REACHING THE BEACH

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CALL IT A NO-HURRIES WEEKEND. THE object is to take a getaway but to go slowly, engaging in a meditation of movement and enjoying the journey as much as the destination.

That is the answer to those who wonder why anyone would take a six-hour train-and-bus ride from Washington to Virginia Beach when Southwest Airlines offers one-hour, nonstop service from BWI Marshall Airport.

A curse upon those who insist that the trip begins when the traveling ends. Getaways are supposed to divert the daily grind -- when we navigate the city's congestion-clogged roads en route to work, zoom to the pharmacy and bank before they close, dash to church or our child's soccer practice or to the mall, with hopes of finding a good parking space.

Why not be chauffeured, taking in scenery in a way that few can while driving along Route 295 or Lombard Street, en route for a weekend of relaxation along Virginia's shores?

That was my plan for a $500 weekend getaway that began at the end of Friday's workday and ended late Sunday evening. The plan was to take it easy, slowly, with no stresses or obligations.

And in this country, going slowly means going Amtrak.

In terms of high-speed service, the quasi-government-owned rail system doesn't endear itself to those seeking an alternative to air travel. Not only is it slow, but it makes frequent stops in cities you've never heard of unless you ride Amtrak. When I need to get anywhere fast, I avoid Amtrak like trans fats.

But in this instance, it's perfect: comfy, reclining seats in a cabin that's spacious enough for moving around with windows large enough for gazing out at the scenic route. The rhythmic sounds and soothing shimmies of the rail car along the tracks eases your mind and takes you on a mental journey as well.

The thought of all things rail travel took me back to my childhood days, when the fascination for trains was buoyed by the thrill of riding them. The reminiscence was so pleasurable that I didn't fret over standing in a crowded line at Washington's Union Station, waiting for a scheduled 5:50 p.m. departure that was more than an hour late.

A passenger in front of me phoned Amtrak's automated service to see how late the train would be. She said a recorded message inadvertently stated that the train had left 30 minutes earlier.

As I said, no hurries.

Ultimately, we made our way onto the train, and the excursion as I had planned it began. First, I went through a collection of magazine articles I had never gotten around to reading, then a couple of chapters of a book. By then the sun was setting through central Virginia, and I looked out as we snaked along next to back roads and over streams.

My eyes fixed on sights I would have otherwise missed had I been doing the driving: a group of kids playing merrily atop an old, rusty car; a flock of sailboats drifting beneath a bridge; a man fishing in solitude on the edge of a still creek.

Occasionally, my serenity was derailed by momentary distractions -- such as the passenger three rows behind me who blabbed on a cell phone. I wouldn't say she was loud, but by the time her conversation was over, I knew about her entire family -- including the forgetful cousin whom she feared wouldn't be there to pick her up.

At one point, I was so tired of listening that I got up and headed to the dining car -- something you can't do aboard US Airways. After a quick bite, I returned to my seat for a 15-minute nap that ended up lasting an hour and a half.

The train made up for its lost time, but still reached the final destination -- Newport News, Va. -- well after 11 p.m. From there, passengers headed to Virginia Beach had to transfer to a free commuter bus.

That trip lasted just over one hour, and it was made enjoyable by a passenger-friendly bus driver (she declined to give her name, more on that later), who turned the ride into a late-night tour of the Hampton Roads area, the cluster of shoreline communities in southeastern Virginia that dot the James and Elizabeth rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. We learned that the city of Norfolk is home to the world's largest naval base and the North American Headquarters for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

"When I left here to pick y'all up, the moon was just above the river," she said. "It was so pretty from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Let's see what it's like now." The moon had set to where only a top portion remained visible, but its glow beamed a path and illuminated the waves in the dark waters. It was a sight to behold.

The driver talked with just about every passenger. When I told her I was writing a travel story, she told me that Virginia Beach overall was faring well, and that new hotel development along the waterfront would ultimately do away with a strip of properties that were badly in need of overhauling.

I had long known this, having read articles in which several Virginia Beach properties were listed among the worst hotels in the country. The driver asked the name of the place where I planned to stay and assured me that I had made a good choice in the Doubletree.

Then she dropped me off at the front door of the hotel, saving me cab fare from a bus stop that was about a mile away.

