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The Sands Off-Time

A bona fide city by the sea, Virginia Beach is always open -- but easiest to warm up to in the relative dead of winter.

By Roger Piantadosi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 5, 2000; Page C09

With six lanes of pavement that rocket you to within six blocks of the Atlantic Ocean -- where you can see another pavement-widening project underway from your oceanfront high-rise -- Virginia Beach is no slouch in the perpetual wrestle with Mother Nature.

Sometimes, though, Mom gets in one of those moods. In hurricane season, this can be hazardous and totally unfair. But when she rises early and cooks up a mostly sunny, 71-degree day in early January, no one complains.

In summer, when its warm days and plentiful nightlife bring more than 2 million visitors to Virginia Beach's tightly packed shores, you'll be lucky if you can cross oceanfront Atlantic Avenue on foot without having to break into a sprint. Virginia Beach, in August, is exactly what it looks like: a big city by the sea.

But between now and April, while the sea is too cold for dips, Virginia Beach is made for them. Even in winter (and especially on a unseasonably balmy weekend), it remains a colorful, bustling city -- or metropolitan area, actually, with a larger one, Norfolk, overlapping it to the west, and several smaller ones nearby.

You don't have to luck into a warm winter to do some strolling, jogging or inline skating down the city's 40-block-long, bump-free "boardwalk." (It's concrete. And, in some places, thanks to the $103 million erosion-protection to be completed by the city and the Army Corps of Engineers in June, it's nearly twice as wide. The city's traditionally narrow beach itself, if the project's huge seawall and enormous underground pumps work as expected, will also be wider and harder to wash away.)

Next to the boardwalk is a bikes-only strip of asphalt with interstate-quality lane markings. If this scares you, locals like the 27 miles of trails at 2,700-acre First Landing State Park just north of downtown, and the route south along General Booth Boulevard toward Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, whose trails (closed during migration season) lead to the deserted beaches and marshes of little-known False Cape State Park.

"It really is much nicer here in the winter," says longtime resident Anne Bleicher, who had lived in various once-rural areas further inland since the '70s (all of them, she says, now covered in housing and shopping). "We decided the best place to be is right here at the beach. And this is the best time to be here." And home is two blocks away.

One of those blocks, of course, is Atlantic Avenue, the hotel-shaded oceanfront thoroughfare which attracts so much summer traffic that police use a video-monitoring system to ticket the owners of license plates that appear more than once every couple of hours on the street.

Virginia Beach, a big playland in the middle of a region that works hards for a living, does have a high "cruise" factor -- but it's actually one of its charms. Even on a January Sunday, though most of the city's (real) palm trees are shrink-wrapped in protective plastic, the woman's voice on the PA system at the beachfront Exxon barks out reminders that parking is for customers only. The announcements are directed at the young, baseball-capped operators of all those cherry-red VW sedans and white-trim-on-white Ranger pickups -- and one particularly cool hunter-green '70 Bel Air Super Sport sporting chrome-dome wheels and curb-to-curb rap music. They eventually relocate, with great deliberateness and engine-revving, to the realty office parking lot across the street.

Not that Virginia Beach isn't, as the city fathers and mothers like to point out, an excellent family destination. Off-season at the recently enlarged Virginia Marine Sciences Museum, the crowds of cooing and screeching creatures are more manageable and less vocal (oh, and the seals, river otters and scores of birds seem more relaxed and playful, too). It's easier to spot science-class subjects in the large outdoor aviary and the quarter-mile nature trail. The museum's 300,000 gallons of ocean-, bay- and river-based aquariums and hands-on, touch-intensive exhibits (and 3-D Imax theatre) are open daily, all year. (This month, the museum also resumes its whale-watching boat trips.)

Finally, should you believe you have Virginia Beach figured out by now, up in the quieter, single-family end of town is the modest campus of the Association for Research and Enlightment. With its large library and modest visitors center/bookstore, a health-services wing and conference center, the ARE is headquarters of an international web of organizations that have grown up around the work -- writings and some 14,000 hypnosis-enhanced "readings" -- of "sleeping prophet" Edgar Cayce, probably the 20th-century's best-documented psychic.

