SEALs, sun and squadrons in Va. Beach

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Glenda C. Booth

Trying to spot a SEAL is all the rage in Virginia Beach, the Old Dominion’s largest resort town. It is home to the now-famous counterterrorism super-secret Navy team that raided Osama bin Laden’s Pakistani compound on May 1 and carried his corpse out to sea. Locals brag about their SEAL-spotting skills.

Virginia Beach, a 14-mile stretch of sand with a heavy military backdrop, is Virginia’s version of “Atlantic City” — Atlantic Ocean beach lined with hotels, bars, restaurants, nightclubs, arcades, souvenir shops and partiers of all ages.

It’s a popular destination for surfers, sunbathers, military buffs, families and outdoor types, as well as the bikini-challenged and sun shy. You can walk much of the resort area or rent rollerblades, bikes or two-passenger pedal “surreys.”

From your oceanside balcony, watch dolphins cavort, study pelicans flapping by, and track the cargo ships creeping across the horizon.

 A leisurely amble up and down the three-mile, beachside boardwalk is a favorite de-stressor for all ages, especially in the evening.

Autumn’s appeal

For a more leisurely pace, wait a month or two for a visit.

“In the fall, we get our beach back,” said Ron Kuhlman, head of the tourism office.

Summer’s frenzy dies down, prices drop, the kids are in school, collegians are back on campus, air temperatures are in the 70s, and the water averages 67 degrees. Virginia Beach decompresses, but still has plenty going on.

The area’s Neptune Festival (www.
neptunefestival.com) has events all summer long, and culminates with many activities throughout the month of September, including a seniors’ Big Band Gala on September 16.

Enjoy 20 blocks of art, sand sculpture, outdoor concerts and fireworks. A 10-day sand sculpting competition, one of the world’s largest, inspires 300 amateurs and pros to mold sand into works of art. Virginia vintners offer samples. The Naval Air Station puts on air shows, including a parachute jump onto the beach.

September 10-11 will feature Blues at the Beach, a weekend of free outdoor concerts, a model train show and sale, and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra by the boardwalk.

October’s events include a craft beer festival and the national women’s rugby championship. Billed as the “best beach party of the year,” the annual pig and oyster fest sponsored by the Old Coast Guard Station in October has live music, hush puppies, fried fish, oyster stew and Mini Malbon’s internationally-acclaimed barbecue sauce.

Winter holidays are celebrated with jumping dolphins and porpoises in colored lights and a Christmas tree on the beach. Many hotels offer special fall and winter packages.

Navy and Coast Guard tributes

Whether it’s Strike Fighter jets zooming and booming across the skies, Blue Angels cracking the sound barrier, or aircraft carriers out at sea, Virginia Beach prides itself on the area’s military history and its prominent role in today’s national defense.

The Naval Aviation Monument Park at 25th Street and Atlantic Avenue honors the area’s rich naval heritage with sculptures of a family welcoming dad home and military personnel in action. (At 25th Street also is the Norwegian Lady statue, a gift from the people of Moss, Norway, commemorating an 1891 Norwegian shipwreck.)

The Old Coast Guard Station at 24th and Atlantic, built in 1903 as a U.S. Life Saving Station and now on the National Register of Historic Places, explores Coast Guard history, rescue methods and shipwreck stories.

King Neptune reigns at 31st Street and the boardwalk, a 16-foot tall statue with bronze, wave-inspired curls. It’s a favorite photo op stop.

For a water adventure, try ocean kayaking. Bottlenose dolphins come to your kayak, promoters claim, on excursions from April to October. Chesapean Outdoors (http://chesapean.com) runs dolphin-spotting trips and eco-tours using sit-on-top kayaks that are stable and easy to paddle.

Chances are you’ll also see brown pelicans, ospreys and maybe sea turtles. Departures are from several locations; reservations recommended.

Well worth a visit and a step back in time is the free Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum in the Victorian Dewitt Cottage, the oldest seaside cottage in Virginia Beach and one that has survived hurricanes because of its 14-inch-thick brick walls. Decoy carvers explain their craft as they whittle.

Museum officials say the native plants in the yard attract fall songbirds. The wooden rocking chairs and long porch offer the perfect perch for lazy ocean-gazing.

Beyond the beach

For relief from sand and the beach hubbub, there are several spots worth visiting within an hour’s drive of downtown — more military, more history and the great outdoors.

