Virginia Beach has something that no other Southern beach can claim— a connection with the Chesapeake Bay— which means that some of the most diverse and rich sea life in the region comes to these waters. In the winter, humpback whales migrate along the coast— you can spot them breaching on one of the whale tours offered in the area. The currents are conducive for sailing, and the sands and water are warmer for longer than most mid-Atlantic beaches.
It also shares a proximity to the more famous towns that make up the “Historic Triangle,” which means that after you’ve stood where Gen. Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, seen Christopher Newport’s ships docked in the harbor at Jamestown, and learned about the importance of wigs to Colonial Americans in Williamsburg, it’s time to hit the beach.
At 250 miles from Baltimore, getting there is a bit of a trek, but the 20 miles of shoreline make it worthwhile. If you want to view the shore from your room, you’ll want to stay at one of the big hotels. Otherwise, what you’ll mostly see are, well, the big hotels.
The Ocean Beach Club— more of a condo than a hotel— fills the bill nicely. With ceiling-to-floor windows that offer sweeping views (insist on an oceanfront apartment, otherwise, you’ll be stuck with a view of the city), the one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments come equipped with a fully stocked kitchen, a nice-sized living space, and a multi-jet “rain forest” shower. The four flat-screen TVs may seem inviting, but you’ll probably be too busy to use them for anything other than as background sound while you’re getting ready to hit the beach.
The three-mile-long, concrete boardwalk (the original dates from 1888) is the place most people want to be, and from dawn to dusk it’s packed with rollerbladers, baby carriages, joggers, dog walkers, newlyweds, gum-chewing teenagers and frolicking children. The boardwalk is lined with plenty of restaurants, ice cream shops, video arcades and clothing stores. The shops run the gamut from cheap souvenirs to fashionable clothing and art.
Almost any beach sport or activity you’re looking for can be found here, from kite-flying to kayaking, skiing and jet skiing, fishing (off-shore, beach and pier fishing), sailing, dinner cruises, scuba diving, snorkeling, wave runners, parasailing and more.
As popular as the watersports are though, the food is a big part of the beach experience in Virginia Beach. A few blocks from the Ocean Beach Club is Catch 31 Fish House and Bar, decorated with tiny blue lights and tile, and white sails that appear to blow over a bar that was inspired by the bow of a ship. Fresh fish is flown in daily from around the world, but the daily specials that are caught in the bay and off-shore in the area are the way to go. If you arrive in May, you can still request a seat by the open-pit fire at night to take the edge off the last of the springtime ocean breeze (or provide an excuse for cuddling). Or skip the dinner crowd and arrive for happy hour and order up a bucket of freshly shucked oysters or clams and a cold brew. (In high season, the restaurant shows free outdoor movies; bring a towel and sit on the grass with friends.)
For more casual, family-friendly seafood dining, the rather nondescript-looking Captain George’s on Laskin Road is a favorite with the locals, and it’s obvious why. Everything here is about fresh seafood: crab cakes, she-crab soup, seafood casserole, steamed mussels and clams and anything that’s fresh off the boat. Plus, the kids seem to love it here. (Follow whatever seafood you get with one of the homemade cobblers— yum.)
If you’re visiting before Memorial Day— and even up until mid-June when the kids get out of school— the beach isn’t maillot-to-Speedo overcrowded and the water is just starting to warm up. This is the perfect time to go shelling in the shallow water, or take the 30- to 40-minute drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to see the wild ponies at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
After Memorial Day, free concerts start up in the parks along Atlantic Avenue. The season really kicks off with the annual Beach Music Weekend (May 14-17), which takes place along the sand at 30th Street. Popular local “beach music” bands such as the Main Event, Bill Deal’s Rhondels and Chairmen of the Board perform while both tourists and locals turn out to listen and shag (that’s a type of dancing, mind you). May 20 finds Coldplay at the Verizon Wireless Virginia Beach Amphitheatre, and the following weekend, Mr. Las Vegas himself, Wayne Newton, will kick it up with “Daddy Don’t You Walk So Fast” and “Danke Schoen” at the Town Center. On June 5, the Hardee’s Latin Fest mixes high-energy salsa and merengue dancing with a blend of Caribbean-cum-Southern foods and dancing on the beach. To see who’s playing when and where, check the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau (vbfun.com).
If you need more good music (but less seafood), stick your head into The Jewish Mother for a a bowl of Penicillin Soup (chicken and homemade matzah balls) or some of Mama Rachel’s Potato Latkes, and find out who’s on the roster for upcoming shows there. Dave Matthews, Hootie & The Blowfish and Leon Russell have all played (and dined) at The Jewish Mother.
The 54th annual June Boardwalk Art Show & Festival is one of the biggest outdoor art events in the region, hosting four days of contemporary fine art along 12 blocks of the boardwalk. The festival is coordinated by the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia— a museum well worth a visit (if for no other reason than to go for the quirky gifts at the museum store: the Midsummer Shade Lights by Tord Boontje are exquisitely fragile and playful). The Art of Glass show (which runs through the end of August) will exhibit works by Hank Murta Adams and Dante Marioni, and Gene Koss will be showing his large glass and metal sculptures.
If all that beach activity gets to be too much, those seeking relaxation can find solace at Oceanfront Yoga. They offer classes targeted to beginners, and the traditional postures are explained and nobody feels out of place. Drop-in classes and classes with varying levels also also available.
The Flowering Almond Spa, located in The Founders Inn, has a Thai massage well worth the 10-minute drive from the boardwalk. Your masseuse alternates a Swedish massage with a relaxing muscle stretch (you can go for 25 minutes at $55, but you’ll want to opt for the 110-minute indulgence for $125). Then stay for the White Tea French Pedicure ($50) so your tootsies will be flip-flop ready.
The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is the only aquarium in America where you can have a two-hour, behind- the-scenes interaction with harbor seals. They also set up whale-watching and dolphin-watching cruises. Or stay in the aquarium and look at the sand and tiger sharks, river otters, loggerhead sea turtles and other aquatic friends. The hands-on exhibits (oceanography, geology, anthropology, meteorology, etc.) are on par with what Baltimore’s National Aquarium has, but on a rainy day, this is a good place to bring the kids.
After you’ve seen animals getting wet, you’ll probably be ready to get wet again yourself, so a trip to the the Ocean Breeze Waterpark could be in order. There are tons of rides to choose from, but the must-dos are the Coconut Drops & Bamboo Shoots, Largo Loop, Paradise Pipeline and the oh-I-cannot-believe-I’m-up-so-high Bahama Mamma. After the screaming stops, head back to the hotel, where two oceanfront pools await you, and the frozen drinks at The Tiki on the Tortuga will make you forget that it isn’t quite August-hot yet. If it’s still too chilly to swim, the hotel also has a gorgeous indoor heated pool.
The fun of Virginia Beach is not only in sunbathing, bodysurfing and building sand castles. It’s also in the strong presence of art, music and food festivals found along the boardwalk and on the sand, creating an open invitation by the locals to visitors to come on over and play.