Virginia Beach: Discover It Again

“The new, improved Virginia Beach 44 miles,” is what the road sign along Interstate-64 should say, but it doesn’t.

It should say that because that is exactly what I found on my last visit. I have visited Virginia Beach sporadically through the years and knew exactly what to expect — so I thought. I had no reason to expect any radical difference this time. What I found was that the folks down there have been busy!

The beach area has been given a complete facelift. The 3-mile long boardwalk — actually made of concrete — has been renovated, widened, and many decorative features added, such as landscaped block entrances to boardwalk attractions, sculptures, teak benches, and two entertainment stages. There is now a designated pathway for bicycles. The electrical lines along Atlantic Avenue have all been buried — this one act of improvement dramatically improving the overall aesthetic appeal.

Sunrise, Virginia Beach. (Photos by Thomas R. Fletcher)

An Amazing Museum
Then there is the Virginia Marine Science Museum, which completed a $35 million expansion in June of 1996. The largest feature being the 300,000-gallon tank, which replicates the 35-mile-long Norfolk Canyon off the coast of Virginia Beach.

Sharks, barracuda, albacore, amberjack and many other species make their home in the new aquarium. Here’s a hot tip for weary parents traveling with children — I watched as children were mesmerized for hours looking at the various exhibits, while parents relaxed in air conditioned comfort. The museum has tripled its previous size. Other newly added attractions are a river otter habitat, an outdoor aviary, boardwalks, and nature trails. The museum is now numbered among the top marine science facilities in the United States.

The museum also features boat trips for some out-on-the-ocean adventure. From January to March whale watching trips are available, and from June to August, dolphin watching and ocean collecting trips are offered. A few area hotels offer these boating excursions as part of their vacation packages.

Historic Coast Guard Station
One landmark hasn’t changed much, The Old Coast Guard Station. It is still located at 24th Street and Oceanfront. Previously, it was called The Virginia Life Saving Museum, but everyone called it “the old Coast Guard Station.” City officials gave in and made the name-change official.

The museum is housed in old Seatack Station #2, built in 1903. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, here one finds exhibits of early life-saving equipment and written accounts of early life-saving operations. One exhibit depicts the impact of submarine warfare along the Virginia coast during the World Wars. Outside the museum is a piece of the ship Francisco Bella Gamba, which sank off the coast in 1878.

The Virginia Marine Science Museum and the beach improvements are not all that is new in Virginia Beach. There is a new attitude — more than new facilities, more than name-changes, and more than aesthetics alone — one promoting ecotourism and the responsible use of the nearby natural areas.

The area recently hosted the Annual Southeastern Virginia Ecotourism Symposium. Virginia Beach Departments of Convention & Visitor Development and Parks & Recreation working with area tourism leaders developed the symposium to work out policies toward effective use, without overuse, of the area’s natural bounty.

A Scenic State Park
There are several lovely natural areas in the vicinity — many of which have been overlooked by casual visitors in the past. First Landing/Seashore State Park probably wouldn’t fall into that category — it is Virginia’s most-visited state park. Eventually the name will simply be First Landing State Park in honor of the English settlers’ first landing along the shore in April 1607.

This 2,898-acre enclave has an entrance right off Atlantic Avenue on 64th Street. Here one finds miles of hiking trails, cypress swamps, and nesting ospreys — surprising in the midst of a developed area. The Cape Henry Trail is popular with bicyclists and rentals are available in the campground store. The store is open daily in summer, but has limited spring and fall hours.

We enjoyed a leisurely sunny afternoon ride through the park, sharing the trail with several other riders. On another day, I visited when it was raining. An unlikely time for most visitors, but an overcast drizzling sky makes for nice even lighting when photographing the cypress swamp. I hiked for several hours along Bald Cypress, Osmanthus, and Cape Henry Trails. During the entire time I saw only one other visitor — a young woman enjoying a solitary bike ride in the rain. I did see several species of wildlife.