"Now, I'm not supposed to drop you off here," she said, "so I can't let you use my name for your story."

Full morning

I purposely selected a hotel eight blocks from the shore so I could walk to the beach at sunrise, then walk along it during the morning. And I'm glad I decided to walk early because by mid-morning the sun was emanating scorching heat.

Still, I arrived at the shore to discover I was scarcely the only morning person. Families were already splashing around in the water with kids who could scarcely contain their excitement. The volleyball courts were full and several groups had cordoned off areas for soccer on the sand. By mid-morning, dozens of residents lined up along Atlantic Avenue, the main thoroughfare, to take in a parade of men in military uniform and floats prepared by local businesses, as part of a weekend-long Patriotic Festival.

I stopped my morning trek to watch the surfers. There were about 10 in the water at a time, and none seemed to mind my whipping out a camera to capture their wipeouts on film. Just as they balanced themselves atop their boards, the waves would break and the surfers would disappear in an explosion of white foam, only to reappear moments later, swimming to shore with their chests on their boards.

By noon, the beach was filled with the regular oceanfront crowd: kids making castles using sand-filled pails, scantily clad women sunbathing on their stomachs, a bunch of guys playing Frisbee, joggers with dogs, windsurfers with multicolored sails, hang gliders pulled by motorboats soaring above flocks of birds.

I walked for about two hours, stopping at a local snack shop for a mango smoothie. Then I watched some of the volleyball and soccer games on the beach. At lunchtime, I headed to a cafe called Bad Ass Coffee, which unbeknownst to me is a chain headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, with most of its locations in the South and out West.

Bad Ass Coffee began with a store in Hawaii, and all of its stores are decorated in a Hawaiian motif, with palm trees, carved wooden seating and stone carvings. The Virginia Beach locale, about half a mile from the ocean, seems like a local hangout away from the crowds.

As did many of those in the cafe, I indulged in a tasty lunch (chicken Caesar wrap and Key lime pie) while reading the local paper and listening to beach music.

Then it was back to the hotel to change for an evening on the shore.

Fun evening

Virginia Beach is widely known for its free nighttime street festivals, and for good reason. Once the sun goes down, performers of all types come out. They occupy each block of Atlantic Avenue and vie for attention. Imagine channel surfing by the sand; you watch one act, and if it isn't compelling, you move on to another.

As it turned out, the acts that drew the most crowds were well worth stopping for.

A three-piece jazz band, positioned in a parking space before a busy storefront, entertained with contemporary selections that were heavy on the smooth saxophone. About five blocks down was a musician who delighted a throng of children by making objects disappear and reappear. Across the street were stage performers immersed in a one-act play. Other blocks had jugglers, clowns and even a performer on a unicycle.

The performances are spread out along more than two dozen blocks, so it's virtually impossible to see them all in one night. It's also difficult to make your way around them, so when I heard that popular recording group Sugar Ray was performing on a beachfront stage some 16 blocks away, I hopped a trolley bus, which unfortunately moves at a top speed of 5 mph.

But as I said, no hurries.

When I arrived, Sugar Ray was playing to a standing-room-only crowd of about 4,000 people on their feet dancing. I got there in time to see them perform one of my all-time favorite tunes, "Someday," which prompted the raising of cell phone cameras throughout the crowd.

A few days later, the performance could be seen on the video-sharing Web site, YouTube.

I left just before the concert ended to beat the crowds for a bite to eat. And though it was late, many eateries were still open and packed, including several all-you-can eat restaurants that are positioned about every five blocks along Atlantic Avenue.

Something else that is plentiful along the Virginia Beach coast at night: police cars. The law enforcement presence is unmistakable and people seem to mill about with the sense that they are being watched.

One person who rode the bus with me complained that the officers were too enthusiastic about their jobs; she said her friend recently got a ticket for going 27 mph in a 25-mph zone. Still, the busy Atlantic Avenue doesn't have much of the nighttime rowdiness and joyriding that I often see at beach fronts.

Stormy Sunday

My plan was to enjoy a relaxing morning on the beach, but those plans were derailed when a storm that had threatened all weekend came Sunday morning with a vengeance. So much of the morning was spent in the hotel restaurant, enjoying a southern-style breakfast buffet while reading the morning paper.

