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| Virginia: Virginia Beach, Active Family Vacations - Kayaks, Black Water, and No Cell Phone Service. Sharing family vacation experiences without electronic connections has its benefits - no cell phones, pagers, Ipods or Ipads - even for a day.
Just outside the vacation flurry of Virginia Beach proper there are several places to disconnect for a bit. We chose Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge for our test. Our Back Bay family day of kayaking was a success so I know disconnecting can be done. Just knowing there is no cell phone service gives the process sustainability if only for a few hours. It worked for us and we even agreed to disconnect for a weekend next time.
Here's the scoop. We paddled the sepia-black water channel in silence, our brightly colored kayaks gliding; each stroke creating burnt umber ringlets of water. Moving single file along a natural waterway framed by marsh reeds, shaded by oaks and an occasional loblolly pine, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge seemed unending and wild, really wild. When our children were toddlers we began exploring wilderness areas together. Acting as self appointed guides, my husband and I often created our own version of “Wild Kingdom” requiring our two youngsters to look and listen; to identify tracks; to find true North; to experience a sense of place.
Now as teens they engage themselves, often surprising me with their observations. As part of our vacation customs we made a game of counting Volkswagen Beetles on paved roads and turtles along pathways or waterways. Ten years ago, the prize for the first spotted – gum and the most spotted – Gummy Bears.
Friendly sibling competion is alive. Then as now, the vigilant vacation competition is unspoken but the make and model or genus and species are required to win the prize -- a visit to Starbucks. Our day adventure began at Sandbridge Eco Sports about 30 minutes south of Virginia Beach. (There were no Volkswagen Beetles on the highway so it would be turtles to count.) Chuck Comely, our guide, was quick with the paperwork and in no time we were directed through the shop and out the back to the dock. A friendly hound acted as our escort to the water’s edge. Dockside our attention was once again on Chuck as he explained the plan of the day. Once our safety review was complete, all eyes were on the kayaks and the sepia-black water channel where our adventure would begin. (No turtles at this point.)
The morning, sunny and still, was perfect for paddling the natural channels of Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, a remarkable wilderness. As we emerged from under the leafy canopy the channeled widened; cattails and marsh reeds framed the water passage. Our guide, sensitive to the energy level of the group, paused to point out indigenous birds, well-camouflaged nests and before he could say turtle, a shout confirmed, “Turtle on the right.” All eyes were on and ancient looking eastern mud turtle sunbathing on a fallen tree. Unspoken, the competition had begun.
I have never been a serious contender in the turtle spotting game but Back Bay is turtle heaven. Our guide confirmed that red-bellied, painted, eastern mud, and snapping turtles are most common. I knew that the end of the day would be at Starbucks.
Our route took us off the main water channel and along waterways lined with cattails. Our guide picked wild black berries for us to sample and indicated plants to avoid. We practiced maneuvering around fallen logs as a watchful hawk glided the wind channels above us. We counted snapping turtles sunning on logs and saw the ears of three shy deer through the marsh grasses. Spiky flowers moved with the breeze and the sun baked fresh tracks on mud patches along the shore. Song birds, concealed by the over growth, accompanied the wiring sound created as the breeze rustled the marsh grasses. Our day was both relaxing and energizing.
Absolutely no cellphone connections. The obvious advantage of navigating the Back Bay by kayak is the chance to move almost silently in the wilderness. In addition to enjoying the beautiful feeling of remoteness, our time with Chuck Comely was terrific. He filled our heads with information about the earliest residents and how they survived by using the plants in the area for food, shelter and medicine. He talked about earlier times when the region was used by prestigious hunt clubs. He explained the challenges of today and opportunities for the future. We had some serious moments and plenty of fun. Most important for us, he verified our turtle tally and declared a winner.
Stillwater kayaking offers all ages a chance to experience nature at its best without facing extreme challenges associated with whitewater or ocean waves. With young children it’s a way to create down time; share the quiet of nature; count turtles or bird nests.
Location on the planet.
Anchored in the southeastern corner of the state where Virginia meets the sea, Virginia Beach is four hours by car, southeast of Washington, D.C. and within a day’s drive or less from one-third of the U.S. population. Make it happen.
Log on to the website and order a free vacation catalog or go paper-free with the online trip planner. To speak to a Virginia Beach vacation expert call toll-free 1-800-VA-BEACH (822-3224) or checkout www.visitvirginiabeach.com
Family Vacation Planning Details
Sandbridge Eco Sports. Ocean kayaking and surf lessons are also available through Sandbridge Eco Sports. 577 Sandbridge Road, 23456. (757) 721-6210 or toll-free 1-800-695-4212 or www.oceanrentalsltd.com
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Encompassing more than 8,000 acres the refuge habitats support a wide variety of plant and animal life. Marshlands cover about 75 percent of the refuge. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 4005 Sandpiper Road, 23456-4325. (757) 721-2412 or http://backbay.fws.gov
Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Museum. Not-to-be-missed, this museum offers countless ways to enjoy the wild side of Virginia Beach, from unique interactive displays to a variety of clinics and day trips. 717 General Booth Boulevard, 23451. (757) 441-2374, 427-4305 or www.vmsm.com
Best beach combing ever. False Cape State Park has more than 10 miles of non-commercial beach, bordered by acres of dunes, marshland and woods. The pristine beach is populated by gulls, piping plovers, sandpipers and tiny crabs. It is easy to bike to the edge with older children or with tiny tots take the tram at Little Island City Park in Sandbridge. The tram, called “The Terra Gator” is operated by reservation only; it departs Little Island City Park in Sandbridge daily during the warm season and on weekends from Nov. 1 through March 31 each year. False Cape State Park. Reservations toll-free 1-800-933-7275 or (757) 498-2473. During the spring and fall the tram runs by reservation. 4001 Sandpiper Road about five miles south of Back Bay. (757) 426-7128 or www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/fctrgatr.htm
Try counting turtles. In contrast paddling the Chesapeake Bay from First Landing was more challenging because of winds. We rented kayaks from Chesapean Kayak Tours based at First Landing, deciding to go at our own pace through the park's wetlands and maritime forest. Without a guide to set our pace I spent more time trying to keep up with my teens who really did not want to pause for a great blue heron fishing in the shallows or to watch an osprey circling above the dunes. They did allow time to hike to a hidden lake. Five Volkswagens in the parking lot; the turtle competition was fierce. First Landing State Park. 2500 Shore Drive, 23451-1415, (757) 412-2300, (757) 412-2320, toll-free 800-933-PARK or www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/1stland.htm
Content by Nancy Nelson-Duac and images by FamilyTravelFiles.com. Updated copyright 2011.