|Virginia: Virginia Beach, Enjoying the Sweatshirt Season - Family Fun Stargazing, Night Hikes, and Whale Watching. Going to the beach off season is a rewarding, stress free, and wallet friendly experience. The “sweatshirt season” is the vacation value season with savings on shopping, hotels activities, acand attractions. Here we have assembled an activity menu full of things to do on the cool spring "sweatshirt days".
Kayak the Back Bay. The Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge contains over 9,250 acres of beach, dunes, woodlands and farm fields. Catch the migration of over 10,000 snow geese and a large variety of ducks every Fall season while kayaking on the oceanfront. Surf and Adventure Ocean Rentals offers the option of guided tours or single rentals, and even provides picturesque sunrise and sunset tours. Their location provides a backdoor entry to the Refuge and immediate access to the water trails that weave throughout the more than 9,250 acres of protected wilderness. They have an experienced, professional staff dedicated to providing a unique experience for each participant. Kayaking is an ageless sport and no two trips through the Back Bay will ever be the same.
Hike the through Back Bay. With its remarkable habitat diversity, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge covers more than 9,250 acres on a strip of coastline typical of barrier islands found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. The east and west trails frame the impoundment system making it easy to hike or bike within the Refuge. Each season more than 10,000 snow geese, Canada geese, tundra swans, and many duck species return to the Refuge. The Refuge also provides a home to piping plovers, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles. Other trails weave through beach, dunes, woodland, farm fields, and marsh.
Beach comb at False Cape. One of the last undisturbed coastal environments on the East Coast, the Cape has more than 10 miles of non commercial beach, acres of bordering dunes, marshland and woods to provide visitors with a sense of wild space. The beach is well populated by gulls, piping plovers, sandpipers and tiny crabs. There are a wide variety of programs conducted within the park, including stargazing, night hikes, birding walks, canoe trips and seining. Some of them are in partnership with Virginia Marine Science Museum, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. To get to the beach visitors bike or hike through Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge to the edge of the sea or ride the beach transporter called Terra Gator, a low impact method of transport. The “Gator” as tykes call it is an experience all by itself. Need to know: Terra Gator runs only on weekends from November 1 through March 31. Departs 9am and returns 1pm.
Pet a ray. Exploring the marine environments presented at Virginia Marine Science Center on the south side of the city is a tactile thrill. A visit will take the greater part of a day. There are two separate sections and plenty of activities in between. The Atlantic Ocean Pavilion and Main Building contain the 300,000-gallon Norfolk Canyon Aquarium. There is also a 70,000-gallon sea turtle aquarium and a sea turtle hatchling laboratory. One of the most popular touch tanks allows visitors to pet a ray. A short walk through a partially shaded pathway connects visitors with the Owls Creek Marsh Pavilion where life in a salt marsh is showcased. Exhibits include aquariums and terrariums featuring river otters, seahorses, and fiddler crabs. Bonus points: A thrill for kids is the macro-marsh section where animals and plants are ten times larger than their normal size.
Go whale watching. Imagine touring the Atlantic Ocean as a majestic whale breeches, or leaps out of the water. This winter, jump on board a whale watching boat trip to search for fin and humpback whales migrating off the Virginia Beach coast. Marvel at these enormous, graceful marine mammals as they feed, flipper-slap, lobtail and breech. Sponsored by the Virginia Marine Science Center, these two-hour boat trips run from early January to mid-March. Museum staff on board will guide and educate you as they explain the biological history and behavior interpretation of these amazing creatures. They’ll also give you a “local’s view” as they comment on Virginia Beach landmarks and the marine life found off the resort coast.
Blade the boardwalk. With the cooling of the season the boardwalk along the beach becomes an even better transit strip for rollerblading and in-line skating. In any season pedal powered surreys may be rented along the boardwalk but during the cooler months the one designated as peddler also enjoys the trip. Parallel to the smooth-paved boardwalk Atlantic Avenue shops still purvey bargains.
Bike at First Landing. In addition to more than 15 miles of hiking trails First Landing Sate Park has designated biking routes and allows bikes and hikers free use of the interior roads. Rent bikes at the camp store near the Chesapeake Bay Center or bring your own, either way the area offers a safe beautiful habitat for active outing. The Bay Center, an environmentally focused interactive facility created for visitors, is the location of the Bay Lab, an outpost of the Virginia Marine Science Museum. Featuring wet labs, touch tanks and aquariums, it is also the meeting place for day adventures within the park.
Cast a line. Easy access to ocean and bay fishing, modern marinas, and numerous charter boats available for offshore excursions make Virginia Beach a premier destination for winter fishing. Catch the thrill of hooking Virginia Beach’s diverse selection of game fish – in-shore and offshore – including drum, cobia, amberjack, tuna, bluefish, tautog, croaker, marlin, swordfish, wahoo and many more local favorites. Virginia Beach also is known as the “Striped Bass Capital of the World,” because as much as 80 percent of East Coast striped bass are spawned in the Chesapeake Bay. Cast off the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier on 15th street in the heart of the resort area or at the Lynnhaven Fishing Pier, which stretches into the Chesapeake Bay. Need to know: If you didn't bring your fishing gear, all the necessities are available to rent. For those craving a day of deep-sea fishing, boat charters are available at both Rudee Inlet and Lynnhaven Marina. For a different angling experience, try fly-fishing from a sea kayak to reach prime inshore waters.