The rains had dissipated to a drizzle by the time I walked to the bus stop to begin my return home, stopping off at the Bad Ass Coffee cafe for a wrap and slice of pie to go. And as on the bus ride out, I struck up intriguing conversations, this time with a scientist at the National Institute of Health, who shared my love for gospel music.

Much of the train ride was spent reading and sleeping to ensure I was well rested for the Monday morning grind.

I wouldn't recommend long-distance train travel to everyone. Amtrak's prices aren't much cheaper than that of flights, and it is so prone to intermittent stops (which it did on the return for about 20 minutes because of a malfunction on the train before it) that it tests the nerves of even the most seasoned rail passengers.

Moreover, the lavatories aren't serviced between stops, so trips to the bathroom can be quite unpleasant.

Still, if you're not in a hurry and you need a break after rushing to and from destinations seven days a week, slow is the way to go.

joseph.burris@baltimoresun.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Amtrak regional service is a four-hour, 20-minute ride, barring delays. The train stops at Newport News, Va., where passengers traveling to Virginia Beach board a bus that reaches the beach in less than 90 minutes. Train is $45-$60 each way for reserve coach (depending on when you travel); business class seats that offer more leg room and are closer to the dining car cost an additional $19. Southwest offers round-trip airfares to Norfolk International Airport starting at about $135. The beach is about a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport. If you choose to drive, Virginia Beach is about 250 miles south of Baltimore, or about a five-hour drive, depending on traffic.

GETTING AROUND

VB Wave Trolley

-- makes frequent stops -- about every 15 minutes -- along Atlantic Avenue, the beach's main thoroughfare, and runs 8 a.m.-midnight. It costs $1 to ride; a one-day unlimited-use pass is $3. Details at gohrt.com.

LODGING

Doubletree Hotel

-- 1900 Pavilion Drive, 757-422-8900. This is a 292-room, full-service hotel next door to the Virginia Beach Convention Center and eight blocks (about one mile) from the oceanfront. Features high-speed Internet access in all guest rooms as well as an indoor pool, sundeck and fitness center. Plus, there's the hotel's signature warm chocolate chip cookie at check-in. Rates start at $199 a night.

Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront

-- 3001 Atlantic Ave., 757-213-3001. This is a posh, 21-story hotel with rooms that offer some of the area's best views of the Atlantic Ocean and the nearby downtown Norfolk waterfront, including a rooftop pool overlooking the beach. Superior guest rooms feature such amenities as 32-inch flat screen televisions and start at about $250 a night.

DINING

Max & Erma's

-- inside the Doubletree Hotel. This is a franchise restaurant famous for its burgers, salads, steaks and ice cream sundae bar. Doubles as a sports bar during the evening with several large televisions easily viewable from any seat. Entrees start at $11.

Bad Ass Coffee

-- 619 18th St., 757-233-4007. This is a gourmet coffee shop franchise that serves American-grown, Hawaiian coffee from Moloka'i, Kauai, Maui and its signature Kona coffee from the Big Island. It also serves sandwiches, wraps and desserts. The coffee shop features a Hawaiian motif and has a laid-back, beach atmosphere. Prices under $10.

ACTIVITIES

Neptune Park

-- This park just north of the Hilton and between Atlantic Avenue and the Boardwalk offers free outdoor entertainment -- mostly traditional pop. The Hilton's Catch 31 lounge opens onto it and has outdoor seating and raised fire pits. The Neptune Festival, Sept. 28-30, is a big-draw in the region. Go to neptunefestival.com. Other entertainment details can be found at beachstreetusa.com.

Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

-- 717 General Booth Blvd. This is a cool and kid-friendly attraction not far from the beach -- get there via the $1 trolley (take the No. 31 Wave). The current exhibit is Birds of Play, starring six darling South African penguins, each no larger than a bowling pin, walking around their glass case like a half-dozen Charlie Chaplins. Be there for the 10:45 a.m., 1:15 p.m. or 2:45 p.m. feedings. The aquarium is in the midst of an upgrade, so there may be some construction areas. Admission is $11.95; senior and adult discounts are available. Call 757-385-3474 or go to vmsm.com.

INFORMATION

Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau

-- 800-700-7702 or vbfun.com.

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