Virginia Beach: More for the Outdoor Enthusiast Than Just Great Beaches
Virginia Beach resides at the southeastern corner of Virginia, and extends all the way to the North Carolina border. The city covers some 310 square miles in area. It is an independent city entity of the Hampton Roads metropolitan area, that’s made up of six more cities, including Norfolk and Newport News. Because of the city’s vast size, travelers can literally find themselves in the midst of a big city traffic jam one minute, yet can bask in the seclusion and peacefulness of a fruit tree orchard just minutes later!
This coastal resort city hosts more than three million overnight tourists a year, but more than half of these visits come between the conclusion of the Labor Day weekend and the next Memorial Day weekend. Even in the dead of winter, events like the Polar Plunge into the frigid Atlantic Ocean or whale watching along its thirty-five miles of beaches are in full swing. The city’s beaches are collectively listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Longest Pleasure Beach”.
Besides a great place to get a tan or a sunburn, Virginia Beach offers a number of other activities to keep outdoor lovers occupied:
Contemplate History and the Meaning of Life at Cape Henry
When three ships carrying over 100 Englishmen landed at what would eventually become an integral part of Virginia Beach on April 26, 1607, history would be made. These pioneers would set up the first elective government in English America before ultimately settling in Jamestown. Cape Henry was named for Henry Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King James I. One of the last battles for American Independence took place here in 1781, called the Battle of the Capes. The French fleet, led by Admiral Comte deGrasse, defeated British ships trying to send reinforcements to Yorktown. With the British stifled, General Cornwalis would eventually surrender to Washington’s armies. America was finally free of British rule. The first federally funded lighthouse ever built by the new American constitutional government resides here, completed in 1792. It would help navigate ships safely in and out of the Chesapeake Bay for nearly 90 years. A new lighthouse, constructed nearby, would replace it in 1881.
In the 21st century, Cape Henry makes up part of a military installation known as Fort Story. I could’ve just stood at the edge of this fateful cape and stared out at the ocean blue for eons of time, watching the dolphins at play and sailboats moving across, but the realities of life would prevent me from hammering permanent stakes into this slice of paradise.
Cape Henry Lighthouse: 583 Atlantic Ave., Fort Story, VA. 757-422-9421.
Kayaking the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge resides in the Sandbridge (The Outer Banks of Virginia) region of Virginia Beach, which is due south of the touristy boardwalk area. It contains 8,700 acres of beaches, dunes, farmland, marshes, and woodlands, many types of edible plantlife and wildflowers. Some 300 species of birds have been documented to reside here, and during migratory seasons, thousands of ducks and geese make a stop at the Back Bay.
Ocean Rentals is one of the outfitters that offers tours of the Back Bay National Refuge via guided and independent eco kayaking expeditions. This writer had never kayaked before in his life, but within a fifteen minute span, after initially spinning around and hitting the shoreline several times, I was gliding easily down the saltwater marshlands by finally keeping in mind and heeding the initial lessons on land given to me by my guide Dougie. She, too, became hooked on this enjoyable outdoor activity after her first lesson years earlier, and then became a guide for Ocean Rentals. My eyes took in many different kinds of trees and plant life indigenous to this region, and even an eagle’s nest. Unfortunately, the cottonmouth snakes decided not to make any public appearances for our benefit (at a safe distance from our kayaks). Dougie told me that no one has ever been bit by a snake on their tours because everyone has used common sense and caution in this environment. But for me, experiencing self-transport by watercraft was my biggest thrill. My tour was well over 2 hours long and covered 3.5 miles of marshland. I was so tired the last 1/3 of the way back that Dougie towed me back in her kayak in the same manner a tugboat tows a great ocean liner. She did it with ease, thanks in part to the fact that the lightweight kayaks Ocean Rentals uses move on the water quite effortlessly.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge: 4005 Sandpiper Rd. 757-721-2412. http://backbay.fws.gov
Ocean Rentals: 577 Sandbridge Rd. 757-721-6210 or 800-695-4212. www.oceanrentalsltd.com
The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center’s Nature Buffet
This family-friendly venue is rated as one of the top aquariums in the United States. No wonder, for a whole day can be spent with the interactive exhibits, 3D IMAX Hollywood and educational releases, and over 700,000 gallons of aquarium and live animal habitat space. Ever seen a giant sea turtle or shark up close before? Well, it’s possible to do so at the Virginia Aquarium without getting your Italian shoes wet!
The Nature Trail runs 1/3 of a mile, and consists of 40-plus acres of salt marsh and wood preserve. Thousands of living species like lilies, blazing stars, and osprey exist here. This trail leads to The Marsh Pavilion, an absolute must-see when visiting this venue. It’s located on the Owls Creek salt marsh. Some cute little otter may stick its head up at you, and then yawn for lack of interest. I, a lifetime Wyoming native, finally got up close and personal with a large Brown Pelican that was just a few feet from me at the half-acre bird aviary, which is just outside the pavilion.
Kids will get a kick out of such interactive exhibits like being able to touch stingrays, which don’t sting at all….well, at least not these! I watched children effortlessly sticking their hands into the water to touch these creatures while some of their parents showed ambivalence towards imitating the actions of their offspring.
Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center: 717 General Booth Blvd. 757-425-FISH. www.VirginiaAquarium.com
Day of the Dolphins
To see Bottlenose Dolphins in their natural habitat, why not cruise the Virginia Beach shoreline to see these creatures at play? After all, this city hosts the largest concentration of these mammals in the mid-Atlantic. I took a 90-minute boat ride along the shoreline, and witnessed scores of dolphins at play with Rudee Tours. This firm offers guided dolphin tours in their water craft called the Rudee Flipper, beginning and ending at the Rudee Inlet (just south of the boardwalk). Some of the dolphins came up close to the boat, but they disappeared back into the ocean every time I was about to take a snapshot of them. Still, I was able to get some awesome photos of landmarks like the Cape Henry Lighthouses and the legendary hotel called The Cavalier. This hotel is where beer tycoon Adolph Coors fell to his death in 1929 under mysterious circumstances, and has been a playground for the rich and famous, including seven US presidents.
Rudee Tours: 200 Winston Salem Ave. 757-425-3400. www.rudeetours.com
The Great Dismal Swamp Tea Brew
The Great Dismal Swamp is a necessary little side trip from Virginia Beach. It’s located about 45 miles southwest of Virginia Beach in the Hampton Roads City of Suffolk. After his heart was broken, the struggling poet Robert Frost tried to kill himself in 1894 by simply walking from Norfolk into the swamp, hoping to actually disappear into it forever. Yet what he found instead was a new purpose to live and to keep on writing. The rest is history after he took the road less traveled! The swamp now makes up part of the Charles Kuralt Trail, in honor of the late CBS TV journalist and outdoor trekker Charles Kuralt.
In the middle of the swamp is a 3,100 acre lake that was discovered in 1665 by William Drummond, then governor of North Carolina, while on a hunting trip. When William Byrd II surveyed this swamp in 1728, he made the comment that this was the “most dismal place” he’d ever been to; and thus, the name Dismal Swamp is purported to have possibly come about from such comments. George Washington first visited it in 1763 to drain and log the area. One of the drainage ditches bears his name to this day, of which a trail for driving and walking along the Washington Ditch exists. The Great Dismal Swamp was even a stop on the legendary Underground Railroad for slaves fleeing their masters.
Though it’s been logged, altered, and reduced in many other ways by man and Mother Nature, The Great Dismal Swamp remains a haven for nature-lovers. At one time, it covered over one million acres, but now is just barely a tenth of that (over 110,000 acres). Trees like the Red Maple, Atlantic White Cedar, and Sweetgum Oak-Poplar are plentiful here. The nonforested areas include a makeup of marshland, sphagnum bog, and evergreen shrubs. Other species of plant life like the Dwarf Trillium, the Log Fern, and Silky Camellia can be found at the Great Dismal Swamp.
Our feathered friends in the sky abound here, including the American Goldfinch, Barred Owl, and the Pileated Woodpecker. Black Bears and bats make their home in the Great Dismal Swamp. The 87 species of reptiles and amphibians include turtles and 21 types of snakes which slither around here. Once again, just like my trek to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I didn’t get to witness any snakes in action. But I did have to help the US Fish and Wildlife Service officer clear a fallen tree from a trail road that leads to Lake Drummond. Lake Drummond is considered a black water lake, though it actually looks like a large pool of Lipton Tea because of the tannic acids emanating from the bark of the juniper, gum and cypress trees.
Visitors can hike, bike, take photos, fish, hunt, and boat throughout the year. See below website for details.
The Great Dismal Swamp: 3100 Desert Rd., Suffolk, VA (757) 986-3705.
So, Y’all Wanna Know More About Virginia Beach?
Accommodations for all budgets and tastes can be accessed through Priceline.com or Hotels.com. I stayed at The Cavalier’s (www.cavalierhotel.com) rustic hilltop venue, which is just across the street from its oceanfront property. I found the bed to be very comfy, and I drank the best tasting orange juice of my life during breakfasts at The Cavalier.
Most travelers who come to Virginia Beach do so by automobile. Here’s a great link for this mode of transportation into the city: http://www.vbfun.com/visitors/directions.asp.
By air, the closest major airport into Virginia Beach is Norfolk International Airport, a quick 20 to 30-minute ride to the oceanfront, depending upon traffic. Norfolk’s airport symbol is ORF and its website is www.norfolkairport.com. By train, Amtrak (www.amtrak.com) stops at the nearby city of Newport News, but offers bus service into the city. Greyhound buses stop here (www.greyhound.com).
Hampton Roads Transit is the city’s public transport entity. Its website is www.hrtransit.org. A convenient and inexpensive trolley system known as the VB Wave (www.vbwave.com) offers inexpensive rides in and about Atlantic Ave. for shopping, museum crawling, and excursions around the vicinity of the city’s boardwalk.
Along Atlantic Avenue, which is a stone’s throw to the Atlantic Ocean, as well as in many stores and shops in Virginia Beach, travelers will find all kinds of free travel literature. These include maps and coupon discount booklets for meals, attraction visits, and souvenirs. Such publications are the Sunny Day Guide to Virginia Beach, VB Guide, Virginia Beach Visitors Guide, and Great Vacations.