Staking out a special spot somewhere on 28 miles of golden sand beaches, relaxing and watching the dolphins play offshore makes most Virginia Beach visitors happy. But this burgeoning city offers an attractive array of activities besides surfing, sunbathing and strolling the concrete boardwalk.
One of the East Coast's premier beach resorts also manages to provide museums, historic homes, monuments and lighthouses -- as well as good shopping and restaurants -- so there's something to please everyone in the family.
For families with kids, a visit to the Marine Science Museum is a must. This modern museum is located on the Owl Creek Salt Marsh near Rudee Inlet, which marks the south end of the resort area and boardwalk. The museum's own boardwalk lets visitors walk above the fascinating area where fresh and salt water meet to observe mussels, clams and barnacles at low tide. Bird watchers enjoy spotting ibis, great egrets, blue herons and osprey.
Inside, there are 100 hands-on, participatory exhibits and "100,000 gallons of aquaria" that tell you everything you want to know about water, from rivers of the coastal plain to the deep ocean. Children can weigh river, bay and ocean water to see which is heaviest, examine sands from around the world (like green Hawaiian) and learn how to tell the difference between dolphins and porpoises. A new 5,000-gallon tank holds a dozen rays and skates.
Be sure to stop in at the Carver's Shack, where resident carver Charles Seidel creates decoys from white cedar. Mr. Seidel, who learned the historic tidewater craft of decoy carving along the Delaware River, has been a full-time carver for 13 years and with the museum for eight years.
From June 20 through Sept. 2, the museum sponsors boat trips twice a day to visit bottlenose dolphin habitats just off the coast. Participants can see dolphins close-up, and the boat is staffed with volunteer researchers and museum biologists. Ocean collection trips, on which visitors trawl the ocean bottom for fish, rays and sea stars, are also offered during the summer.
At the north end of the beach and south of army post Fort Story, Seashore State Park provides a marvelous place to explore a "Deep South" swamp. Virginia, of course, is not a Deep South state, which nobody told the towering bald cypress trees with cascading Spanish moss and other subtropical plants that thrive beside their temperate relatives.
This uncommonly beautiful spot (kids say it's "spooky") owes its unusual characteristics partly to the vagaries of the Gulf Stream, says park manager Fred Hazelwood. "Because of the park's proximity to the Gulf Stream and Chesapeake Bay, warm water and air moderate the temperature. Many plants, including live oaks and Spanish moss, are at their northernmost range." A bit of Louisiana without the long drive.
Elevated boardwalks on Bald Cypress Trail span black water, colored from decaying leaves. Among the cypress knees emerging from the water you can spot frogs and turtles and an occasional water moccasin.
There are also cottonmouths around, but "most of the park's snakes aren't poisonous, and you may be as likely to hear one as see one," Mr. Hazelwood says.
The 2,770-acre park contains nine hiking-biking trails offering a variety of scenery and challenges, from the Osprey Trail, which floods at high tide, through Long Creek Trail, the longest at five miles, to the quarter-mile High Dune Trail, which takes hikers over a maritime forest dune ridge.
Virginia's most visited
During the week, the only sounds you're likely to hear at Seashore State Park are frogs croaking and birds calling. It's hard to believe this peaceful state park is Virginia's most visited, with 1.2 million visitors a year. The park also offers fishing, crabbing and boating, a campground, 20 cabins and a visitor center with regularly scheduled interpretive programs.
Just to the north of Seashore State Park and about two miles from the heart of Virginia Beach's commercial district is Cape Henry and its 1791 lighthouse, built on orders from George Washington.
Visitors can climb to the top of the Cape Henry lighthouse for a panoramic view of the coast and a good look at the "new" lighthouse, built to the southeast in 1881. This 157-foot beacon, with one of the world's most powerful lights, is visible for 20 miles.
Both lighthouses are inside Fort Story, as is the Cape Henry Memorial, commemorating the 1607 landing of the first English settlers in Virginia. The 28 voyagers erected a cross, explored the cape, which they named for the Prince of Wales, and sailed up the James River to a site they named Jamestown. The rest, as they say, is history.
Virginia Beach is also rich in historic houses to explore. Perhaps most intriguing is Lynnhaven House, one of the best-preserved 18th-century dwellings in the country. Docent Nell Burkhardt says, "The timbers used in construction were cut in the winter of 1724, and the house was built in 1725." She explains that the house has been accurately dated by dendrochronology, a count of the growth rings in the wood. And, boards in a ceiling still bear the original carpenter's chalk marks.
In a rural setting at 4405 Wishart Road, Lynnhaven House was occupied steadily until the 1960s and is 85 percent original.
Australian-born Mrs. Burkhardt, in Colonial dress, tells visitors that the builders, the Thelaball family, were tobacco farmers who settled in "this ideal place, which was laced with waterways and produced the now justifiably famous Lynnhaven oysters."
Authentic furnishings include a 300-year-old spice cabinet and a settle table. Surprisingly, the family's original Bible has found its way back to Lynnhaven House and is on display, noting Francis DTC Thelaball's birth in 1684.
In the same vicinity is the more formal Colonial brick Adam Thoroughgood House at 1636 Parish Road, built about 1680. At 1331 Virginia Beach Blvd., the Francis Land House Historic Site and Gardens re-creates an 18th-century Virginia plantation with gardens and costumed volunteers processing flax into linen thread and demonstrating other Colonial skills.
Back at the beach, besides sunbathing and swimming, another main pastime is biking. Two miles of the city's 45 miles of bike paths parallel the concrete boardwalk between the hotels and the Atlantic Ocean, creating happy territory for walkers and bikers.
The boardwalk and downtown areas have been spruced up in a recent $100 million effort, which includes the installation of teak benches, Victorian street lamps and pedestrian parks between the boardwalk and Atlantic Avenue, the city's main street a block off the beach.
At 24th Street and Atlantic Avenue is the new 24th Street Park, created as an outdoor entertainment complex with an open stage. Adjacent is the Life-Saving Museum of Virginia, which preserves the history of the Life-Saving/Coast Guard Service. Displays and exhibits feature old and modern shipwrecks, dramatic life-saving during two World Wars and an extensive collection of maritime memorabilia.
A block north at 25th Street and the ocean front stands the well-known Virginia Beach landmark, the Norwegian Lady, a 9-foot bronze figurehead commemorating the 1891 shipwreck of the Norwegian bark Dictator.
To receive information about Virginia Beach hotels, restaurants, activities and events, call the Visitor Information Center at (800) 822-3224.
For information on Seashore State Park, write to the park at 2500 Shore Drive, Virginia Beach, Va. 23451, or call (804) 481-2131.
To find out about the Virginia Science Museum's dolphin-watching trips, call (804) 437-4949.