First, get the name right. It's "VaBeach" -- one word to locals and insiders.
That's "Va," rhymes with "bah" -- which made sense when Virginia Beach was a second-rate seaside resort full of rowdy sailors, and later unruly college students, who frequented its rundown motel rooms and a narrowing strip of oceanfront sand. Now it's VaBeach, as in "va va voom."
Negative images have been washed away by a tide of civic pride, major capital improvements and a revitalized boardwalk with enough musical entertainment and street performers to rival Disney World in its promise of family-oriented fun. An appetite for beer joints and waffle shops has been refined by a mouth-watering array of ethnic cuisines.
And the beach itself is back. Due to diligent restoration efforts, the sandy expanse is as wide as a football field -- 300 feet. And it is clean -- shifted and raked daily.
The newly landscaped three-mile oceanfront boardwalk is a colorful conga line of runners, skaters, bikers, stroller-pushers and promenaders. It's Main Street. Strangers smile and say hello to strangers; teenagers hook up with teenagers. Here you can strut your stuff, or sit on a bench and gawk as the bathing-suited world goes by in every age (kids to geezers), shape (buff to bountiful) and color (mostly lobster red from the sun).
But it's hard to sit, even in a beach chair with a trashy book by the water's edge. First Landing State Park, just off 64th Street, beckons with nearly 3,000 acres and 19 miles of pine-needle-cushioned trails that lead to little bays and ponds fringed by moss-hung live oaks and bald cypress. A bike path runs 90 blocks, from Fort Story to the north to Rudee Inlet to the south.
There's dancing in the bars, and dancing under the stars, as outdoor stages sweeten summer nights with rock-and-roll.
VaBeach is revving its engine . . . Varoom, vroom, vroom.
* BEST BREAKFAST
Get to the Belvedere Coffee Shop before 7 a.m. if you want the corner booth overlooking the boardwalk. Locals and tourists jockey for one of 27 seats and a chance to start the day with an Eye Opener -- a fried egg on an onion roll with bacon or ham, cheese and a thick slice of fried tomato dusted with Parmesan, or a stack of flapjacks so light they fairly float.
36th Street and Oceanfront, 757-425-0613. Eye Openers $5.25.
HONORABLE MENTION: Early-bird special at Mary's: two eggs, bacon or sausage, grits and toast, $2.50 before 9 a.m. Same price for two eggs and two pancakes. Breakfast served from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
616 Virginia Beach Blvd. (17th Street), 757-428-1355.
* BEST BATHING SUIT
No mermaid's figure? No worries. Meg Bisese has been sewing custom-made bathing suits for 30 years. Her shop, Meg's, offers 30 different brands in sizes from XXS to a Size 26 with an F cup. If the fit needs a nip and tuck, Meg is standing by with needle and thread.
307 Laskin Rd., 757-428-7945. Custom bathing suits start at about $100; off the rack, at $40.
* BEST SEAFOOD DINNER
Croakers delivers fresh fish to your table the way you like it: fried, broiled, sauteed, grilled, blackened or Jamaican-seasoned. For nearly 20 years, this landmark restaurant has come with daily specials that are truly special, many featuring Mediterranean flavors -- a nod to the owner's Lebanese heritage. Portions are generous. Regret -- no hush puppies. Redemption -- it's a hot spot that takes reservations in season, when many restaurants do not.
3629 Shore Dr., 757-363-2490. Entrees $11.95-$27.95.
* BEST MEAL TOURISTS DON'T KNOW ABOUT
I'll get a cold shoulder in July from my neighbors at the beach for letting the word out on this one. The Mayflower Cafe is a trip to Turkey. Begin with the sampler of hummus, borek (spinach pie), dolmas (stuffed leaves), tarama (caviar spread), tangy eggplant and warm homemade pita bread. Go ahead and order double bread. Next, the Greek salad with hunks of exceptional feta. Then the refreshing cucumber and yogurt soup (takes the sting out of sunburns). Entree: broiled flounder with capers and lemon. Save room for homemade flan or baklava. Bonus: It's BYOB, and there's no corking fee. Warning: No credit cards.
209 34th St., 757-417-0117. Entrees $8.95-$12.95.
HONORABLE MENTION: The chef-owner of Vietnam Garden is Chinese-born but was raised in a Saigon kitchen. The menu is heavy on shrimp and fish and light on seasoning, relying mainly on lemongrass, cilantro and garlic, and shunning butter. Steamed dumplings hold shrimp and mushrooms; sticky noodles are topped with squid, shrimp, coconut milk and curry. Wash it down with sake or a Chang -- Thai beer.
