Since I was a child, Virginia Beach was usually part of summer vacation. Now that I have a child, Virginia Beach has undergone a lot of changes. The area is more populated and more upscale hotels are filling the gaps, but Virginia Beach maintains its family friendly charm.
Virginia Beach is quieter and cleaner than Ocean City. One exception when I say quiet is with Norfolk a short distance away, you will hear planes fly by often. While Virginia Beach’s boardwalk doesn’t offer as much as OC, there are still amusements and entertainment to attract families. There’s no one trying to sell you photos on the beach. There are chairs and tents available to rent although we bring our own folding chairs. The only caveat is if you are a seashell collector, you won’t find many here. The few that you find wash ashore early in the morning, but tend to be broken pieces. In terms of the water, it’s not too chilly, but being that this is the Atlantic Ocean, waves can be fierce. Many little people come with their parents, but if you do bring toddlers, be mindful that the current is strong. My kiddo lost her water shoe the first evening due to the undercurrent. I like that even though Virginia Beach is growing, the area is cleaned daily and it’s never too crowded; even during the height of summer. In addition to beach life, there are many activities celebrating the outdoors, nature and history.
If you’re going to Virginia Beach, your trip is not complete unless you get a photo op with the iconic King Neptune statue. At the entrance to Neptune Park, there is also a playground nestled in the sand. In September, there’s a King Neptune Festival centering around the seafaring statue. During the summer, there is evening entertainment at 7th, 17th, 24th and 31st Streets (where King Neptune rests).
You’ll want to enjoy your vacation to Virginia Beach with visits to many of the places I’ve highlighted below.
Cape Henry Lighthouse
583 Atlantic Ave.
Fort Story, VA 23456
The original Cape Henry Lighthouse was constructed in 1792. Due to aging, the new Cape Henry Lighthouse was built and is currently operated by the US Coast Guard. While the old lighthouse is unsafe for climbing, persons 42” or taller, can climb the new lighthouse. As the lighthouse is located on the Fort Story military base, you will have to go through security. A government issued id such as a driver’s license and search of your vehicle is normal, but may be intimidating to young children.
VA Beach Fishing Pier
1506 Atlantic Ave.
Virginia Beach, VA 23451
Even if you don’t like to fish, taking in the smells and sounds of Virginia Beach’s fishing pier is quite an experience. The pier, located on 15th Street and the boardwalk, operates from April to October. There is a nominal fee of $2 to walk the 1,000 foot long pier without fishing. On site is a bait-and-tackle shop and snack bar. No fishing license is needed.
Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center
717 General Booth Blvd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23451
A must do when in Virginia Beach is a trip to the Aquarium and Marine Science Center. While it’s different than the National Aquarium in Baltimore, it is a big facility and is equally as good. Highlights include seeing komodo dragons close-up, moon jellies, the famous snakehead fish, sand tiger sharks and walking through a tunnel filled with colorful coral and tropical fish. See Harbor seals outside the main entrance to the aquarium, watch North American river otters at play and a nature walk leading to a bird aviary.
There are touch pools where you can interact with a horseshoe crab, whelk or starfish. A giant pool filled with cownose rays allows for hands to touch the water to pet the friendly fish. The spines on the rays are clipped to prevent accidental injuries. Near the ray pool is my favorite exhibit highlighting the endangered loggerhead turtles. With glass from floor to ceiling, you can come face-to-face with these huge and beautiful reptiles. Photo opportunities abound as the curious turtles are very friendly.
Tickets are $22 for adults, and $15 for kids ages 3-11. A $2 discount is given to active and retired military and family members. My family spent four hours at the aquarium and did not partake of the extra fees for the 3-D theatre and Adventure Park. The aquarium is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Note: the Marsh Pavilion and aviary will close in the fall of 2016 for renovations and are expected to reopen in 2018.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
4005 Sandpiper Rd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23456
If you’re looking for an alternative to spending money at the aquarium, head south of Sandbridge to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Park your car and bike the trails. We walked passed the dunes to a virtually quiet beach scene. We spotted sea gulls and peregrine falcons on the sand and an eagle overhead. Through the marshland, turtles and dragonflies were present. Other wildlife at the refuge include ducks, loggerhead sea turtles and snow geese. A visitor center has maps of the area and restrooms.
Hunt Club Farm
2388 London Bridge Rd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23456
I have heard so many positive things about Hunt Club Farm that I had to check it out. Spend some time as a farm hand and catch a chicken, brush a goat, pet a bunny and come nose to nose with a pig if you dare! Settle in with turkeys, guinea hens, geese, sheep, llamas, alpacas, and tortoises. A small aviary is filled with crowned cranes, pheasants, doves and free roaming peacocks. Kids can further the fun at the farm’s shaded playground or pretend to drive a tractor.