Climb the lighthouse. The top of the Old Cape Henry Lighthouse on the northeastern tip of Virginia Beach provides an excellent view of the current lighthouse. Both lighthouses are located within Fort Story Army Base. Built in 1791, the Old Lighthouse offers an impressive horizon mark to the entrance of Chesapeake Bay. Replaced by a newer version, the original lighthouse is no longer used for ship navigation, but is open seasonally for self-guided tours. The climb to the top is worth it and made even better with binoculars. Need to know: To gain access to the lighthouse visitors must obtain a pass at the gate. All passengers 18 years or older must provide a photo identification for the sentry.
Tour the Chesapeake. Paddling the Chesapeake in a kayak is both invigorating and fun. Chesapean Kayak Tours based at First Landing provides guided or self-guided tours through the park's wetlands and maritime forest. First Landing State Park is an "easy-going" adventure. The tour introduces the rich habitat of the wetlands and lush maritime forest. See great blue herons fishing in the shallows and ospreys circling high above. Halfway through the tour take a short hike to explore a hidden lake and enjoy a light snack.
Shop ‘til you drop. Virginia Beach offers a trolley route to and from Lynnhaven Mall, one of the largest malls on the East Coast. Anchored by Hecht’s, JC Penney and Dillards, with oodles of connecting shops and restaurants there are is plenty to tempt even a resolved shopper. In addition to the extensive shopping menu there are also many unique kiosks designed to stop shoppers in their tracks and conclude an impulse buy. Down the road in Norfolk, The McArthur Center has more than 150 stores including Nordstroms and Dillards, plus Internet booths and eighteen movie theaters.
Simulate a battle. At Nauticus, the National Maritime Center in Norfolk the chance to play make-believe is quite tempting. The bayside facility has more than 150 hands-on displays relating to the sea. From the moment of arrival visitors are in for a treat. Extra effort has been made to ensure no one will be bored. There is staff led rope tying practice in the Exploratorium, shark petting at Aquaria and weather forecasting for novices in the Environment section. The state-of-the-art facility also has virtual real time interactive theatre. At the Aegis Theatre the audience is involved with video /images/ezine and actors in a high tech naval battle simulation. Bonus points: At Nauticus kayak trips available for families.
Board the USS Wisconsin. Docked along side Nauticus the battleship is awesome to view from the entrance. It is even better from her top deck. From the top floor at Nauticus visitors may cross the gangplank and walk the decks of the impressive USS Wisconsin. A self-guided audiotape tour fills in many of the gaps about the life and function of the battleship. Volunteers stationed throughout the route are more than willing to answer specific questions.
Sail on a tall ship. The American Rover is a replica of a three-masted topsail schooner. Passengers of all ages are invited to assist in the hoisting of the sails once underway. From knot tying demonstrations to sea shanties played by special request the tour of the bay is both beautiful and informative. The captain provides a commentary about the sites while enroute and happily answers questions. When the weather turns inclement the cabin next to the snack bar is the perfect retreat.
Chill at the beach. Off-season it is much easier to relax and enjoy time away. Sleep late, prowl the night or curl up with a good book, Virginia Beach has more or less depending on the family doing the vacationing. It is an ideal destination for anyone needing a place to unwind and regroup. Basically Virginia Beach offers a change of pace and plenty of options for customized family fun during the off season.
Location on the planet. Anchored in the southeastern corner of the state where Virginia meets the sea, Virginia Beach is four hours southeast of Washington, D.C. by car, 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
Virginia Marine Science Center: 717 General Booth Boulevard, Virginia Beach, 23451. (757) 385-FISH or www.virginiaaquarium.com
Surf and Adventure Ocean Rentals: 577 Sandbridge Road, 23456. 1-800-695-4212 or www.oceanrentalsltd.com
Back Bay Wildlife Refuge: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 4005 Sandpiper Road, 23456-4325. (757) 721-2412 or http://backbay.fws.gov
False Cape State Park: 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. 4001 Sandpiper Road about 5 miles south of Back Bay. or www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/fctrgatr.htm
First Landing State Park: 2500 Shore Drive, 23451-1415. or www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/1stland.htm
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse: 583 Atlantic Ave, Fort Story, 23459. or www.apva.org/capehenry
Nauticus: One Waterside Drive, Norfolk, 23510. or www.nauticus.org
Battleship USS Wisconsin: One Waterside Drive, Norfolk, 23510. or www.battleshipwisconsin.org
Lynnhaven Mall: 701 Lynnhaven Parkway, Virginia Beach or www.lynnhavenmall.com
McArthur Center: 300 Monticello Avenue, Norfolk, 23510. or www.shopmacarthur.com
American Rover. 333 Waterside Drive at the Festival Marketplace, Norfolk, 23510. (757) 627-SAIL or www.AmericanRover.com
Content researched and written by Nancy Nelson-Duac, Editor FTF. Images by FTF staff and Scott Kamps-Duac. Updated copyright 2013.