I grew up near San Francisco with beaches that are rugged, breathtaking, and a mondo-sized failure for kids expecting a real beach. Alcatraz sits one-and-a-half miles offshore for a reason. Make a swim for it and you’ll freeze, drown, or be eaten by a shark.
So when I realized that Virginia Beach was two hours from Richmond, I was ecstatic. Others, not so much. At first, I thought, “Hey, if it’s swimmable, it’s miles ahead of San Francisco beaches.” But a friend said that when she was a kid, “Virginia Beach was a beacon for singles in the military who wanted to cut loose…not family-oriented at all.”
Undeterred by naysayers, I was eager to explore my new coast. I’d heard that Virginia Beach had seen changes and I wanted to see them for myself. The upshot? Because of too many nasty hurricanes, Virginia Beach has undergone more major renovations than Joan Rivers. And the plan is to continue to pump in $15 million every three years to keep her lovely for the millions who throng to her beaches.
Include the many hotels that are also getting pricey facelifts and you’ve got a beach region to brag about. The costly hurricanes of the past decade presented the City of Virginia Beach with a prime opportunity to spin the wreckage into golden beaches.
Meet the Beach Beauties
Virginia Beach, Virginia’s largest city by headcount, is home to several beach strips, each with its own distinct vibe.
Want a classic beach with sparkling sand, fun shops, and the hustle-andbustle of happy beach goers? Then you want the main Virginia Beach strip, which is vibrant and loaded with fun. This beach delivers a beautifully renovated boardwalk that is actually two parallel cement ribbons: one for walking, and one for biking and skating. Parents of littles might not love the semi-rough waves here, so this beach might be better for kids over ten. But you’ll dig the restrooms, lifeguards, and the cotton-candy-eating crowd. My boys and husband were enthralled to see the many military aircraft flying overhead due to the local naval base. We’re talking fighter jets and helicopters flying in formation, and just the sort of things that might irritate other people. In the cool of the morning, you can rent a bike or a surrey (four-seater) and take a ride on the boardwalk for an old-timey experience. Or get up early and meander on the beach. You’ll see plenty of shells, joggers, dolphins – and maybe a guy taking his parrot for a walk.
The Virginia Beach strip also has three first-rate brand-newish playgrounds: one at 10th Street; the second at 31st Street, directly beside King Neptune’s statue; and the third, JT’s Grommet Island Beach Park and Playground located at 102nd Street, is America’s first wheelchairfriendly beach park. VirginiaBeach.com
Prefer sleepy surf and great dining? Want in on the locals’ best-kept secret? Chesapeake Beach, also called Chicks Beach, is a stretch of beach with quiet waves, fine sand perfect for sculpting sand castles, and water temps that are a few degrees warmer on average. Are you a shade-worshipper? Lay your towels under the Lesner Bridge or the Bay Bridge to enjoy a huge swath of sun protection. Chicks-Beach.com
But if you want the Outer Banks – just closer – you want Sandbridge. An easy fifteen miles from the Virginia Beach strip, this golden five-mile beach is quiet, naturepacked, and entirely void of commercialism (read: no towering hotels or kitschy gift shops). Cottages provide a classic beach vacation ranging from triple-decker mansions that sleep thirty or more and have pools, to lovely condos with ocean views that sleep up to six. And while Sandbridge delivers the illusion of being a plane flight away from the craziness of life, you’re really just five miles from golf courses, restaurants, grocery stores, and Starbucks. Sandbridgebeachva.com
Kaleidoscope of Kid-Fun
When you need a break from the sand and salt, head out to one of these fantastic side trips.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Backing up to Sandbridge is an 8,500- acre protected sweet spot set aside for migrating and wintering birds. Depending on the season, you might see three hundred bird species including the snow and Canada goose, tundra swan, duck species, songbirds, and shorebirds. Other animals that call the refuge home include the loggerhead sea turtle, piping plover, peregrine falcon, and bald eagle. Several walking trails are located in Back Bay – some perfect for little legs – that begin a half-mile from the visitor center. The flat trails make pushing a jogging stroller easy. At the visitor center, ask about Little Island Park which has its own beach access, a fantastic picnic spot that also has its own pier. fws.gov/refuge/back_bay/
First Landing State Park
Locals remember it as Seashore State Park, but this beautiful beach region is now called First Landing State Park in honor of the Jamestown colonists who landed here in 1607. Located near the Chesapeake Bay, First Landing is brimming with outdoor adventure including biking, boating, hiking, tent camping, and cabin camping. In the cool of the morning, plan an easy trail walk and you’ll spy foxes, snakes, and other wild animals. dcr.virginia.gov
Ocean Breeze Waterpark
