Our Trip To Virginia Beach, June 2007

by Michelle Erica Green

We had a very lovely waterside Monday the week after the boys graduated from elementary and middle school respectively. We drove from home to Virginia Beach via a couple of stops elsewhere in Virginia, like lunch at a parkside rest area and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and Lighthouse Museum. The latter was particularly enjoyable -- it's on the site of the oldest naval shipyard in the US, building ships for the Union during the Revolution and the Confederates during the Civil War, and now the museum houses models, artifacts and a large scale model of the shipyard from more than 200 years ago. The Lightship Portsmouth, retired in 1964 and since designated a National Historic Landmark, is in permanent drydock there. We also saw the red-sailed schooner American Rover and a paddlewheel ferry on the Elizabeth River.

Then we continued on to Virginia Beach, where we checked into the Comfort Inn & Suites Oceanfront -- our suite was on the sixth floor overlooking the ocean -- put on our bathing suits and went down to the water. It was over 95 degrees and the ocean felt fantastic; this is a very clean fine-sand beach with a layer of sharp pebbles and shells a few feet offshore, and the breakers were only about 6-10 feet high. I found my first mole crab of the season, a great big one more than an inch long, within moments of first sticking my hand in the sand. Parasailers and the pirate ship Pieces of Eight went by just a bit offshore. After a couple of hours of swimming, building sand castles and picking through shells, we went to the hotel pool and superlative hot tub, then came upstairs for dinner. We took a walk in the evening on the strip across the street from the hotels, which is a typical Atlantic beach shopping area (ice cream, salt water taffy, hermit crabs, tie-dyes, shovels, surfboards, shell jewelry and dozens of silly pirate souvenirs) along with a historic coast guard station and Naval Aviation Monument. There were military jets flying overhead occasionally from Norfolk. Beach clothing is some of my favorite, and I bought a tie-dye sweatshirt and an Indian cotton dress for absurd sale prices and Adam bought a bungee board while we ate soft serve ice cream.

Click here for photos of Portsmouth and its museums.

Any day that is spent entirely within a mile of the shore is a good day in my book, so Tuesday certainly qualifies. We got up very early because our room faced east and the ocean, so the near-solstice sunrise over the Atlantic sent light even through the heavy curtain. Blinking out the window, we saw dolphins jumping just offshore. They appeared sporadically throughout the early morning and while we ate at the hotel breakfast buffet, though by the time we went out to swim, they had swum off, replaced by pelicans diving to grab fish and the usual gulls and crabs.

Adam got a bodyboard on Monday evening, and Tuesday morning we tried it out. By Tuesday at lunchtime we had decided we each needed one, and we took them into the water in the late afternoon. The waves were somewhat larger late Tuesday and there cannot possibly be a more relaxing way to enjoy them than floating over them on a board without even having to tread water. I love swimming in the ocean, but sometimes I just want to lounge and surf in without effort, and these were fabulous. Paul and Daniel got boards with pirate skulls, Adam got one with a dragon and I got one with a pink lizard and flowers.

Click here for photos of the hotel and Virginia Beach.

In between these beach visits, we went to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, which we knew had an extensive salt marsh and local wildlife pavilion but we did not know had visiting African penguins. We arrived to see an enormous inflatable penguin out front and went in to discover that, while a big section of the aquarium is undergoing renovations that required moving the permanent ray tank, there was a new exhibit with six penguins and all sorts of activities about their food, eggs and habitat. There was some thunder while we walked on the trail through the salt marsh, looking at crabs, birds and turtles, and we were afraid the weather would turn, but it had cleared completely by the time we left.

In the evening we went to George’s Breakfast & Seafood Buffet, where we ate far too much salmon, crab, stuffed flounder and shrimp plus dessert. Our original plan had been to go to a free production of The Tempest at the historic Coast Guard station on the beach, but the kids had been so late getting off the beach that it was already well underway by the time we got there, so we watched a bit (nice costumes, good Prospero, some overacting from what I saw of Miranda and Ariel), then walked back to our hotel up the beach. We didn't seen any ghost crabs; I don't know if it wasn't dark enough or if they need bigger dunes than Virginia Beach provides.

Click here for photos of Virginia Beach Aquarium.

It was raining by the time we finished breakfast on Wednesday, so we left early for The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, and it was a good thing we did because we spent more than four hours there. This is a fantastic museum with huge galleries devoted to the history of boating on the Chesapeake Bay, the Age of Exploration and the development of the steamship, plus model tall ships and nautical art, but the major attractions are Civil War-era -- in particular, the turret of the USS Monitor, most of which is still sunk off the Outer Banks where the ship went down in 1862.

