent collection, but with aspirations perhaps no less grand. Since 1952, the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia has been dedicated to the mission of fostering "awareness, exploration and understanding of the significant art of our time."

Ironically enough, this seaside salon -- situated not six blocks from the tacky boutiques of Virginia Beach's Atlantic Avenue -- seems to live up to that ambitious statement. With 8,000 square feet of flexible exhibition space (including a tall, sky-lit atrium), the Art Center manages to avoid the pretty, the predictable and the provincial with several museum-caliber shows per year. (In fact, its recently closed "Dale Chihuly: Installations" easily measured up to the Corcoran's own Chihuly exhibition two years ago.)

A co-sponsor of the Chrysler's "Art of Glass" extravaganza, the center is currently featuring the work of nine Seattle glass artists who have worked or studied with Dale Chihuly. Also on view are two group shows organized by staff curator Carla Hanzal around the theme of the horse, not only in recognition of the animal's regional popularity (nearby Suffolk, in addition to its peanut crop, is known for its horse population), but of the animal's rich symbolism for artists such as painter Susan Rothenburg and D.C. photographer Mary Noble Ours.

"I'm drawn to the iconography," explains Hanzal, who calls the horse "a compelling mediator between the chthonic aspects of instinct and energy and the sense of domestication." (And yes, contemporary curators everywhere talk like this.)

Hanzal, who came to Virginia Beach from Washington's International Sculpture Center two years ago, says she's also jazzed about the center's plans to add a sculpture garden and to turn the atrium's underutilized walls over to a rotating exhibition of Virginia photographers called "InSight." Spring shows by heavy hitters Malcolm Morley and Red Grooms are also under consideration.

"It's really quite exciting here," says Hanzal, who last year brought the dirt and glue sculpture of James Croak to Virginia Beach and whose "Objectivity: International Objects of Subjectivity" was honored by the Virginian-Pilot as the single best Hampton Roads exhibition of 1997.

"We just keep growing and evolving," she says. "We're able to get loans from major museums and collections that let us put on consistently compelling shows."



All at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, 2200 Parks Ave., Virginia Beach. 757/425-0000. Web site: www.cacv.org. Open Tuesdays through Fridays 10 to 5; Saturdays 10 to 4; Sundays noon to 4. $3 admission; $2 for students and seniors; free for children 4 and under.

One of the area's best-kept secrets can be found in the Hampton University Museum, in whose handsomely renovated former library building you'll find one of the country's oldest and best permanent collections of African art, African American art and Native American artifacts.

Founded in 1868 as an industrial and teacher training school for former African American slaves who stayed in Hampton Roads after the Civil War, the university (once known as Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute) owns 3,500 African artifacts and specializes in the Kuba art of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where alumnus William H. Sheppard did missionary work at the turn of the century.

"It certainly has not hurt to be friends with some members of the royal family of the Kuba people, many of whom are now Hampton alumni," says Roslyn Walker, explaining the university's extraordinary success in acquisitions.

Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art and herself a 1966 Hampton graduate in art education, Walker credits her success in life with the education she received at Hampton. "I'm intimately familiar with the museum, having spent most of my undergraduate days working there, including summers."

Walker calls the Native American holdings, which date from the school's pioneering American Indian education program, "of very fine quality," but describes Hampton's collection of African American art as one of a kind.

"The depth is what makes it unique," says Walker, speaking of a collection that includes works by John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Gwendolyn Knight, Romare Bearden, Wadsworth Jarrell, Betye Saar, William H. Johnson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Moe Brooker and Sam Gilliam, as well as the earliest African American painter whose work has survived, Joshua Johnson.

"I mean, they have a Duncanson!" says Walker, refering to obscure, 19th-century black landscape painter Robert S. Duncanson. "How many Duncansons do you know about?"

She's quick, of course, to acknowledge that her own museum's African holdings are more encyclopedic, but Walker never flags in praise of her alma mater.

"I would encourage anyone to visit this university," she says, "to visit a museum about which they will only be able to say, `This was an extraordinary experience.'"




All on permanent display at the Hampton University Museum, located in the Huntington Memorial Building of the Hampton University campus, Hampton. From I-64, take exit 267/Hampton University and follow the signs to the museum. 757/727-5308. Web site: ww2.hamptonu.edu/other/museum/index.htm. Open Mondays through Fridays 8 to 5; Saturdays and Sundays noon to 4. Free.

There are as many flavors of outsider art as there are ways to describe the current hot fashion in the collecting world: intuitive, primitive, raw, spontaneous, art brut, prison art, art of the insane.

