By DAN SCHLOSSBERG
Summer lingers longer in Virginia Beach. Its L-shaped coast hugs the Chesapeake Bay to the north and Atlantic Ocean to the east, while blending the hallmarks of a seaside town with the benefits of a rich historic legacy. The brackish bay meets the ocean at Cape Henry, where legendary Captain John Smith was among a three-ship armada that made the first New World landing by white settlers in 1607. He wouldn’t recognize the place today.
According to the “Guinness Book of World Records,” Virginia Beach is not only the home of the longest pleasure beach in the world, but also the longest bridge-tunnel complex on the planet. Virginia’s largest city, tucked into the state’s southeastern corner, features hundreds of hotels and restaurants, dozens of marinas, three military bases, two universities, and more than its share of monuments, statues, historic sites, and parks, including 210 city parks embracing 4,000 acres.
A sleepy seaside fishing village before rail service arrived in 1888, Virginia Beach mushroomed into a mega-resort after the advent of the automobile, air service, and air-conditioning. Milestones included the opening of the Cavalier Hotel in 1927, the same year Babe Ruth became the first ballplayer to hit 60 home runs, and incorporation as an independent city in 1952. Although current population is pushing half-a-million, the number of warm-weather tourists more than triples it. A stone’s throw from Norfolk, where planeloads of visitors land, the city banks heavily on the tourist dollar, with real estate and the national defense industries close behind. Conventions come too, thanks to the 2005 opening of a lavish convention center.
Visitors have plenty of choices, from patrolling the boardwalk by bicycle – including family-style vehicles with four sets of pedals – to touching swimming (not stinging) rays at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. The latter has 800,000 gallons of aquatic environments, 300 hands-on exhibits, an IMAX theater, narrated boat rides through the adjacent Owls Creek salt marsh, and a collection of live animals that varies from sharks and turtles to Komodo dragons, octopi, and dream-like jellyfish that seem so innocuous behind a glass window.
The aquarium’s next-door neighbor is the Ocean Breeze Waterpark, where 16 water slides share space with a million-gallon wave pool, lazy river perfect for tubing, and a myriad of water features including a giant bucket that dumps its load whenever the water level reaches the top. It’s the outdoor version of the Great Wolf Lodge concept.
At nearby Rudee Inlet, where there’s a maze of fishing boats and fishing rods, daily dolphin-watching vessels venture into ocean from the Virginia Beach Fishing Center. Early-evening passengers on the 65-foot Rudee Flipper learn about dolphin social behavior and get sunset shots fit for framing.
Although the boardwalk is made of cement rather than wood, its appeal remains. Joggers, walkers, sun-bathers, and swimmers in a wide variety of minimalist beachwear compete for space with food vendors, fishermen, photographers, and man-powered vehicles that seldom obey the rules of the road. But hey, it’s the seashore and people-watching is the main attraction anyway.
The section of Atlantic Avenue between 17th and 25th is nicknamed “Beach Street USA” for good reason: jugglers, magicians, musicians, and puppeteers perform for nightly handouts while live concerts and plays occupy strategically-placed stages nearby.
Supervising the beach scene is a huge statue of Neptune, mythological god of the sea, with flowing locks and trident in hand. At 34 feet tall, the imposing bronze relief has an ominous visage that warns visitors of the dangers that lurk in his domain. In Virginia Beach, however, Neptune bears the only scowl in a sea of smiles. Even on days when festivals, fireworks, and other frolics aren’t on the local menu, there’s no shortage of frivolity.
There’s a vendor who will write a visitor’s name on a kernel of rice, a collection of statues that pay tribute the region’s naval aviation legacy, and a myriad of tacky souvenir shops selling Virginia Beach hats, T-shirts, and towels – plus goggles, suntan lotion, and bikinis that blend maximum exposure with minimum tan-lines.
Of the 18 Virginia Beach sites on the National Register of Historic Places, photographers frequent the Cape Henry lighthouses, an 18th century brick bastion and its successor, an 1881 beacon that is one of the nation’s tallest cast-iron sentinels. Getting access isn’t easy, though, because both lights occupy military bases with stringent security checks.