It's hard to pick an exact date for the start of the Age of Fighting Sail, but easy to name the end: March 9, 1862, when the Monitor met the CSS Virginia and it became obvious that even the most advanced wooden ships didn't stand a chance against a steam-powered ironclad ship. The Mariners' Museum has several galleries devoted to this event, since it's local history and pieces of both ships are in the collection; there's a slide-show-in-the-round about the battle (narrated by Salome Jens of Deep Space Nine), a multi-screen movie about the sinking of the Monitor in a winter storm and a short film about the discovery of the ship and raising of the turret. Then there is a scale model of the ship, several galleries where people can attempt to maneuver the frigate on a computer, see the inside of the ship during the Battle of Hampton Roads and walk through a replica of the turret as it looked when brought up from the bottom of the sea. The original turret is in a conservation facility visible through windows, kind of like where the Mary Rose is being preserved in Portsmouth, UK.

As if that weren't enough, the museum has a temporary exhibit on "The Nelson Touch" first opened for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. The gallery is organized around Nelson's actions at the battles of Cape St. Vincent, Copenhagen, the Nile and Trafalgar and how they entered the popular imagination as well as how they affected military strategy (I did not know until today that "turn a blind eye" came from Nelson's refusal to see the signal to withdraw being sent by his admiral, but this exhibit had little 19th century action figures and book illustrations of the incident). The museum also has many of the features of other domestic maritime museums, from knot-tying practice to seafood harvesting equipment to USS Constitution memorabilia to the rise of naval aviation (particularly important in this region). We had lunch there but didn't even begin to explore the surrounding marshes and hiking trails, nor did we spend a proper amount of time in the small craft center, scientific collections, art galleries or model ship rooms.

Click here for photos of the Aviation Monument and Mariners' Museum.

In the late afternoon we went back to Virginia Beach, but it was still overcast and the kids' legs were stinging from a combination of goosebumps, salt water, sunblock and chlorine from the pool, so after a bit of wave-jumping and digging for sandcrabs (we saw a great many and I found a shark's tooth, too), we got dressed and walked more than ten blocks trying to decide what we wanted for dinner, only to opt for going back to the hotel and finishing the sandwiches and hummus we had brought for lunches and hadn't finished. Then we went out for ice cream as all the local musical acts were taking up their positions on street corners and walked briefly on the beach.

To my great regret, we left Virginia Beach on Thursday morning, though we had a very nice day...it just would have been nicer if it ended with more beach. We spent the summer solstice celebrating America's 400th birthday at Historic Jamestowne, site of the original city that's now a national park, and the Jamestown Settlement recreation. Both are terrific and a person could spend an entire day at either one. We went to the excavation sites first at Old Towne, where new walls have been put up around the perimeter discovered under the soil and the living areas are still being explored. The park has a terrific film-in-the-round and indoor exhibit with some of the findings from the site, too. Plus it's right on the river, with statues of Captain Smith and Pocahontas overlooking the rebuilt church and the water respectively, which makes it a gorgeous place to have lunch.

Click here for photos of Historic Jamestowne.

After a brief stop at the Jamestown Glasshouse, a recreation glassworks a few yards from the original first English industrial venture in the New World which has been partially excavated, we went to the settlement living history museum, which is run by the Commonwealth of Virginia and is not inexpensive but is well worth it. There are recreations of the fort, nearby Powhatan village and riverfront where replicas of the Susan Constant, Discovery and Godspeed can all be boarded. The ships are first visible across the water when driving from the national park and original fort site to the recreation site.

At the settlement, guides dressed as original English inhabitants and Native Americans talk about everything from how corn and tobacco were harvested to how weapons were made. Inside the museum buildings are dozens of artifacts from the settlement itself and from England and Africa before people arrived in the New World. Lots of the exhibits are hands-on for kids, from the ships' tillers to celestial navigation to putting together a Virginia assembly. There were chickens in the fort and turtles and frogs in the nearby wetlands. After visiting the snack shop for drinks, we had a mostly easy trip home with great views of the naval ships near Norfolk and herons in the rivers...at least until we hit post-rush hour traffic coming around near Tysons Corner and the local Beltway was horrible! But we made it back in time to start our many laundries. Fortunately I had salt water taffy to console myself!

Click here for photos of the Jamestown Settlement.