Meet Virginia at the beach

If your idea of a breezy beach vacation involves a plane or passport, then hold off on the tropics and head instead to Virginia Beach.

This resort city of nearly 438,000 people is a laid-back East Coast destination about a five-hour drive from Baltimore.

And with its abundance of sun, sand and surf, it's well worth the trip.

Catch a wave while surfing in the Atlantic Ocean. Glimpse dolphins frolicking near the coast. Kayak through a national wildlife refuge. Or listen to a symphony perform on the beach as the sun sets.

"We have several free concerts this summer," says Wendy Young, executive director of Symphonicity, the city's volunteer symphony orchestra. "We always draw big crowds."

That's just one activity among a dizzying array of happenings this summer in Virginia Beach.

"'Something for everybody' is the mantra," says Bobby Melatti, director of Beach Events, which facilitates concerts, festivals, and other entertainment presented by the city. "And most of it's free."

Here are five itineraries for the perfect day in Virginia Beach. None requires a boarding pass, and one is bound to fit your style:

Family times

The list of family pleasures is a long one in Virginia Beach. Expect a bevy of roaming magicians, jugglers, musicians and bands in the park, and costumed characters near the boardwalk. "We have something for the whole family — all ages, all backgrounds," says Melatti. "We want everyone to feel comfortable, and be entertained."

Glide along the Boardwalk At Cherie's Bike & Blade Rentals, you can rent a bike, in-line skates or a four-person surrey that's perfect for families. Take a breather along 31st Street and snap a photo in front of King Neptune, a 34-foot-high bronze statue. Cherie's has multiple oceanfront locations. (757-437-8888)

Play at Grommet Island Beach Have a ball at this new beach playground, billed as the first in the country specifically designed for children and adults of all physical capabilities. The views are pretty cool, too. (100 2nd Street,

Lunch at Margie & Ray's This casual, down-home restaurant has a rep for super-fresh seafood. Check out the daily specials. (1240 Sandbridge Road, 757-426-2397,

Splash at Ocean Breeze Water Park This 19-acre water park just received a major face-lift and is under new ownership. Two new rides will be in place when the park opens May 21. (849 General Booth Blvd., 757-422-4444,

Go to the beach at night Free family-friendly shows are offered nightly on the 31st Street Stage at Neptune Park. Later, stroll the boardwalk and grab a bite: you'll find popcorn, cotton candy, pizza and other treats. (31st Street and the boardwalk,,

Nature lovers

Virginia Beach was the first destination in the state certified as Virginia Green, a program that promotes eco-friendly practices in the state's tourism industry. It offers wildlife, parks and miles of nature trails.

Breakfast at Big Sam's Inlet Cafe and Raw Bar This casual, smoke-free restaurant is on Rudee Inlet next to the Virginia Beach Fishing Center. Stop by before 9 a.m. for hearty breakfast fare, and later for happy hour. (300 Winston-Salem Ave., 757-428-4858,

Cast a line Experience the thrill of fishing in the "Striped Bass Capital of the World." Anglers can also haul in tuna, flounder, amberjack, wahoo, mackerel and red drum, among others. Choose from half-day or full-day charters. Four local fishing piers offer tackle rental and bait.

Lunch at Waterman's Beachwood Grill Bring your fresh catch and the chef will cook it the way you like it. The restaurant also offers a sustainable seafood "round table" where diners are educated about what's on their plates. (415 Atlantic Ave., 757-428-3644,

Take a hike False Cape State Park is a 4,321-acre expanse that's home to wild horses, wild pigs, loggerhead turtles, American bald eagles and various endangered species. It features six miles of unspoiled beaches in an ocean-to-freshwater bay habitat. Many local outfitters offer guided tours or rentals.

Have dinner at Beach Bully BBQ Restaurant The owners of Beach Bully got their start working at local outdoor festivals. From there, the team honed its skills by mastering pulled pork and smoked beef. That led to the "Beach Bully Sandwich" — a pretty big deal in these parts. They also serve fried chicken, ribs and salads. (610 19th St., 757-422-4222,

Beach bums

If you hang out on the beach, the entertainment often comes to you. Summer festivities run the gamut from Latin Fest and the Mid-Atlantic Hermit Crab Challenge to the Verizon Wireless American Music Festival, and military tributes.