Also on the can’t-miss list are the vintage 1903 old Coast Guard Station Museum; the Military Aviation Museum; tours of Naval Air Station Oceana led by retired military personnel; First Landing State Park, with 19 hiking trails included in its 2,888 acres of maritime forest; and the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, an 8,000-acre collection of barrier islands, dunes, marshes, ponds, and beach.
Even animals like the area. Like people, pelicans, raptors, seagulls, and songbirds enjoy a seafood diet, which Virginia Beach waters provide in abundance. Bluefish, mackerel, marlin, sea bass, and yellowfin tuna share local waters with whales and bottlenose dolphins, plus clams, crabs, and turtles. There’s even a monthly cash prize for the best catch during the Striped Bass World Championship the last two months of every year. For fishermen who fear seasickness, Lynnhaven Pier is a favorite spot for pier fishing.
Since the balmy weather lasts longer in a town perched on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, fall is a fine time to go – especially since crowds are smaller with schools in session again. There’s also less wait in local restaurants. Lynnhaven Fish House, with large picture windows affording twilight views of the Chesapeake, has been voted “best seafood restaurant” in Hampton Roads for 17 consecutive years. Diners watch as freighters and tankers docked in the bay slowly add their lighted silhouettes to the orange sky as it fades to black.
Virginia Beach: Where Summer Lingers Longer
Even on days when festivals, fireworks, and other frolics aren’t on the local menu, there’s no shortage of frivolity in this idyllic town perched on the border of Virginia and North Carolina
Another local favorite is Big Sam’s Inlet Café & Raw Bar, which serves seafood that might have been swimming just a few hours earlier. The lines are long, so go early – also a good rule of thumb for Citrus, the best breakfast spot in town. Prices are low, service is fast, and food is bountiful and well-prepared so it’s worth the wait. Sunday brunch at TradeWinds, inside the Virginia Beach Resort Hotel and Conference Center, has been voted “best of the beach” for eight straight years and their regular meals rate raves too.
On the other side of town, Sonoma Wine Bar & Bistro has a gourmet menu and quiet atmosphere unlike the frenetic bistros along Atlantic Avenue. It also has a selection of more than 100 wines plus proximity to Town Center, an area of 17 square blocks that includes the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts and live free outdoor entertainment (including jazz by Indigo Black at Fountain Plaza) through the month of October. Plan to partake of First Fridays ArtWalk plus the chance to shop at brand-name retailers. They’re all in the immediate vicinity.
Want to do something different before leaving town? Doc Taylor’s, a 1939 beach home that once doubled as a doctor’s office, has been converted into a popular breakfast/lunch spot where barstools go fast on weekends. The adjacent Tautog’s is even older – with a 1920s pedigree.
To stay on the quiet side of the energetic beach community, the best bet is the Virginia Beach Hotel & Conference Center, an all-suite beachfront property between the bridge-tunnel and the lighthouses. Guests on the top floors have great views of the bridge and bay. The also hotel has an indoor/outdoor pool, fitness center, convenience store, and underground parking.
For New Jersey residents, reaching Virginia Beach is easy: the Lewes-Cape May ferry eliminates nearly 100 miles of driving and points southbound drivers toward U.S. 13, though Delaware, Maryland, and eventually the Virginia section of the Delmarva peninsula and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 1964 engineering marvel that spans 17.6 miles of water and allows auto passengers to get an up-close and personal view of enormous ships. Mass transit links include Amtrak, via Richmond or Newport News, or air service to Norfolk.
For further information, visit virginiabeach.com or call 1-800-VA-BEACH.
Dan Schlossberg is travel editor of New Jersey Lifestyle and The Maggie Linton Show on Sirius XM Satellite Radio. He is also the host of Travel Itch Radio, a half-hour Thursday night podcast heard on iTunes and BlogTalkRadio.com.