Just south of the Chesapeake Bay lies the northernmost of the southern U.S. beaches, Virginia Beach. I noticed it on the map when planning a weekend trip with my teenage daughter and a few of her friends, but when I asked around, no one I knew had been there recently. Why, I wondered. It's closer for us Yankees than the Outer Banks or Hilton Head, yet the latter seem to be more popular destinations.
I'm back from that trip now, and while I can hardly claim to have discovered Virginia Beach (that honor belongs to the British colonists who landed there in 1607), I have gotten to know the place -- and plan to return as soon as possible. Here's my fun-in-the-sun report.
Virginia Beach has 28 miles of white-sand public beach, 100 feet wide for much of its length. Along three miles of it, from First to 40th streets, runs a wide stone boardwalk. The lack of boards is not the only thing that makes this boardwalk unusual.
While the classic boardwalk scene is wall-to-wall saltwater taffy shops, fortune tellers and T-shirt vendors, in Virginia Beach all the retail and ticky-tack is on the inland side of the coastal boulevard, Atlantic Avenue.
The boardwalk is lined with hotels, restaurants and a couple of public parks. A dedicated bike path runs alongside the pedestrian promenade. All this creates a resort-type atmosphere rather than a carnival one. But I don't want to make it sound too peaceful -- the summer Saturday afternoon we were there, it was wall-to-wall people.
Just north of the boardwalk district is what's called the North End, a pretty, low-slung residential neighborhood with houses and condos of all shapes and sizes, many available for weekly rental.
While I've spent many a vacation in just such a beach house, this time I was determined to avoid all domestic labor: no cooking, no marketing, no laundry, no cleanup, nothing but relaxation. There's a word for that, and it's hotel.
We chose the Sheraton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, where a $200 a night special got us a room with a balcony from which I watched the sunrise over the Atlantic every morning, a sight I will never tire of, though I would like to try. The room offered a king-size bed and a sleeper sofa, as well as a coffeemaker, microwave and mini-fridge. There were indoor and outdoor pools, several hot tubs, restaurants and bars. There was a TV we never turned on because we were too busy having fun. And there was a parking space we didn't take our car out of once in four days because all that fun was with in walking or biking distance.
Excellent, because that was another thing I needed a break from: driving.
There are many types of fun to be had in Virginia Beach, and several of them involve eating. For me, a morning that begins with breakfast in a tiny, old-fashioned diner overlooking the beach is promising, indeed. The Belvedere Coffee Shop and Diner, right next to our hotel, was that place, which explains the permanent crowd of people in the parking lot, waiting to get in (the line moves surprisingly quickly). Highlights of the menu include an excellent Eye Opener Sandwich, egg and bacon on an onion roll with grilled tomatoes and Parmesan, and the surprising but not undrinkable Sake Bloody Mary.
A similar crowd of people is a permanent fixture outside the Pocahontas Pancake House a block away, though it's about five times the size of the Belvedere. Here, kitschy murals feature the Indian maid herself, John Smith and some friends I didn't recognize; the waiting area is a teepee. Once you finally get in, a multipage menu of pancakes, waffles and egg specials awaits.
After breakfast is a great time for a bike ride; Cherie's Bikes is ready with 15 locations on the boardwalk ($8 and hour for a single bike). A five-mile trail goes from the south end of the boardwalk to 89th Street and up into First Landing State Park, where it winds through shady pine woods and around a lake. For non-cyclers, there are 19 miles of walking trails in the park as well.
My daughter and her friends spent a big chunk of each day in the ocean, endlessly bodysurfing; sometimes we grown-ups joined them and other times we availed ourselves of the poolside chaise longues and daiquiris. Either way, we all worked up an appetite for dinner. Pelon's, an inexpensive, California-style Mexican joint with fish tacos, ceviche and everything else you'd expect, was the crowd-pleaser in this category.
Every night we wandered on foot or rented a family bike with double bench seats to ride up and down the boardwalk. The tour included a 34-foot-tall bronze statue of Neptune at Neptune's Park; live music every night in the clamshell bandstand at 17th Street Park; and down at the end, a 100-foot Ferris wheel. The girls were thrilled when a marriage proposal was made and accepted in a nearby car.
This was the kind of lazy, simple vacation you don't need another vacation to recover from; it also was the kind of vacation where you don't take a second job to pay off your credit cards.
-- Virginia Beach is about seven hours by car from Long Island. Once you cross the Delaware Memorial Bridge, you'll take U.S. 13 down the Eastern Shore of the Delmarva peninsula (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia). It crosses the Chesapeake Bay via a 23-mile combination bridge and tunnel that has a restaurant and gift shop in the middle, and lands right at Virginia Beach.
-- If you fly, Southwest goes from Islip to Norfolk. Fares in August are in the $400-$500 range, but in September, fares generally drop to $300 or less.
WHERE TO STAY
-- We loved the recently renovated Sheraton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, 3501 Atlantic Ave. Rooms from $269, 757-425-9000, sheraton.com
-- A great bargain just north of the boardwalk, The Cavalier combines the original seven-story hotel, where F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald used to stay, with a high-rise on a private beach. Rooms from $169. Atlantic Avenue at 42nd Street, 757-425-8555, cavalierhotel.com
-- The fanciest -- and priciest -- digs in town are at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, with a rooftop pool and bar and an upscale seafood restaurant. Rooms from $289, plus taxes. 3001 Atlantic Ave., 757-213-3000, hilton.com
WHERE TO EAT
-- Great breakfasts are served at Belvedere Coffee Shop and Diner, 3601 Atlantic Ave., 757-425-0613, belvederebeachresort.com, and Pocahontas Pancake House, 3420 Atlantic Ave., 757-428-6352, pocahontaspancakes.com
-- Pelon's Baja Grill, offers ceviche, fish tacos and a full Mexican menu made with fresh ingredients. Beer and margaritas. 3619 Pacific Ave., 757-417-3970, pelonsbajagrill.com
-- For a splurge, try the eclectic, creative cuisine at Eat: An American Bistro, at 4005 Atlantic Ave., just off the north end of the boardwalk. 757-965-2472, eatbistro.net
WHAT TO DO
-- Our great bike ride took us through First Landing State Park, 2500 Shore Dr., 757-412-2300, nwsdy.li/vapark
-- The Atlantic Fun Park is near the south end of the boardwalk with family rides and midway games. 757-422-0467, atlanticfunpark.com
-- Live music and other free performances nightly at four outdoor stages at 7th, 17th, 24th, and 31st streets. Listings at virginiabeach.com/calendar
-- The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center offers 800,000 gallons of exhibits plus a new Adventure Park. 717 General Booth Blvd., 757-385-3474, virginiaaquarium.com
-- More information available from the Visitor Information Center, 800-822-3224, vbfun.com