Rare aircraft, beautifully restored and all in flying condition, recall the early days of aviation, World War II and the Korean conflict at the Military Aviation Museum. You’ll see the Flying Tigers, a B-25 bomber, British Spitfire, the Russian Polikarpor and the Nazis’ Junkers (Ju52).

There are 1920s biplanes with fuselages made of wood and canvas. Check out the V-1 bomb, a “buzz bomb” and a German encryption machine.

The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center probes the life of the sea and shows off a live Egyptian cobra and Australian hedgehogs. The museum’s trail through a wetland offers a salt marsh experience.

The Cape Henry lighthouses are at the site where colonists made landfall in 1607 before going more inland to Jamestown. You can climb the old lighthouse, a 90-foot tower with 191 stairs. The 1881 cast-iron lighthouse at 163 feet offers a “newer” lesson in lighthouse technology.

First Landing State Park nearby also commemorates the 1607 landing and is the state’s most visited park. It is the northernmost location on the East Coast where subtropical and temperate plants thrive together. You’re likely to see snakes dangling in the Spanish moss or slithering over the cypress trees “knees.”

The Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is 9,000 acres of coastal barrier island habitat, windswept dunes, wetlands and waterfowl. False Cape State Park, once considered a ship graveyard, is a good example of scrub maritime forests. Vehicles are barred from False Cape, but a tram called the Blue Goose Express offers trips to both (www.bbrf.org). In the fall, bird migration is in full swing.

Most first-time visitors want to check out the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel spanning the mouth of the Bay. It is the largest bridge-tunnel complex in the world. On the way, there are four manmade islands, a fishing pier and a restaurant. On your stops, you can look for birds or battleships.

Depending on your religious point of view, you may want to take a side trip to the Christian Broadcasting Network Studio or the headquarters of the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE).

The Christian Broadcasting Network Studio (www.cbn.com) has daily tours and you can be in the audience of a live daily show, The 700 Club, “a program of music, prayer and ministry,” usually hosted by Pat Robertson. CBN was the first Christian television broadcasting station in the nation, on the air since 1966.

The ARE Center (www.edgarcayce.org) has a free daily orientation movie at 2 p.m. and lecture at 3:30 p.m. ARE was formed to “explore transpersonal subjects such as holistic health, ancient mysteries, personal spirituality, dreams and dream interpretation, intuition, and philosophy and reincarnation.” 

They say their holistic massage is “like none other in the world.”

Maybe they give psychic tips on spotting SEALs.

If you go

Visit www.vbfun.com for trip planning, lodging information and calendars.

Virginia Beach has a full range of lodging choices — cabins at First Landing State Park, a Wyndam resort, chain hotels, motels and B&Bs.

The Cavalier Hotel on the north end offers a slower-paced stay than the mid-town hostelries. There are actually two: the original Grand Cavalier, opened in 1927, and the more contemporary Cavalier Oceanfront.

Rooms start at $149 in the summer. For more information, see www.cavalierhotel. com or call (757) 425-8555.

Also on the somewhat quieter south end, the boutique Art Deco 19 Atlantic Hotel is a good mix of character and convenience. It is half a block from the beach and near the Amtrak bus drop-off point. The rooftop deck offers lounge-chair views of the ocean and soothing breezes in the evening shade.

Rates start at $119 in August, but drop to as low as $55 in October. For more information, see www.19atlantic.com or call (757) 428-4440.

Virginia Beach has 300 independently-owned restaurants. See www.vbfun.com/ dining.

“There’s nothing better than a Lynnhaven oyster,” brags Mayor William Sessoms. “They are salty and delicious.” The oysters are harvested from Virginia Beach’s Lynnhaven River.

Tautogs on 23rd Street features seafood with zingy accents in a traditional, shingled beach cottage.

Virginia Beach is a four-hour drive, but usually longer because of I-95 congestion. Amtrak is the least stressful way to get there. The last hour of the trip is via an Amtrak-contracted bus from Newport News, which stops at 19th Street, one block from the main drag, Atlantic Avenue.

City buses travel regularly up and down Atlantic Avenue. If you want wheels to get beyond the resort area, try Enterprise Rental Car at Charles Barker Toyota, 1-800-736-8227. The closest airport is in Norfolk.

Glenda C. Booth is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.