Virginia Beach Family Vacation Highlights

By Traci L. Suppa

Virginia Beach is, first and foremost, a beach destination. Over 30 miles long, it's considered to be the world's largest stretch of pleasure beach, with three miles lined by a busy boardwalk. Along "Beach Street USA," you'll find scores of hotels of varying types of accommodations; from posh resorts to inexpensive motels.

But beyond the beach, there is plenty for families to do, including a world-class aquarium, newly-renovated water park, boat excursions, even museums and historic sites. When planning a trip to Virginia's southeastern tip, consider an itinerary with a little of everything.

The Beach Scene – Inevitably, a trip to Virginia Beach means time spent on sand and in surf. Virginia Beach itself is vast, allowing you to pick a spot in the middle of the action along the hotel strip, or north of 18th Avenue for a quieter patch in front of rental homes. Lifeguards are positioned at regular intervals, and you can rent lounge chairs and cabana tents. The boardwalk is perfect for a peaceful morning walk. Alongside the boardwalk is a bike path, and you can rent 4 and 6-seat surrey bikes to ride together.

Sandbridge Beach, located about 15 miles south, is less developed, and lined by upscale beach houses. The terrain is hilly, and public parking is scarce, but the waves are great for boogie boards, and the sand bars allow you to walk out at least 30 feet before it gets deep. There are no public restrooms or lifeguards; so a little advance planning is necessary.

Amazing Aquarium – The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center (www.virginiaaquarium.com) is a great choice on a hot or rainy day. The emphasis here is on the ecosystems of Virginia. The Chesapeake Bay exhibits are the first you'll visit; you'll learn about the meteor which landed in the area millions of years ago. The Bay and Ocean Pavilions are easy to navigate and fun to explore, because many of the exhibits are walk-through tunnels and aquariums. It's an especially effective layout for the lair of the Komodo dragon, the world's largest lizard, and the rare Tomistoma crocodile.

The main attraction – the shark tank – is the last exhibit at the end of the building. We saw at least 10 sharks, sting rays, and a variety of fish. While my husband and I sat on the risers to enjoy the view, our kids discovered the replica of the "Alvin" Navy submersible adjacent to the tank. Inside the control room were enough buttons, lights, levers and other gadgets to keep their imaginations active for hours.

Wonderful Waterpark – There's no better year to go to Ocean Breeze Waterpark (www.oceanbreezewaterpark.com). Fresh from a multi-million renovation, this park looks and feels brand new. The seaside village themed decor is delightfully detailed. For tweens and teens, there are 16 water slides within the park, of varying levels of thrill. My 11-year old enjoyed the Hurricane, which shot him down into and around a centrifugal flusher bowl. There were even several short, easy sides for the pre-school set. My 4-year old daughter enjoyed the Little Amazon, a miniature lazy river with small-scale inner tubes.

For everyone under 42 inches, life vests are required. There are multiple sizes, free to use, hanging from several posts around the park. Food stations are also plentiful, with choices like pizza, burgers, and subs. I found myself singing along several times to the piped-in music; a fun soundtrack of Top 40, beach tunes, and country.

Mini-Museum – The Old Coast Guard station (www.oldcoastguardstation.com) is a museum in a historic house sitting directly on Virginia Beach. It seems out of place in the middle of all the hotel development, but it offers a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle on the boardwalk. With only two floors of exhibits, it's a quick visit; perfect for short attention spans. The volunteer docent who showed us around was cognizant of our varying age groups and level of interest, so she provided a general history of the Coast Guard, then let us explore on our own. The display of greatest interest to the kids was a series of boxes which showed the how technology has evolved and transformed our lives. The communications box shows signal flags, but with the push of a button, a cell phone shows through the glass.

On the Water and On the Links – A dolphin watch cruise is a surefire hit, especially when dolphin sightings are a safe bet. Bottlenose dolphins birth their calves in the safe waters of Cape Henry Bay, so they are abundant, active, and easy to see from the double-decker Rudee Flipper tour boat. Miniature golf, another crowd pleaser, is available on several courses with fun themes, from pirates to jungles. We played 18 holes at Jungle Golf (www.junglegolf.com), a tropical course with oversized animals like elephants, gorillas, hippos, and rhinos.

Don't Forget Williamsburg – We ended our trip with two days in Williamsburg, and really enjoyed the added dimensions this destination less than an hour away offered. We spent one day at the Busch Gardens (www.buschgardens.com/bgw/), "the world's most beautiful theme park," which is separated into sections themed for different European countries. My pre-schooler could have spent the entire day in the Sesame Street Forest of Fun, while my tween thrilled on the coasters. Colonial Williamsburg (www.history.org) offered a completely different experience as a living history museum. The kids learned 18th-century games, watched re-enactments in Revolutionary City, and enjoyed "Thomas Jefferson's Macaroni and Cheese" for dinner at Shields Tavern.

For more information about Virginia Beach, visit the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau website at www.visitvirginiabeach.com.

Traci L. Suppa drags her small-town family to see a quirky array of the world's largest, longest, or tallest things, and blogs about it at Go BIG or Go Home.

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