Have the kids started thinking that off-the-beach automatically means educational? This fabulous water park is just the ticket, plus it’s a five-minute drive from the main beach strip. Teens won’t find the spills and chills they require, but for twelve and under, sixteen water slides and a mammoth wave pool hit the spot. Tinies will love the quiet lazy river, a huge water playground, and mild slides. oceanbreezewaterpark.com
Old Coast Guard Station
This jewel of a Virginia Historic Landmark sits at 24th Street and boardwalk and is a great way to pack in a dose of learning fun during your trip. The Old Coast Guard Station houses a marvel of a collection educating visitors on its role in Virginia Beach’s nautical past. You’ll view more than a thousand photos, 1,800 museum pieces, and displays on women in the Coast Guard, battles from WWI and WWII, and wrecks and rescues from years past. oldcoastguardstation.com
Located in Norfolk, Nauticus is about twenty minutes from Virginia Beach, making it a perfect outing before or after your beach visit. This fascinating museum effectively combines aspects of marine, maritime, and naval life. You’ll see weapons, a real battleship, underwater artifacts, and more. My 10-year-old sons say, “Nauticus is very, very cool.” Their mom says, “Major worth it.” Plus, it’s part of the Science Museum of Virginia reciprocal membership network. nauticus.org
Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
Don’t miss this gem of an aquarium that offers a wealth of experiences including petting stingrays, starfish, and crabs; marveling at baby sea turtles and local birds like bald eagles; and getting up-close and personal with adorable harbor seals. Later, let the kids catch an IMAX movie (additional cost) about the ocean-world, tsunamis, and more. For smaller crowds, visit before ten or after two. Wear walking shoes for the short nature trail walk that’s highly recommended. Schedule a solid four hours (maybe five) to see it all. virginiaaquarium.com
Feeding the Baby Birds
We can all agree, feeding traveling kids is crazy-pricey. Keep the bills down with these rules:
1) Don’t book a hotel unless your room has a fridge. Call in advance and ask if honor bar items can be removed (many hotels will comply).
2) Map your hotel’s location to grocery stores and make it easy keep your cooler and fridge full.
3) Request a microwave – even with a fee the savings is worth it.
4) Grab subs for dinner or call to have a pizza delivered to your hotel room.
5) Eat lunch out instead of dinner to keep bills down.
6) Eat at my favorite spots in Virginia Beach. I can highly recommend the following: Beach Bully (awesome BBQ), Big Sam’s Grill and Raw Bar (casual, fantastic breakfasts, large lunches), Doc Taylor’s (some say the best breakfast around), Sugar Plum Bakery (worth the drive), Tad’s Deli (rockin’ sandwiches ideal for picnics and picky-eaters – closes at six o’clock), Il Giardino (fancy-ish Italian where kids are welcome).
Hanging Your Sun Hat in Virginia Beach?
No shortage of hotels in Virginia Beach, but after a lot of searching I found three that I love. Well. With one caveat – how to say this politely? – I find local beach hotels to be slightly wanting in one way or another: The parking is iffy or the beds are tiny (full not queen) or the pool is cold or… or… or. But these three properties work:
The Residence Inn Virginia Beach Oceanfront checks every box this mom has when it comes to a beach hotel: full kitchen with oven, dishwasher, pots and pans (squeal and check); all guest rooms are suites and come with an ocean view and queen-sized beds (definitely check); free parking (check); and free breakfast (awesome check). Marriott.com
But if you’re shooting for luxurious, check out the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront. This tall-glass-of-water was built in 2005 and sits in the heart of the boardwalk. Shouldering the Hilton is King Neptune’s statue, and Neptune’s park features a different soloist or band each evening. The two rooftop pools and hot tub are stunners. The infinity pool appears to be cascading right over the roof of the Hilton. A note: The upscale rooms aren’t as big as you would expect and full-size beds instead of queen were a bummer. In the evening I enjoyed sitting on our little balcony where we could see the ocean and eat our (delivered) Papa John’s pizza. Hiltonvb.com
If you’re a history-lover and would like a touch of old-world romance in your hotel, plan to stay at the Cavalier. Known for putting Virginia Beach on the map in the Roaring Twenties, this grand dame has welcomed many luminaries including six presidents and many a yesteryear celeb, like the Barrymores (Drew’s grands). My favorite Cavalier story is that Hank Ketcham wrote several Dennis the Menace cartoons after watching his little boy play on the Cavalier’s beach. The Cavalier is actually two properties: one is directly on the sand called the Cavalier’s Oceanfront and the second, the original property, is further back from the ocean. The original is undergoing a vast renovation so isn’t currently taking reservations. The Oceanfront is open until September 1, when it will be leveled to make room for an entirely new Cavalier property. Cavalierhotel.com
photos courtesy: Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau