I’ve listened to my friends rave about their relaxing vacations in oceanfront hotels and strolls along the boardwalk in Virginia Beach from the moment that I arrived on the East Coast two years ago. But, I’m simply not a relaxing on the beach sort of gal; I love the sand between my toes and the sound of waves crashing, but sitting on the beach all day long –nope, I can’t do it. I admit that I had all too quickly written off Virginia Beach as not my sort of beach vacation.
However, just hours after arriving in Virginia Beach, I realized that I was wrong. Virginia Beach is in fact more than sun, sand, and a boardwalk. There is a natural side to Virginia Beach I hadn’t heard about: miles of trail winding by bald cypress trees in First Landing State Park, endless kayaking opportunities in the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and hundreds of treetop obstacles in the Adventure Park at the Virginia Aquarium. Virginia Beach does have the makings of my sort of beach vacation; it has plenty of opportunities to get outdoors and appreciate nature in addition to all the comforts that come from staying in an oceanfront hotel along the boardwalk.
Laidback Fall Fun at the Beach
The best time of year to experience the natural side of Virginia Beach is in the fall once the temperatures have cooled off a bit. Both a hike through the swamps of First Landing State Park and a bike ride along the boardwalk are much more pleasant when the temperature is below 85 degrees.
Also, Virginia Beach hosts many festivals during the autumn months. We were in town for the NAS Oceana Air Show the weekend after Labor Day in 2016; hearing the jets overhead and gazing up to see the Blue Angels made our weekend just a bit more special. Neptune’s International Sandsculpting Championship, part of Virginia Beach’s Neptune Festival held annually in early October (September 30 – October 9, 2016), is another family-friendly event that is sure to make your visit to the beach a memorable one.
See the Wild Side of Back Bay
As a marine science educator, I always take the opportunity to show my kids natural ecosystems on our beach vacations whenever possible. The best way to do that in Virginia Beach is to take an eco-tour with Surf & Adventure Co. in Sandbridge just 15-20 minutes south of the Virginia Beach’s oceanfront hotels. In the preserved wetlands of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge your family can spot river otters, ducks, egrets, and snakes as you paddle your kayak.
Go Play in the Treetops
There is one activity that we experienced in Virginia Beach that my kids will be telling their friends about for weeks, the Adventure Park at the Virginia Aquarium. My kids love aerial adventure parks where they can climb over and around obstacles 15-30 feet up in the trees. Having visited a few of these parks, we can confidently say that this is one of the best around. My six-year-old son’s favorite part is the zip lines mixed in with the obstacles.
This aerial park is actually on the grounds of the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, without a doubt the best place to spend an afternoon indoors in Virginia Beach.
Swim in Calm Bay Waters and Hike by Bald Cypress Trees
We began our Virginia Beach vacation by heading to First Landing State Park on the Chesapeake Bay, and it turns out that we aren’t the only ones that have discovered this gem in Virginia’s state park system. This historic park, the site of the first landing of the English colonists in 1607, is the state’s most visited park. There are 20 miles of hiking and biking trails through beautiful cypress swamps, tent camping sites just steps from the sandy beaches of the Chesapeake Bay, and one of the most tot-friendly shallow bay beaches in the area. Our family especially enjoyed watching the sun set over a lagoon accessed by the Narrows entrance at 64th Street.
History lovers, don’t forget to climb the steps up to the Cape Henry Lighthouse just outside the state park in nearby Fort Story. The lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and was the first built by the United States government.
Bike the Boardwalk
There are plenty of reasons why the Virginia Beach Boardwalk is a favorite tourist destination of Trekaroo families. It has fabulous ocean views, a nice ocean breeze, colorful public art, bikes to rent, a great family atmosphere, and easy access to miles of beach featuring playground equipment in more than one location. Our family enjoyed walking the boardwalk from our hotel on the northern end down to the impressive statue of Neptune around the boardwalk’s mid-point. While my husband and I walked, my kids raced on their scooters that we had brought from home.
Enjoy a Sunrise
My favorite thing about visiting Virginia Beach after Labor Day is that the sun rises around 7AM. It didn’t cost me much sleep at all to set my alarm for 6:30AM so that my toes could be in the ocean when the sun rose above the water. In fact, my seven-year-old daughter, the one that I have to pull out of bed at 8:30AM on school mornings, even asked to join me. Watching the sunrise with my daughter in Virginia Beach will be one of those memories that sticks with me for a lifetime.
And a Sunset
There are many lagoons where the sun can be seen setting in the west — and that’s mighty important to this California girl who can’t quite enjoy a trip to the beach without seeing the sun set over the water. We found beautiful sunsets at both the end of the road at the Narrows entrance to First Landing State Park and at Bubba’s Seafood Restaurant and Crabhouse during our stay in Virginia Beach.
While along the Mid-Atlantic coastline and Chesapeake Bay, eat as the locals do and enjoy crabs, oysters, rockfish, and clams. Bubba’s Seafood Restaurant and Crabhouse has it all, including steamed crabs when they’re in season, and the view from Bubba’s simply can’t be beat. We also found a winner in Big Sam’s Inlet Café and Raw Bar; this small restaurant on the edge of the harbor offers a full array of local seafood. However, our entire family agreed that the best dish of the night at Big Sam’s was the double-grilled wings, which was recommended to us by the locals in the know.
Of course, when in Virginia Beach, you’ll want to stay at an oceanfront hotel. With views of the sunrise and easy access to the boardwalk, there’s nothing quite like having a home-away-from-home just steps from the sand. Our family loved the Holiday Inn and Suites Virginia Beach North Beach because everything at the hotel is so family friendly from the breakfast buffet with significantly reduced prices for kids to the children’s pool area with a tiny lazy river and two small water slides. Also, the location of the hotel is just right; it’s at the far northern end of the boardwalk close, but not too close, to all the oceanfront amenities on Atlantic Avenue.
All pictures by Melissa Moore unless otherwise noted.
Disclosure: Thanks to Visit Virginia Beach for providing gift cards, complimentary activities and discounted lodging on the author’s visit to Virginia Beach. All opinions are her own.