Beautiful Solitude
A turtle eyes me warily from its perch upon a log in the swamp as I set up my camera equipment, a squirrel gathers Spanish moss for a nest lining, an osprey is staidly perched on a limb, and the many frogs sing a beautiful chorus. The cypress trees standing in their watery domain, draped in the spooky-looking Spanish moss, dripping rain makes for a foreboding, yet strangely appealing natural setting.

The ecotourism emphasis has brought new attention to First Landing and to other areas such as Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park. Established in 1938, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge’s 7,800 acres provide habitat for migratory waterfowl.

Located along the Atlantic Flyway, ample opportunities exist for bird watching, hiking, and nature photography. During migration, over 250 waterfowl species may be observed within refuge boundaries. Electric trams have been added for those visitors who want a ride through the refuge.

The trams go through the refuge to False Cape State Park, Virginia’s least visited park. Least visited because it previously required a 6-mile hike or bicycle ride through the refuge to reach the park, and one must carry in all drinking water. Campsites have water available for washing off, but it is not potable. The park is perhaps the only home to Virginia’s endangered glass lizard. The park’s visitation will probably increase with the recent addition of the electric trams. The trams run April 1 through October 31, by reservation only.

Great Kayaking, Bird Watching
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge encompasses a 104-square-mile area of wetlands and the 39-square-mile Back Bay, a freshwater bay with no tidal action. The sheltered bay makes for enjoyable kayaking and bird watching. For some reason, the birds do not seem to pay much attention to a person in a kayak.

Another area growing in popularity with bird watchers is Kiptopeke State Park located just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. It rivals Cape May New Jersey in numbers of birds observed. A bird-banding station has been in use on the park grounds since 1963, though the area was only recently designated a state park. Each Columbus Day weekend the annual Eastern Shore Bird festival is held. Call (804) 442-2760 for more information on the festival.

One must cross the 17.6-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel to reach Kiptopeke State Park, but the bridge-tunnel has itself become somewhat of an attraction for fishermen. The structure makes an artificial reef, which is a magnet for feeding fish, and feeding fish are a magnet for fishermen. Many people stop on the Seagull Pier for a day of fishing. I watched one lady wrestle in a 4-1/2-pound Tautog.

A woman hauls in a 4-1/2–pound Tautog from Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

In addition to all the natural areas, Virginia Beach is an hour or less away from Colonial Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Busch Gardens. The entire area, from the English settlers first landing, to Jamestown, to Colonial Williamsburg, is historically important. Busch Gardens and Water Country USA top the list of important areas for children, well, not only children. I met one lady that spent years working for an amusement park magazine. Her job took her to amusement parks all over the U.S., apparently she enjoyed the top-rated roller coasters and other attractions.

Virginia Beach is much more than the typical beach resort town with a strip of sand and T-shirt shops. If you think you know Virginia Beach, perhaps it is time to discover it again.

Making The Trip
Virginia Beach is 18 miles east of Norfolk, Va. Take Interstate-64 east to the I-264 Virginia Beach turnoff. Follow 264 until it intersects with Atlantic Avenue. Nearby Norfolk International Airport provides access for those traveling by air.

For more information, contact:

First Landing State Park
2500 Shore Drive
Virginia Beach, VA 23451

False Cape State Park
4001 S. Sandpiper Road
Virginia Beach, VA 23456
Tram Reservations: 757-498-2473

Kiptopeke State Park
3450 Kiptopeke Drive
Cape Charles, VA 23310

Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
4005 Sandpiper Road
Virginia Beach, VA 23456-4325
Tram Operations: 1-800-933-PARK

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
P.O. Box 111
Cape Charles, VA 23310

Tidewater Adventures (Kayak Rentals/Eco-tours)
110 W. Randall Ave.
Norfolk, VA 23503

Virginia Marine Science Museum
717 General Booth Blvd.
Virginia Beach, VA 23451
Museum Information: 757-425-FISH
Boat Trips: 804-437-BOAT

The Old Coast Guard Station
P.O. Box 24
Virginia Beach, VA 23458
Fax: 757-491-8609

Virginia Beach Vacation Information
For Special Vacation Packages
1-800-VA BEACH

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