Most of what you'll see in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, housed in a 1957-vintage neo-Georgian mansion on the periphery of Colonial Williamsburg, dates from before 1900, so there are more hand-carved weather vanes than hallucinations in crayon on wrapping paper (although there is one: the 1953 "Tiger in Tunnel" attributed to a schizophrenic named Ramirez). By and large, the collection here gives off the same antique whiff of button-down Americana that characterizes its historical setting.

The whirligigs, tobacco-store Indians and naive paintings collected by the wife of John D. Rockefeller Jr. initially seem to have little in common with the wild-eyed, sometimes drug- and dementia-fueled hal-

lucinations of Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum or the southwestern folko-loco of Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art, but, on closer inspection, all three institutions have a common aesthetic.

It's one where boundaries between high and low are blurred and rules are meant to be broken, where gender, age, race and class are seen as no more a barrier to making art than what we conventionally think of as skill. It's an aesthetic nicely embodied in Henry Church's "The Monkey Picture" (1895-1900), a painting whose simian subjects are shown -- literally -- upsetting the traditional notion of a still life.

When Rockefeller donated her collection to Williamsburg in 1939, it consisted of 424 objects. It has now grown more than sixfold and contains even a handful of 20th-century works, including the striking 1994 "Re-Birth" by Ronald Lockett. This unheard-of black man, whose strong, multimedia work jumps out from a sea of tamer pictures, at one point contemplated giving up painting because he "thought that art was for white folks."

Self-doubt also afflicted Quaker minister Edward Hicks, an adequate but technically uninspired sign painter who almost gave up art for farming -- until he realized he was even worse at that.

Hicks's obsessive-compulsive series of "Peaceable Kingdom" illustrations -- between 1816 and 1847 he painted more than 60 versions of the biblical subject -- are being showcased in the museum's new wing, built 12 years ago. Initially, the flat, awkward depictions of paradox -- lions lying down with lambs -- were painted to appease Quaker critics who found secular art ungodly. But eventually the visual chant, repeated over and over, came to serve not only as a vehicle for Hicks's struggle to reconcile his artistic vocation with his religious calling, but as a larger metaphor for the schism between rural and urban Quakers that was tearing apart his church in the early 19th century.

It would be nice to say the Hicks show is as fascinating as the rest of the Abby Aldrich Folk Art Center, but after a while such bombardment of "Kingdoms" (30 of which are displayed here) starts to feel like overkill.

A short walk from the center is the DeWitt Wallace Gallery, a prisonlike bunker whose garden courtyards are hidden behind four brick walls -- accessible only through Williamsburg's Public Hospital of 1773 (the nation's first lunatic asylum). Although the gallery is devoted to decorative art (i.e. furniture, furnishings and the odd Hogarth print), there are a number of stately if obscure paintings, such as Englishman Sir Godfrey Kneller's 1705 portrait of Daniel Parke II, a Virginia aristocrat who aspired to (but did not achieve) the goal of becoming the first native-born state governor.

As part of Colonial Williamsburg's recent initiative to increase awareness of the era's African American slaves, the gallery is also featuring "Am I Not a Man and a Brother: Abolition and Anti-Slavery in the Early Chesapeake," an exhibition that includes an intriguing double-sided canvas by an unknown artist.

On one face, the "Portrait of a Man" depicts an anonymous male sitter, while the flip side, "Virginian Luxuries," shows a white slaveholder beating and taking sexual advantage of two of his slaves. Such subversive irony is unexpected -- and welcome.

THE KINGDOMS OF EDWARD HICKS -- through Sept. 6 at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, 307 South England St., Williamsburg. Open daily except Thursdays 10 to 5.

AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER: ABOLITION AND ANTI-SLAVERY IN THE EARLY CHESAPEAKE -- Through Jan. 2000 at the DeWitt Wallace Gallery, 325 Francis St. 757/220-7724. Web site: www.colonialwilliamsburg.org. Open daily except Tuesdays 11 to 5. Admission to both museums is available by purchasing an $11 Museums Ticket.

Founded in 1962 as the Peninsula Arts Association by a group of Hampton Roads women, today's Peninsula Fine Arts Center has come a long way, baby, from the days when it was primarily a venue for traveling exhibitions from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and hopped from one temporary home to another.

Now ensconced in a converted hydraulics lab, the ever-restless institution is once again contemplating a move -- from the 550-acre park it shares with the neighboring (and better-known) Mariner's Museum to a new I.M. Pei-designed building on the campus of Christopher Newport University. In the meantime, despite its growing pains, the organization manages to mount an annual well-regarded regional juried show of its own, as well as frequent themed exhibitions like "It's All Relative," last winter's survey of artists who happen to be kin.

True to its roots, however, the center does return to the Richmond well from time to time, with varying degrees of success, as illustrated by its vibrant retrospective of Warhol's pop silk-screens in 1997, borrowed from the Museum of Fine Arts, and its current, somewhat duller sampling of ancient Egyptian artifacts.

The main flaw of "Life and Afterlife: Cycles of Nature and Belief in Ancient Egypt" -- a traveling sideshow to the MFA's "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" blockbuster -- is its heavy reliance on text over image. The logorrheic show, which feels more like something you'd find in a library, is currently making the rounds of regional Virginia galleries and is scheduled to arrive at McLean's Emerson Gallery in December.

Like the Rosetta stone, a facsimile of which is on view in a companion exhibit intended for children, "Life and Afterlife" is fragmentary. It disappoints by leaving you wanting more than its meager offering of 19 action-figure-size tchotchkes. Sure, the tiny faience sculpture of the ibis-headed god Thoth (a patron of arts and letters) is undeniably beautiful, but I'd rather feast my eyes on more items like it (by, say, visiting the nearby Chrysler Museum's Egypt room, or even trekking to Richmond). People don't go to museums anymore to read pages and pages of tiny type about the cultural significance of sand in the Egyptian diet.

Or do they?

According to PFAC director Lise Swensson, the Egypt show -- which the center has supplemented with a handful of related displays of its own, including an intriguing collection of Egyptian theatrical photos from the '20s, '30s and '40s -- is turning out to be one of its best attended exhibitions ever.

"We're getting better and better at figuring out exactly what the public wants," says Swensson, "and what they want is something with a theme they can get into. It's not that contemporary art is a bad thing, but we've found that we need to do more than contemporary art."






All part of "Egypt: Gifts of the Nile" through Aug. 19 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center, 101 Museum Dr., Newport News. 757/596-8175. Web site: www.pfac-va.org. Open Mondays through Saturdays 10 to 5 (Thursdays until 9); Sundays 1 to 5. Free.

In addition to the Chrysler Museum of Art, Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, Hampton University Museum, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Center, DeWitt Wallace Gallery and Peninsula Fine Art Center, Hampton Roads is home to a number of other, smaller visual arts exhibition spaces:

Charles Taylor Arts Center, 4205 Victoria Blvd., Hampton. 757/722-2787. Changing exhibitions of contemporary art as well as shows of older works borrowed from other institutions. Open Tuesdays through Fridays 10 to 6; Saturdays and Sundays 1 to 5. Free.

Courthouse Galleries (aka Art Center of the Portsmouth Museums), corner of High and Court streets, Portsmouth. 757/393-8983. Changing exhibitions of contemporary art in a converted 1846 courthouse. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 to 5; Sundays 1 to 5. Open Mondays 10 to 5 through Labor Day. $1.

D'Art Center, 125 College Pl., Norfolk. 757/625-4211. A multi-artist studio space along the lines of Alexandria's Torpedo Factory, with changing exhibitions of contemporary art. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 to 6; Sundays 1 to 5. Free.

Hermitage Foundation Museum, 7637 North Shore Rd., Norfolk. 757/423-2052. An early 20th-century Tudor revival mansion showing period art and antiques. Open Mondays through Saturdays 10 to 5; Sundays 1 to 5. $4 admission; $1 for children 17 and under; military personnel free.

The Mariners' Museum, 100 Museum Dr., Newport News. 757/596-2222. Permanent and changing exhibitions on seafaring themes, featuring carved figureheads, portraits and seascapes. Open daily 10 to 5. $5 admission; $3 for students; free for children 5 and under.

Muscarelle Museum of Art, College of William and Mary, Jamestown Road, Williamsburg. 757/221-2703. Changing exhibitions of contemporary and period art in addition to a wide-ranging permanent collection featuring Colonial-era, contemporary, African, American Indian, Asian and folk art. Open Mondays through Fridays 10 to 4:45; Saturdays and Sundays noon to 4. Free.

Suffolk Museum, 118 Bosley Ave., Suffolk. 757/925-6311. Changing exhibitions by local contemporary artists. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 to 5; Sundays 1 to 5. Free.

Visual Arts Center of Tidewater Community College at Olde Towne/Belle B. Goodman Gallery, 340 High St., Portsmouth. 757/822-6999. Changing exhibitions of contemporary art. Open daily 9 to 8. Free.