2404 Virginia Beach Blvd., 757-631-8048. Entrees $5.95-$15.95.
* BEST SINGLES SCENE
Head for "The Block" -- 21st Street and Atlantic Avenue -- where half a dozen bars, including the Edge, Crazy Charlie's, Luna Sea and Baja Cantina, are packed every night with the 20-to-30 crowd. For a youthful older scene, it's Mahi Mah's, with an outdoor patio and stage for music. Clams, oysters and wings are 35 cents apiece during happy hour, from 3 to 6 p.m.
Mahi Mah's, Sixth Street and oceanfront, 757-437-8030, www.mahimahs.com.
* BEST MINI-GOLF
Putt among hippos, zebras, gorillas and rhinos at Jungle Golf. Real palm trees grace the course. In mid-June, you can play midnight golf. The course is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. until June 17 (later on weekends), then 24 hours a day until Labor Day (weather permitting). Unlimited golf is offered from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (till 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday) for a single admission.
23rd Street and Pacific Avenue, 757-425-7240. Admission is $9 for adults, $6 for kids 4 to 8.
* BEST TEEN SPOT
Send them to the seven-foot-deep, kidney-shaped skate bowl at Mount Trashmore, the city's highest point at 64 feet -- one huge mound of garbage, once the city landfill. Now the grassy hill is used for kite-flying and frolicking. The site also has walking trails, a lake for bank fishing (catfish, carp and bass; license required, available for less than $10 at Wal-Mart, Kmart and fishing supply stores), paths for strolling and a children's playground -- so there's something for all to do while your teens are skateboarding.
310 Edwin Dr. (10 miles west of oceanfront off I-264), 757-473- 5237, http://vbgov.com/e-gov/vbcsg/faqinfo/0,1172,6128,00.html.
* BEST OLD-BEACH ATMOSPHERE
Tautogs restaurant is housed in a 1920s beach cottage. Flounder-in-a-Bag is a menu hit, and there are extensive beer selections. There's a bike rack for guests who arrive by their own steam.
205 23rd St., 757-422-0081, www.tautogs.com. Entrees range from $10.95 (fish in the bag, $14.95) to the chalkboard specials at $20.95.
* BEST FREE ENTERTAINMENT
Walk the boardwalk and take in the free concerts and events. It is the stage for more than 100 performers. Special events include the 50th Annual Boardwalk Art Show, June 16-19; Elvis wannabes, June 23-26; patriotic music by the Virginia Beach Symphony Orchestra and what's billed as one of the largest fireworks displays on the East Coast, July 4; East Coast Surfing Championships, Aug. 24-28; and Soul Music Beachfest, Aug. 26-27.
Entertainment schedule: Beachstreet USA, www.beacheventsfun.com.
* BEST RIDE
The Wave trolley is VaBeach's cheap and convenient way to get from the North End south to Rudee Inlet and avoid parking hassles. Routes also include a museum run and a shopping express. Just flag it down and hop on board.
Trolley rides $1, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., www.hrtransit.org/vbwave.
HONORABLE MENTION: Bikes built like surreys with up to six sets of pedals for the whole family to pump up and down the boardwalk.
NJ Convenience & Gift, 18th Street at oceanfront, 757-491- 6792. One-, two- and three-bench models -- with baby seat in front -- rent from $14 to $30 per hour; second hour free with coupon.
* BEST SUNSET
The Sunset Dolphin Watch cruise on the Chesapeake Bay passes historic Cape Henry with its two lighthouses, gigantic commercial tankers moving along the shipping channel and Navy warships entering and departing the bay.
Lynnhaven Seafood & Fishing Center, 3311 Shore Dr., 757-481- 4545, www.fishingvabeach.com. Nightly at 7, $16.
HONORABLE MENTION: The sunset reflecting off Long Creek as the waiter brings your order of fried calamari and onion rings with a horseradish malt aioli and a Campari on the rocks at One Fish-Two Fish. The restaurant is built at the end of a pier with windows and water on three sides.
2109 W. Great Neck Rd., 757-496-4350. Fried calamari/ onion rings appetizer $7, entrees $18-$30.
* BEST HIKE
Take the 191 steps up the cast-iron spiral stairway to the top of the historic 1792 Old Cape Henry Lighthouse for a marvelous view of the bay and oceanfront community.
On Fort Story at the north end of the beach. Photo ID required for those 18 and older. Lighthouse fee is $3. 757-422-9421, www.cr.nps.gov/maritime/nhl/capehenr.htm.
* BEST KID ACTIVITY
Get 'em on a boat at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, with 700,000 gallons of aquariums, 300 hands-on exhibits, a nature trail and aviary. Several educational water activities are offered, including the popular dolphin watch aboard a 65-foot catamaran and the pontoon float in Owls Creek Salt Marsh.
717 General Booth Blvd., 757-425-FISH, www.vmsm.com. Admission is $11.95 for adults, $7.95 for children ages 3 to 11.
* BEST SURPRISE
Is that a bong being passed around? Yep. It's hookah night every Friday at Croc's. A dozen different-flavored tobaccos -- strawberry, mint, licorice . . . bubblegum! -- are available. Thursday is live band dance night, and the place is packed. Food's good, too.
620 19th St. (at Cypress Avenue), 757-428-5444, www.crocsrestaurant .com. $20 for a two-hour burn.
* BEST CAMPSITE
One of the 218 campsites (tent, camper or motor home) and 20 cabins at First Landing State Park. Campsites, less than $30 a night with electrical and water hookup, are squeezed between the sculpted branches of live oaks, behind a dune line bordering the Chesapeake Bay. Cabins, which rent for $646 (for in-state residents) to $717 (out-of-state) per week in prime season, are in the state park across Shore Drive. Prices drop to $65 a night off season (December through March).
2500 Shore Dr., 757-412-2300, reservations 800-933-7275, www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/1stland.htm.
* BEST OVERNIGHT SPLURGE
VaBeach has 11,100 hotel rooms, but only one costs $1,000 per night. The Presidential Suite in the new Hilton at 31st Street has three balconies, two flat-screen TVs, a kitchenette, a banquet-size dining table, a sitting room with a sofa bed and a king-size bed in the bedroom. One floor up are the rooftop pool and bar.
Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront, 3001 Atlantic Ave., 757-213-3000, www.31ocean.com.
* BEST SNACK
Ice cream is passe. Fresh-fruit smoothies rule. Rose, behind the deli counter at the Heritage Health Foods Cafe, whips up healthful heavenly concoctions. Try the Hillary: bananas, honey, peanut butter, vanilla, soy milk and a dash of protein.
314 Laskin Rd., 757-428-0500. A Hillary is $4.25.
* BEST BAKERY
People have birthdays and anniversaries on vacation. Be ready with a cake from Sugar Plum Bakery. More than 40 varieties, including the Tropical Paradise, a yellow cake filled with pineapple and coconut, iced with rum-flavored butter cream and studded with fresh fruit and paper umbrellas. The bakery, which is dedicated to providing employment for the developmentally disabled, also serves lunch Monday through Saturday, and breakfast on Saturday.
1353 Laskin Rd., 757-422-3913, www.sugarplumbakery.org. A 12-inch Tropical Paradise cake is $49; a six-inch birthday cake is $13.99.
* BEST RAINY-DAY ACTIVITY
Awake your psychic powers at the Association for Research and Enlightenment, also known as the Edgar Cayce Center. The library and bookstore have extensive titles on the celebrated psychic and his remedies, as well as books on philosophy, astrology, health, spirituality and creativity. The Health and Rejuvenation Center offers a full range of treatments, including foot reflexology and castor oil packs. Student massages are a bargain at $27 an hour.
215 67th St., 757-428-3588, www.edgarcayce.org.
* BEST SOUVENIR
Retro plastic telescopes on a key chain with your picture inside, taken on the beach. Photographers roam the oceanfront from First to 42nd streets wearing pants with the "Scopes" logo. Pick up the finished "scope" at the studio.
Sunrays Studio, 209 25th St., 757-425-1412. Scopes $5.99; $4.95 each for four or more.
HONORABLE MENTION: Forbes saltwater taffy in a turquoise-and-white box stamped with the slogan, "Full of sea breezes and sunshine."
Forbes Candies, three locations on Atlantic Avenue at 24th, 28th and 31st streets. Two taffy kisses in a box, 39 cents; $5.25 a pound. www.forbescandies.com.
Susan Harb, a frequent contributor to Travel, has had a cottage at Virginia Beach for 25 years.