There’s also a market carrying beverages and snacks. The only confusion was knowing that not all animals can actually be petted. For example, calves, birds, donkeys and pigs should not be fed because calves are on a special diet and well, the latter may mistake your fingers for food. Another tip we learned was when entering the goat pen, do not bring in the cup of food. A swarm of about 20 goats climbed on my family to get some munchies. The chickens are hit and miss in terms of friendliness. I found that the smaller chickens were easier to catch and hold, but one stinker pecked me. Overall, we had a great time!
Hunt Club Farm is open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is reasonable at $5 for ages 2 and up. Add a pony ride or souvenir cup of animal food for $5 a piece. We found ourselves refilling the food cup for $3 several times. I blame the goats! If you are in the area off season, special events include an Easter Egg Hunt, Harvest Festival and Country Christmas.
JT’s Grommet Island Beach Park and Playground is a fully accessible park for people of all abilities. JT stands for Josh Thompson, who suffers from ALS. Thompson missed out on experiences because of difficulty getting his wheelchair on the beach. The park idea came to fruition and is equipped with ramps and sits on the actual sand. The oceanfront park is a popular part of the beach for surfers. In fact, colorful surfboards line one of the entrances to the large play structure. Hang ten with a dolphin, sway on a boat, strengthen your arm muscles with a crank gear and more. Restrooms and a municipal parking lot are adjacent to the park. Nothing beats the view!
Mount Trashmore Park is a 165 acre park consisting of playgrounds, a skate park and two lakes. The park’s mountain, Mount Trashmore, got its moniker from being a former land fill. While it sounds gross, you won’t smell or see any trash. If you can make the climb, the wooden park is big and pretty awesome for all ages.
Children’s Museum of Virginia
221 High St.
Portsmouth, VA 23704
Locals will tell you to bring your kids to the largest museum in the commonwealth known as the Children’s Museum of Virginia. I’m glad I finally listened because my 8 year old didn’t want to leave the museum after our 3 hour visit. Good for toddlers to age 10, the two level museum was a perfect outing on a rainy day. Apparently others thought so too as it was very crowded.
Exhibits ranged from a room all about bubbles, a huge train exhibit with an impressive display of model trains, and a shipyard. A pint-sized town includes a pets & vets hospital, music shop, fire station and library. Gather eggs from the farmer’s market, learn about why we sneeze in the Bodyworks exhibit and write your own check at the bank. The second floor is quieter without the bell and whistle sounds. Perform on stage, build, sculpt, draw and learn about different types of architecture or gather inspiration from famous artists in the CreARTivity wing. During our visit, in the art lab, my daughter became a city planner learning how to design her own 3-D city complete with buildings, sidewalks and roads. The My Backyard and Beyond exhibit explores recycling, ecology and a hands-on water cycle experiment. Dr. Forces Traveling Energy Extravaganza showcases amazing circus acts revolving around energy. Learn how machines work, what moves energy, compare your strength to the strongest man and woman and dance along with dust particles to rock music.
The museum operates daily, but check the website before you go as they are only open certain Mondays throughout the summer and holidays. I found admission to be reasonable at $11 for adults, $10 for military and children; free for ages 2 and under. Allow a minimum of 3 hours to truly appreciate all that the museum has to offer. A nice touch are the rocking chairs on the second level for parents and separate space on the main floor specifically for toddlers.
Food and Lodging
Due to its growing commercial stature, there’s no shortage of lodging and dining options in Virginia Beach. If you’re looking for something different, Pocahontas Pancakes is a Native American themed restaurant serving colossal sized pancakes and other breakfast treats. Taste Unlimited has a nice selection of sandwiches – perfect for a picnic on the beach. North End Pizza slices up New York Style pizza and if you don’t feel like dining in, they deliver to hotels. For frozen custard, Kohr Brothers is located on the boardwalk, but I prefer the walk-up Dairy Queen, whose backdrop is the Atlantic Ocean. Driving out of the main area of the beach, Baker’s Crust at Hilltop Shopping Center is a superb spot for lunch or dinner. If you’re in need of groceries, Farm Fresh on Laskin Road is open 24 hours a day.
My family always stay at the Fairfield Inn and Suites. There are several reasons that I choose this hotel. For starters, all rooms have an oceanfront view with a balcony and are equipped with a mini fridge and hot breakfast is served daily. There is an indoor pool, free on-site parking, but best of all, the boardwalk is only a few steps away! No need to lug your gear far and this hotel is on the quieter end of town near Rudee Inlet. If you’re up at daybreak, you can spot dolphins in the distance.
So whether your plans include fun in the sun all day or mixing things up with the beach and tourist attractions, Virginia Beach is a great destination for families of all ages. Clocking in at 3 ½ hours from northern VA, it’s a great oasis within an easy drive.
Photos by Kathleen Molloy.