Shark tank

The 300,000-gallon shark tank is a popular spot at the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach. (Randy Kraft: Allentown Morning Call / August 14, 2003)

Virginia Beach may be home to North America's oldest surfing contest, but don't be fooled - hundreds of amateur and professional boarders not only flock to this coastal town to tackle gnarly waves - they come here to party hearty.

"It's the best beach party in the country," says Paul West, director of the East Coast Surfing Championships. "There's a great aloha vibe flowing."

The "aloha vibe" not only welcomes athletes from around the world, but the four-day festival, beginning Aug. 20, also appeals to local residents and tourists alike.

It all started in Gilgo Beach, N.Y., in 1961 when a cluster of wealthy parents threw a party for their surf-obsessed teen-agers. At that time, surfing was still a novelty on the East Coast, but curiosity soon fueled a surf craze. A year later, the party was renamed the East Coast Surfing Championships and was promoted by word of mouth, and by the third year, the party's reputation had spread up and down the coast.

In 1963, the event was moved to Virginia Beach - a more central location that was better known by the surf community.

In this 41st year of the festival, approximately 100 professional surfers from around the world will compete for a cash purse - the junior men's prize is $15,000, the largest in North America. Hundreds of amateur surfers are also expected to compete for top ranking on the amateur circuit.

Spectators won't be able to get this caliber of East Coast amateur surf action anywhere else in the area, longtime surfer C.D. Thomas says. "Sure, you have contests here and there, for this and that reason, but for decades the ECSC is the biggest game on this coast."

"It's not Disneyland by any means, but it's the next best thing on the beach," West adds.

What to see

Adjacent to Virginia Beach's hotel and restaurant strip - from Rudee Inlet north along the lengthy 40-block boardwalk - is a path frequented by walkers, runners, inline skaters, bicyclists and more.

A 10- to 15-minute drive north from the boardwalk is First Landing State Park - named for the spot where the Jamestown colonists first rowed ashore. Back at the boardwalk, don't miss the Coast Guard Museum on 24th Street.

Concerts at the ECSC festival site: The Connells (Aug. 22, 8 p.m.) deliver a soulful, upbeat folk sound; Jimmie's Chicken Shack (Aug. 23, 8 p.m.) mixes blues-infused funk with rock and rap; Sister Hazel (Aug. 24, 6:30 p.m.) still pleases concert-goers with folksy and passionate pop ballads.

Soul Music Beach Festival (on the boardwalk): Music lovers will enjoy African origins of rock, jazz and R&B on Aug. 23-24.

Old Coast Guard Station (24th Street and boardwalk, 757-422-1587): Celebrating 100 years of service, this destination features two floors of historical artifacts and documentation. The current exhibit, Sand Buckets and PB&Js, depicts family fun at the beach.

Virginia Marine Science Museum (717 General Booth Blvd., 757-425-FISH): Experience the Atlantic Ocean Pavilion and Main Building's 300,000-gallon tank filled with nurse and brown sharks, stingrays and other ocean dwellers and the 70,000-gallon sea turtle aquarium. Tickets are $5.25 to $15.95.

Where to eat

Mahi Mah's (615 Atlantic Ave., 757-437-8030): If you fancy fresh fish, shellfish and sushi, this is the prime place to grab a bite in Virginia Beach. Two oceanfront patios and a Seventh Street stage offer scenic sea views and nightly entertainment from local musicians.

Waterman's Beachwood Grill (225 Fifth St. and boardwalk, 757-428-3644): Waterman's offers oceanfront dining, hardwood-grilled seafood and steaks. Upstairs, the Attic has after-hours music and dancing.

Harpoon Larry's Oyster Bar (24th and Pacific, 757-422-6000): Fresh seafood has been the name of the game for 10 years at this reasonably priced, casual restaurant. For jet-setters, the kitchen's always open until late night.