Breakfast at Doc Taylor's This former doctor's office is now a favorite local eatery. Think creative egg and bacon dishes, $1.99 Bloody Marys, and catfish po boys. Many menu items are named for regular customers. (207 23rd St., 757-425-5566,

Collect seashells The Sandbridge area on Virginia Beach's southern shore is quiet, pristine and perfect for beachcombing. Located just 20 minutes from the main resort area, Sandbridge is partially surrounded by Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. (3820 Sandpiper Road, 757-426-0013)

Take a dip at Chesapeake Beach This tranquil spot along the scenic Chesapeake Bay is known to locals as "Chick's Beach." Swim in the protected shallow waters or simply soak up some rays.

Take a museum stroll The Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum, inside a historic 1895 cottage, displays art, decoys and artifacts documenting the region's migratory wildfowl. Don't miss the onsite wood-carving demonstrations. (1113 Atlantic Ave., 757-437-8432,

Kick back at Chick's Oyster Bar Have dinner on the deck of Chick's and take in amazing views of the Lynnhaven Inlet. The atmosphere is casual, and the menu diverse: seafood, pasta, beef, salads and more. (2143 Vista Circle, 757-481-5757,

Adventure seekers

Go dolphin-watching As the weather warms, the Mid-Atlantic's largest population of bottlenose dolphins returns each year to the Virginia Beach coast. Pods of dolphins can be spotted feasting, jumping and playing. To glimpse these magnificent mammals, many local outfitters (Chesapean Outdoors, Kayak Nature Tours, Wild River Outfitters Touring Company) provide guided tours, including by kayak. Costs range from $45 to $60 per person and typically take two to three hours. The Virginia Aquarium also offers dolphin-watching boat trips from April through September, and a number of Virginia Beach hotels also offer dolphin-watching packages. (757-385-3474,

Ride a Segway through the park Glide on a Segway through First Landing State Park, nearly 3,000 acres that front the Chesapeake Bay. This landmark has a mile-long beachfront and about 19 miles of hiking trails that meander through protected habitats. (

Climb a lighthouse Established in 1791, Cape Henry is America's oldest government-built lighthouse. Located near the site where the first English settlers landed in 1607, the lighthouse sustained damage during the Civil War but has since been restored. A trip to the top is rewarded with stellar views. (583 Atlantic Ave, Fort Story, Va., 757-422-9421,

Take a paddle-and-dine tour Go on a two-mile kayaking tour through Back Bay Wildlife Refuge and after working up an appetite, dine at Blue Pete's on the water. The tour begins at Surf & Adventure Co.'s kayak facility, and returns patrons by van. Equipment is provided. Each tour is $45 per person, excluding dinner. (800-695-4212 or

Foodie fun

Virginia Beach offers dining choices galore: fresh seafood, barbecue, sushi and fire-grilled steaks are just a few of the options. Meanwhile, hip restaurants like Hot Tuna not only serve tasty fare, but feature live bands several nights a week and dancing.

Breakfast at Citrus Banana pancakes, crab Benedict and other dishes to tantalize one's taste buds. Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. (2265 West Great Neck Road, 757-227-3333)

Let your palate explore Founder's Inn At the Inn's Swan Terrace restaurant, the chef leads diners through a private, interactive cooking class using fresh seafood and indigenous ingredients. Best of all, guests eat the five-course meal, accompanied by fine wines. (5641 Indian River Road, 757-424-5511,

Take a food tour Coastal Food Tours of Virginia is a new program with special themed itineraries that offer foodies an inside peek at everything from local farms and farmers' markets to vineyards and pubs, and even an Organics 101 class. During walking tours, participants can sample cuisine in different neightborhoods and venues. Prices start at $50 per person. (757-255-8710,

Dine at Mahi Mah's This popular seafood restaurant and sushi "saloon" near the boardwalk gets rave reviews for its fare. Think crab cakes made with Virginia blue crab, prime rib, blackened salmon and an extensive sushi menu. There's also an outdoor stage with nightly entertainment and two patios where patrons can dance. (615 Atlantic Ave., 757-437-8030,

Have dessert at Terrapin This sophisticated restaurant serves contemporary American cuisine and boasts a chic space with an open kitchen. Pastries here are legendary in these parts. (3102 Holly Road, 757-321-6688,

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