Looking to Escape a Little Closer to Home?

By Caroline Kettlewell
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 17, 2007

A beach getaway in late summer or early fall can be a lovely thing, when the crowds, the heat and the mosquitoes have all departed. But so many beach towns roll up the streets after Labor Day, plunging into the desolate, shuttered ambiance of a Bergman film. Not Virginia Beach. With a large year-round population, Virginia Beach keeps humming in all seasons. You can take advantage of off-season rates, and with average highs of about 80 degrees in September and 70 degrees in October, and water temperatures lingering in the 70s to high 60s through October, you can have your own endless summer well into autumn without going as far south as the Outer Banks.

First, plan your trip. The best place to begin is the Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau Web site, http://www.vbfun.com. You'll find an extensive list of things to do and places to stay and eat, as well as a calendar of major area events. On your way into town, stop at the bureau's Visitors Center (2100 Parks Ave.; 800-822-3224) to pick up an area map and brochures, fliers and coupon books, or let the staff help select items for your particular interests.

Resort Beaches

The liveliest stretch of Virginia Beach, from Rudee Inlet on the southern end to 40th Street, is a nearly solid wall of ocean-front hotels and restaurants, connected on the beach side by the boardwalk, which is not made of boards at all, but rather concrete, paralleled by a bike path. As thoroughly managed as a strip of land still prey to the whims of tide and weather can be, the wide, flat beach and the boardwalk are in fact part of a massive storm and erosion protection system, completed in 2000, courtesy of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. When you unfold your beach chair, consider this: You're perched atop Virginia's most expensive civil works project.

On the land side, a stroll down the main drag, Atlantic Avenue, finds the jumbled, kitschy carnival of T-shirt shops and waffle joints amply on display. But the future has "Starbucks" written all over it, as evidenced by -- what else? -- a Starbucks, part of 31 Ocean (3001 Atlantic Ave.), an upscale hotel, shopping and dining complex that opened in 2005 and is anchored by the 21-story Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront. For now, though, you can still have your funny souvenir shot glass and your $3 coffee, plus a clean beach and ocean breezes, so put on your walking shoes and go directly to the boardwalk.

WHERE TO STAY: Take your pick. Prices drop significantly after Labor Day, so you can vacation on the cheap or indulge yourself while still saving money. An ocean-view room at the Quality Inn & Suites Oceanfront (705 Atlantic Ave.; 757-428-8935), which can cost $249 a night for a weekend in August, can be had for less than $100 by late October. Or you could splurge at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront (757-213-3001). In August, an oceanview room can cost $359 a night for a weekend. But in the fall, you could swing for an Empryean Club-level room, with private access, 42-inch plasma screen televisions, a club lounge with personalized concierge service (among other amenities), a king bed and an ocean view, all for $309 a night for a late-September weekend, and a bargain $219 for a Friday or Saturday night in mid-November.

For a dose of nostalgia, the ornate Cavalier Hotel (oceanfront at 42nd Street; 800-446-8199), which opened in 1927, offers rooms in the original hotel through the weekend of Sept. 15 ($198-$318 per night for that final weekend); the more contemporary oceanfront complex stays open throughout the year.

WHERE TO EAT: Veteran Virginia Beach visitors know that despite its unpromising exterior, the Jewish Mother (3108 Pacific Ave.; 757-422-5430) is the place to go for an eclectic mix of latkes, burgers, borscht, live music and massive amounts of calories. According to the restaurant's "Mom's Dictionary," the definition of "just a sliver" is "any portion of food smaller than a sofa cushion."

For a more refined dining experience, you can try the oddly monikered Eat: An American Bistro (4005 Atlantic Ave.; 757-965-2472), serving dinner only. It has that unassuming chic, but with menu selections such as duo of maple leaf duck and escargot Christina, it's a far cry from the usual beach fare of fried clams and all-you-can-eat buffets. Off the beach, Terrapin Restaurant's chef Rodney Einhorn is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and offers a menu featuring local, seasonal produce (3102 Holly Rd., Pinewood Square, Suite 514; 757-321-6688). Try the truffle mac 'n' cheese or the potato and basil wrapped wild salmon, and save room for the artisan cheese selection or the house-made sorbet and ice cream.

Travel north a few minutes to Chick's Oyster Bar (2143 Vista Circle; 757-481-5757), off the usual tourist path and on the water on Lynnhaven River. It's your classic beach-town seafood joint, with crab cakes, tropical drinks, plenty of cold beer and an excellent key lime pie. The covered deck is open all year.

WHAT TO DO: Golf, shop, eat, surf, highbrow, lowbrow -- your options are myriad.

The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center's 300,000-gallon Norfolk Canyon Aquarium puts you eye-to-eye with sharks, stingrays and other sea-dwellers (717 General Booth Blvd.; 757-385-3474). The center has an Imax theater, too, and through October you can sign up for the Harbor Seal Splash ($125 for nonmembers; reservations required), a two-hour encounter with the aquarium's harbor seals that lets you take part in an in-water training session.

A visit to Virginia Beach really isn't complete without conquering Mount Trashmore (310 Edwin Dr.; parks information, 757-385-4461), which is, well, a mountain of trash, 165 acres and 60 feet high, now capped over and landscaped and turned into a city park. Mount Trashmore Park also features two lakes, playgrounds, a 1.45-mile walking trail and a state-of-the-art skate park.

If you yearn for a last hurrah of summer, complete with the crowds, the 34th annual Virginia Beach Neptune Festival's culminating Boardwalk Weekend, Sept. 28-30 ( http://www.neptunefestival.com/events.php), includes the North American Sandsculpting Championship, an 8K run, a sailing regatta, the Surfing Classic, the Beach Brawl Wrestling Championship and an arts and crafts show produced by Virginia Beach's Contemporary Art Center of Virginia ( http://www.cacv.org).

Sandbridge Beach

About 20 minutes south of the resort beaches, Sandbridge Beach, billing itself as "the Outer Banks of Virginia," is another world, a place of quiet, sand-dusted streets and beach houses.

WHERE TO STAY: Your lodging choice in Sandbridge is any one of hundreds of rental homes, as well as a number of units in two new condominium developments, and the off-season is definitely the bargain season. Both of the major area real estate agencies, Siebert Realty (877-422-2200 or 757-426-6200) and Sandbridge Realty (800-933-4800 or 757-426-6262), begin offering off-season and three-night rates Sept. 22 (higher but still reduced postseason rates apply Sept. 8-22). An oceanfront three-bedroom home can be had for $860 for an off-season week (vs. $2,300 a week in peak season) or $516 for a three-night stay. That whopping 10-bedroom house with Wi-Fi access, hot tub, volleyball net and barbecue grill for you and 20-some of your nearest and dearest (family groups only -- house parties, frat parties and large gatherings of the young and unattached are officially disallowed by both realtors) is $2,860 for a week or $1,716 for three nights. In the peak season, the house goes for $8,540 for a week. Both Siebert and Sandbridge Realty offer searchable Web site databases of rental properties and publish annual rental guides as well.

WHAT TO DO: This is the place for kicking back on your cottage deck with a mess of steamed crabs for dinner. Even if you're not staying here, the lightly traveled streets make for nice bicycling, and the beach offers a quieter, less developed alternative to the boardwalk district, with easy access thanks to Little Island Park (3750 Sandpiper Rd.; parks information, 757-385-4461) at the southern end of Sandbridge. A city park, it's open all year, with restrooms, a fishing pier and no parking fees after September. Just across the street from the park entrance is a launch site for paddling access to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Want a guide? Ocean Rentals (800-695-4212 or 757-721-6210) schedules kayak tours through late fall.

The waves pick up in September; how about a surfing lesson? Surf & Adventure Co. (577 Sandbridge Rd.; 757-721-6210) will set up a two-hour lesson ($45) for you any time of year (wetsuits provided in cooler weather). Because most of the instructors are college students, once the school year starts it's a good idea to call several days in advance to make sure someone will be available.

For a self-powered scenic tour, jump on one of the daily rides out of Fat Frogs Bike and Fitness (1169 Nimmo Pkwy., 757-427-9488). Departing at 7:30, the morning ride follows a 21-mile loop along lightly traveled rural roads in the Pungo area near Sandbridge.

WHERE TO EAT: Secluded Blue Pete's (1400 N. Muddy Creek Rd.; 757-426-2005) serves dinner daily by the edge of Tabernacle Creek, specializing in "fish so good -- it tastes great naked," according to the menu. The sweet potato bread is also a favorite here. If you want to work up a serious appetite, the Blue Pete's Web site provides a water map for paddling access.

Boardwok Restaurant (1993 Sandbridge Rd.; 757-426-1700), on the road to Sandbridge, is a casual, Asian-flavored restaurant with a full bar, vegetarian options and takeout, so you can enjoy spring rolls with a side of sea breezes in your seaside cottage.

Natural Areas

Only a few miles from all the Boardwalk bustle, you can find serenity in two state parks and a national wildlife refuge. North of the resort beaches on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay is First Landing State Park (2500 Shore Dr.; 757-412-2300), with more than a mile of beach and 19 miles of trails (the six-mile Cape Henry Trail is open to bicyclists) meandering through woods, dunes and a cypress swamp. A boat launch reached via entry from 64th Street off Atlantic Avenue is a place to put in with a small motorboat, kayak or canoe to explore miles of coves and waterways. Camping and cabins are open all year.

To the south, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (4005 Sandpiper Rd., entrance at the southern end of Sandbridge; 757-721-2412) and False Cape State Park (4001 Sandpiper Rd.; 757-426-7128) are wilder and more remote, the latter in particular because you cannot drive there; access to its more than 4,300 acres, on a narrow strip of land bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the east and Back Bay on the west, is only through the wildlife refuge, which doesn't allow private vehicle traffic. Under your own power, you can get there on foot, off-road bicycle or by water; it's about a five-mile trip to the False Cape entrance, and the refuge closes at dusk, so plan your expedition accordingly. On weekends through October, you can catch a ride on the Blue Goose Express, a tram operated by the Back Bay Restoration Foundation, and November through March on the Terra Gator, a kind of steel box on balloon tires operated by False Cape park itself. Both rides (which require a fee) depart from Little Island Park in Sandbridge, travel through the refuge and deposit you for a two-hour visit in False Cape, which the park guide notes is one of the last undisturbed coastal environments on the East Coast.

Both the refuge and the state park are havens for wildlife and outstanding locations for bird watching. Paddlers can poke among islands and inlets, and for the ruggedly inclined, primitive camping is available in False Cape (Back Bay open only from dawn to dusk).

Caroline Kettlewell is a regular contributor to Weekend and the author of "Electric Dreams," a true tale of teachers, students and an electric car competition.

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