In my decades of beach trips en famille, I have rented many a vacation house. Perhaps other moms can sympathize with me on the problematic aspects of this getaway format. If you stay in a house with your family, someone is going to be buying groceries, cooking, straightening up and dealing with piles of soggy towels. While the holiday may inspire a more creative division of labor, many of us mothers are born draft horses and if we see a harness, we climb on in. Perhaps with an equine sigh, blown through pursed lips.
This is why, when I planned a trip to celebrate the eighth grade graduation of my daughter Jane and two of her friends, I got the idea of staying in a place where there was no chance of domestic enslavement. The kind of place that has maid service, room service and elevators. Bellmen, bartenders, pool boys and people who schlep beach chairs and umbrellas. In a word, a hotel.
As I surfed around, my gaze fell on Virginia Beach. It was a five-hour drive from Baltimore, with the option of heading down the Delmarva Peninsula and across the 23-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which features a restaurant and gift shop halfway across.
Google images of Virginia Beach’s oceanfront depicted a Cancun-like wall of hotels bordering a strip of sand. In my younger years, this corporate tourism set-up had driven me screaming from Cancun to lower-profile beaches on the Yucatan Peninsula. In fact, I now recall, I once rented a casita in Akumal, which was lovely but lacked a staff. Until I got there.
The very layout I once eschewed now looked ideal to me, and to Amy Smith, the mom of one of the girls Jane had invited to join our party. The five of us fit snugly into a room at the Sheraton Virginia Beach Oceanfront Hotel—three girls in the king-size bed, two moms on the sleeper sofa.
With an advance rate of about $200 per night, our fifth-floor room included a microwave and mini-fridge. It featured piles of clean white towels and excellent air conditioning. It overlooked the ocean and the lushly landscaped stone boardwalk, which felt more peaceful than, say, Ocean City or the towns of South Jersey because all the retail—the stores full of flip-flops, saltwater taffy, refrigerator magnets and beer—is located on the land side of the boulevard, behind the hotels, rather than right on the beach.
A hotel is more than just a room where invisible elves make the bed and bring more shampoo and Starbucks coffee packets. From the 13-year-old point of view, the hot tubs, indoor and outdoor pools and fitness center, which they loved to visit late at night, were key attractions. The moms found that the bartender at the lobby bar made a great martini, while the one at the cabana by the pool had a way with a Sea Breeze.
As much as I may be a fan of hotels, I am not big on hotel restaurants: I love scouting the Internet and the tourist magazines for recommendations and deals. We found lots of choices in walking distance; in fact, we didn’t take the car out of the lot the whole trip, a big plus. The one meal we did eat at the Sheraton was lunch: leftovers from a dinner of pizza and all-you-can-eat spaghetti at the nearby Dough Boys California Pizza (doughboyspizza.com). We ordered up salads and place settings from room service, heated our plates in the microwave and enjoyed our view.
My extreme couponing got us a bargain on rental bikes—buy one hour, get one hour free—from Cherie’s Bike & Blade Rentals (visitvirginiabeach.com), which has 15 locations along the boardwalk. In two hours, we were able to go up and down the boardwalk bike path then head through the oceanfront neighborhood north of the hotel district to the Cape Henry Bike Trail, which runs through the woods of First Landing State Park and along Broad Bay.
This 2,888-acre park, the most popular state park in Virginia, commemorates the spot where English settlers first landed in 1607, before moving on to establish the settlement at Jamestown. The day we rode through, the pretty lakefront was filled with picnickers who had anchored boats offshore.
Our last night, we got a $20 deal on a surrey-with-a-fringe-on-top family bike and rode down the boardwalk to the amusement park, where soft ice cream and a Ferris wheel awaited.
In short, I got more relaxation in three days than I ever had during a week in a vacation rental. I’d go back anytime.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Sheraton Virginia Beach Oceanfront. Our hangout just underwent a multimillion- dollar upgrade, including a new fitness center and outdoor pool. sheraton.com
Hilton Garden Inn. This new hotel boasts 167 oceanfront rooms and suites, plus clever amenities like in-pool chaise lounges and a sand castle “setup” service with free buckets, shovels, kids chairs and umbrellas. hiltongardeninnvirginiabeach.com
WHERE TO EAT
Commune Crepes. Kevin Jamison’s new café (opening in early August) will feature 100 percent locally sourced ingredients mostly derived from his nearby farm. There’s even a 1,000-foot garden on-site. communecrepes.com
Pocahontas Pancake and Waffle Shop. Kitschy murals feature the Indian maid, John Smith and friends; the waiting area is a teepee. Once you finally get in, a vast array of carbs and egg specials await you at this local hot spot. pocahontaspancakes.com
Pelon’s Baja Grill. A Cali-style Mexican place serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The fish tacos, ceviche, guac and margaritas are excelente. pelonsbajagrill.com
Pleasure House Oysters. Sign up for the new Chef’s Table tour, where you’ll learn all about the famed Lynnhaven oyster—and eat ‘em right out of the water. pleasurehouseoysters.com
WHERE TO PLAY
The Surf & Adventure Co. Work off that caramel popcorn with this local crew offering guided kayaking excursions, top notch surfing lessons (they swear, you’ll get up at least once) and bike/camping retreats. surfandadventure.com