Virginia Beach and the entirety of Hampton Roads constitute a pretty large area with a good diversity of attractions. There are, of course, the obvious sun-and-sand attractions, consisting of several beaches that front both the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Then you’ve got some lovely wildlife preserves and, in the various cities scattered across the ‘Roads, a handful of museums and other such attractions that can keep you and, if you’ve got ‘em, your kids entertained for days. And then there’s the whole largest Navy harbor in the world thing which is pretty darn impressive.
If you're traveling with kids, this is one of the best places to take them, although to be fair it holds plenty of interest for adults, as well. This is a large, well-laid out facility with several distinct sections, including a humid Southeast Asian swamp patrolled by a Tomistoma crocodile, a touch-friendly Chesapeake Bay tidal pool, an Indonesian "island" inhabited by gorgeous Komodo Dragons and five playful harbor seals that love to entertain the crowd. Just a mile south of the main resort beaches, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t come here.
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This state park marks the spot where the Virginia Company first set foot on North American soil. Even if you’re not a history buff, this is a nice spot to check out; the first landing happened to be in a beautifully wooded estuarine forest area that is today secluded from the bustle of the nearby resorts. The park is located in an area known as Chesapeake Beach, a quieter, smaller strip of sand than the main Resort Beach, framed and shaded by broadleaf and pine forests and acre upon acre of waving marsh grass.
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Yes, Virginia Beach is pretty, but if you really want a sense of how beautiful this area can be, you need to head south of the resort area some 15 miles to Back Bay NWR. You'll find over 9,000 acres of protected marsh and wetlands, barrier islands, sand dunes, forests and Atlantic Ocean coastline. Needless to say, it’s a lot more peaceful and serene in Back Bay than Virginia Beach, and with a bit of poking you can find the secluded cove of your dreams. The refuge bumps up against False Cape State Park and is a major center for East Coast migratory bird activity—birdwatchers will be in heaven here.
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Come climb one of the coolest examples of landfill reuse in the country: 165 acres of compacted soil and solid waste—mmm!—fashioned into a mountain (OK, hill) 60 feet high and over 800 feet long. The entire park is spattered with public use areas and crisscrossed by public trails, none of which exceed 2 miles in length. In the northeast corner of the park is a skate park that’s one of the finest in the state. If you’ve got especially little ones, take them to Kids’ Cove, a large playground area worthy of Peter Pan’s attention.
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For all the physical beauty of this area, one of the most impressive sites in Hampton Roads area is entirely an edifice of man: Naval Station Norfolk, the largest naval installation in the world. Through the base public affairs office you can arrange tours of this rather incredible facility. If ever you were the kind of kid who thought big ships were the bees’ knees, well, this is all of your childhood fantasies rolled into one enormous example of the heights of human engineering and innovation. The massive lines of harbor ships in dry dock and on the water imparts the same sense of awe and space as walking through downtown Manhattan, except there’s an added maritime element.
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Norfolk has an unexpectedly vibrant arts scene best exemplified by the Chrysler Museum, one of the best fine arts museums in Virginia. The permanent collections range from Egyptian artifacts to modern photography to French classics like Renoir, Gauguin, Degas and Delacroix to a fantastic contemporary gallery that includes work by Rothko, Lichtenstein, Matisse, O’Keeffe and Calder. It’s all set up in a large, impressively muscular marble edifice that has almost all the presence of a Smithsonian museum. This is a seriously extensive and underrated art museum that is well worth a detour from the beaches.
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This museum in Newport News, northwest of the beaches, touts itself as the largest maritime museum in North America. We can’t independently verify that claim, but we can tell you that the Mariners’ Museum kicks plenty of butt. There’s room upon room of exhibits on sailors of today and the past, the history of ship-building, an astounding collection of miniature ships, a collection of 150 boats sourced from 36 countries and the Monitor Center, which features both the salvaged remains of and reconstructed interactive version of the USS Monitor, one of the first two ironclad warships in history. Plenty of fun for kids, more so for marine enthusiasts.
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When you come to an Atlantic Ocean beach town, the first place you gravitate to is the Boardwalk, and Virginia Beach’s 3-mile exemplar of the genre is no exception. Except this isn’t actually a boardwalk—it’s a concrete walk, a strip of smooth asphalt rather than a bunch of wooden slats. We wouldn’t usually nit-pick this stuff, but the Virginia Beach boardwalk has a distinctive character compared to places like Ocean City and Atlantic City, so we figured we’d start with the construction material. See, this boardwalk is, frankly, a bit classier than its counterparts—less dirty-joke T-shirts and innuendo-heavy bar titles, more family-friendly amusement park fare. It runs from First to 39th streets and is framed by bike paths along the way; there are pedestrian-friendly wooden walkways to the beach at Eighth, 17th, 24th and 30th streets. The Virginia Beach Amusement Park is located across from the fishing pier at 15th Street. Other attractions include the small Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum, dedicated to migratory birds, statues of King Neptune and the Norwegian Lady (one representing the power of the ocean, the other dedicated to men lost at sea) and Grommet Island, a play park that is has been made to be specially accessible to 100 percent disabled individuals.
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There will be locals in Virginia Beach who may kill us for including Croatan in this guide, but hey—we're just doing our jobs. Croatan is a large, pretty and secluded beach south of Rudee Inlet that tends to be where locals go for sun and sand when they need an escape from the crowds and the boardwalk. It fronts some very ritzy subdivisions (seven digits, folks), which is part of the reason it tends to be a locals-only sort of place—getting here can be a bit of a hassle if you don’t know the way in. It’s not really that hard, though. From the north just head south on Gen. Booth Boulevard until you cross the bridge that crosses Rudee Inlet, then drive about a mile and turn left onto Croatan Road Folks at the CVB are happy to help if you still can’t find it. There’s parking at the south end of the beach. Just keep in mind this is a locals place where folks go to escape the crowds—act accordingly low key and you’ll have a great time.
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We know—Great Dismal Swamp doesn’t sound like your number one vacation destination. But bear with us. Just an hour (40 miles) southeast of Virginia Beach is this refuge of 112,000 perfect acres of wetland bliss. It’s peaceful, but hardly still. Instead, the Great Dismal Swamp, like all great wetlands, pulses and flows with the tides and the lifecycles of the waterfowl and swamp fauna that call it home. Its slow waters sort of breathe and pulse and flow in an ancient time signature that predates human habitation. There’s a romantic rhythm here that’s difficult to ignore, plus acres and acres of hiking, biking and boating trails, fishing, hunting and camping.
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