Williamsburg Regional Library Arts Center Gallery, 515 Scotland St., Williamsburg. 757/259-4070. Changing exhibitions by regional artists. Open Mondays through Thursdays 10 to 9; Fridays 10 to 6; Saturdays 10 to 5; Sundays 1 to 5. Free.

Artful Lodgers

One of the best restaurants in Hampton Roads is Todd Jurich's Bistro (210 West York St., Norfolk; 757/622-3210), a small but elegant establishment not five minutes from the Chrysler Museum of Art on an unassuming city block between the historic Freeman district on the waterfront and downtown. Award-winning chef and owner Jurich transforms ingredients purchased from local farmers into culinary gold with simple alchemy (e.g., Smithfield pork on daikon-cucumber salad and wasabi mashed potatoes).

For a varied menu of salads, sandwiches and entrees, try the Chrysler's own in-house restaurant, Phantoms (245 West Olney Rd., Norfolk; 757/664-6291), serving lunch Tuesdays through Saturdays as well as brunch on Sundays and dinner on the first Thursday of every month, when the museum has extended hours. Lighter fare such as muffins and cappuccino are also available at the Cafe Chrysler, a new, informal grouping of tables located in the museum's atrium.

Dining in any of Colonial Williamsburg's four reconstructed 18th-century taverns -- Shields, Chowning's, King's Arms and Christiana Campbell's (all on Duke of Gloucester Street, except for Campbell's on Waller Street; 800/447-8679) -- is more of a theatrical than gustatory experience, with period-costumed waiters serving such 250-year-old favorites as fried chicken and Brunswick stew.

Considerably more sophisticated is the menu at the Trellis Cafe Restaurant and Grill (403 Duke of Gloucester St., Williamsburg; 757/229-8610). Marcel Desaulniers is no slouch at entrees, but the multiple award-winning chef and popular cookbook author's specialty is dessert, including the infamous Death by Chocolate. His seasonally changing menu of contemporary American cuisine consistently garners much local and national attention, so reservations here are always a must.

Virginia Beach offers a smorgasbord of upscale and downscale dining rooms, but when in Rome. ... Dark, marginally divey and defiantly old-school, the Raven (1200 Atlantic Ave., Virginia Beach; 757/425-1200) is a local landmark whose unpretentious kitchen and bar have been serving juicy burgers, seafood, steak and brew for 31 years. Plus, it has its own parking lot -- an all-too-rare amenity in this increasingly crowded town.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

Tidewater -- Williamsburg, Newport News, Norfolk and the surrounding communities -- is rich in places to stay ... if you like chain hotels and motels, which dominate the landscape.

For information on lodging, call these numbers or visit the Web sites:

Hampton Visitors Center -- 800/800-2202. Web site: www.hampton.va.us/tourism

Newport News Tourist Information Center -- 888/493-7386. Web site: www.visit.newportnews.org

Norfolk Visitors Information Center -- 800/368-3097. Web site: www.norfolk.va.us

Portsmouth Visitors Information Center -- 800/767-8782. Web site: www.ci.portsmouth.va.us

Virginia Beach Visitors Information Center -- 800/446-8038. Web site: www.city.virginia-beach.va.us

Williamsburg Area Convention & Visitors Bureau -- 800/368-6511. Web site: www.visitwilliamsburg.com

Special housing in the Williamsburg area includes the highly rated and very elegant Williamsburg Inn and the rooms in the re-created or restored colonial houses in the historic part of Colonial Williamsburg. Rates for the luxurious rooms at the inn or the colonial houses can run more than $200 per night. Less pricey accommodations can be found in Colonial Williamsburg's two resort hotels, the Lodge and Woodlands. For rates and packages, call 800/447-8679.

Just east of Colonial Williamsburg is Kings Mill Resort, 1010 Kingsmill Rd., Williamsburg. 800/832-5665. This riverfront resort features three 18-hole golf courses, a spa, championship tennis courts, a sports club and lodging that ranges from regular hotel-like rooms to three-bedroom condos. Rates start at $179 per night.

B&Bs in the Tidewater area include:

Page House Inn -- 323 Fairfax Ave., Norfolk. 800/599-7748. This beautifully restored Georgian Revival features four rooms and three suites. The rooms are furnished with antiques. The suites have whirlpool tubs. Rates start at $116 per night and include a continental breakfast.

Newport House B&B -- 710 South Henry St., Williamsburg. 757/229-1775. This inn, built in 1988 from a 1756 design, is located a short walk from Colonial Williamsburg. It offers two large rooms, each with private bath; each room can sleep three people. Rates are $130 for the first night; $120 for succeeding nights, single or double occupancy; $20 for third person.

-- Larry Fox