After watching a 15-minute film on Cayce's life and hope-inspiring predictions (he was pretty sure we'd all one day realize we are responsible for, you know, each other), I asked a staffer where I could find a good place for lunch. She had several suggestions -- among them the Jewish Mother, a funky downtown tavern that somehow pleases both deli diehards and Deadheads -- and then fell silent. She smiled.

"You know," she said, "you could always use your intuition."

I think I see a weekend in Virginia Beach in my immediate future.


GETTING THERE: Virginia Beach is about four hours from the Beltway. Take I-95 south to I-295 east to I-64 east to Route 44 east (the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Expressway) directly into town.

WHERE TO STAY: The Oceanfront Inn (1-800-548-3879) may be tall and ugly, but it's clean and friendly and, through March, will rent two of you a king-bed room for $52 per weekend night. There's also an indoor pool open year-round, and a ocean-view restaurant, Ellington's (see Where to Eat), that's popular with locals. The Atlantic Avenue Courtyard by Marriott (1-800-321-2211) offers upscale suites for two as part of an $89-per-night weekend package. For a European pension-like experience in the warmer months, check out the six-room B&B Angie's Guest Cottage (757-428-4690) when it reopens in April. (Angie's also operates the local youth hostel, in a separate building.)

WHERE TO EAT: For coffee, espresso drinks and sandwiches on a more seasonably chilly winter day, try anything on a slice of homemade bread at Baker's Crust (757-422-6703) in the Hilltop North Shopping Center, five minutes west of downtown on Laskin Road, or (closer in, on the same road) P.J. Baggan Java Cafe (757- 491-8900), which also does well by wine and cigar aficionados. Next to Baggan is Coyote Cafe (757-425-8705), a popular year-round dining choice whose Southwestern fusion fare has a distinct down-home flavor. Other obvious choices include the peerless view and well-executed continental menu at Ellington's (757-422-0445) in the Oceanfront Hotel; the reliable buffet-barn franchise known as Capt. George's (757-428-3494) and the live music and offbeat characters of Abbey Road (757-425-6330) and Jewish Mother (757-422-5430). Not so obvious: a tiny, down-on-its-luck-looking pub called Phil's Grill (757-491-6525), which turns out to have great nightly pizza specials and huge, excellent burritos and quesadillas.

DETAILS: Contact the City of Virginia Beach at 757-437-4888, 1-800-446-8038 or www.vabeach.com.

The Escapist

Three to go

Here in this first month of the first year of the first -- well, never mind. Let's just be grateful that it's Week One of our quest for readers' Top Three Escapes, and that some things are still free -- specifically, the copy of The Post's getaway guide, "Escape Plans," now headed toward the Waldorf, Md., home of Pati Jackson, who sent in the following list of her favorite hiding places:

1. Close to home: Purse Park, on the Potomac south of Nanjemoy, Md. Great for bird watching, serenity in the woods and lots of bald eagles. (Purse Park: 301-743-7613.)

2. Seneca Rocks, W.Va. Inexpensive weekend getaway. Stay at the Yokums' Vacationland Hotel over top of the General Store ($49 a night for a big huge room) with a view of Seneca Rocks. Take the horseback ride to the top of the rock or drive a short distance to Blackwater Falls State Park. (Seneca Rocks Visitors Center: 304-567-2827.)

3. Westmoreland State Park, on the Potomac River near Montross, Va. Great day trip or weekend camping outing to Virginia's Northern Neck. Lots of beautiful trails, a large beach and great shark-tooth hunting! (Westmoreland State Park: 804-493-8821).

AND YOUR order?

If we publish your own pithy, strangely resourceful Top Three Escapes list on the weekly "Escapes" page during the next two months, we'll also send you a copy of "Escape Plans" -- a $9.95 value. Send your Top Three list for consideration via e-mail to

escapist@washpost.com, or by U.S. mail to Escapes, The Washington Post Travel section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Keep your list to roughly one sentence per item, 75 words total, and have it to us by Friday, Jan. 28.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company


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