Virginia Beach with Kids: A Perfect Family Day
Okay, you paid for an ocean-front hotel right on the boardwalk, and the ocean's just outside, but you're going to start your day by turning your back on the Atlantic and heading a few miles north to Virginia Beach's best-kept secret, First Landing State Park (2500 Shore Drive, 757-412-2300). Don't be confused if a local talks about Seashore State Park - same park, old name.
Pay your entrance fee ($4 on weekdays and $5 weekends for the whole family) and take the wooden walkway across the fragile dunes. Prepare for surprise and delight: a long white beach with much smaller crowds and even tinier waves. It's perfect for kids' vacations in Virginia Beach as they can splash about in relative safety without worrying about the crowds. The park is open 24 hours so you can even enjoy the sunrise together, if your children wake up early.
First Landing State Park is at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay, and if your toddler likes to see ships and planes, there's the added bonus of the occasional fighter jet overhead or an ocean freighter (far, far off) on the horizon. There are no lifeguards here, and no pizza-by-the-slice windows or taffy stands, but there's plenty of peace and quiet, 1.25 miles of sand and kid-friendly shallow water. Pack a brunch or pop over to Taste Unlimited (36th Street & Pacific Avenue, 757-422-3399) for some gourmet sandwiches. They're open Monday through Saturday 10AM-7PM and Sundays from 9AM-6PM.
Top tip for family travel with kids: bring some bug spray. At First Landing State Park, unlike on the cement-laden oceanfront, there are 2,888 acres of protected vegetation behind you and a few flying insects.
After the beach, it's time for a quick nap - particularly as the sun will be burning down and these are the worst hours of the day for your child's young skin. Then head down to the Virginia Aquarium (717 General Booth Boulevard, 757-385-3474). Don't miss the tunnel through the Red Sea Aquarium (don't worry, that's some pretty thick glass separating you from the 100,000 gallons of water you're looking at) and brave kids will love the Chesapeake Bay Touch Pool, where docents will encourage them to touch all kinds of creatures you wouldn't let them near back on the beach.
At $17 for adults and $12 for kids aged 3-11 it's pricey, but worth it. Make sure you get your money's worth: it's easy to forget that the museum is distributed between two buildings. You can drive from one to another, or take the 1/3 mile long nature walk between them. This sounds long for a youngster with short legs, but there's lots to explore en route. Virginia Aquarium is open daily from 9AM-6PM.
It's late-afternoon now so the sun's not as bright, but the ocean is still fun if you're looking for outdoor things to do in Virginia Beach. Visit the sparkling new, partially shaded, public Grommet Island Beach Park & Playground (100 2nd Street). It's free, open 24 hours and right on the water, and it's completely accessible even for kids in push chairs or wheelchairs. It's one of Virginia Beach's best family vacation ideas.
The three-mile long oceanfront boardwalk is accessible, too, and if that's too much for your kids to cover by foot, rent a bike or, if they're not able to ride safely yet, a surrey carriage at one of Cherie's Bikes' thirteen locations. Try the one at 2417 Atlantic Avenue, 757-437-8888, open 7:30AM-midnight daily until Labor Day, and 9AM-9PM before Memorial Day.
Young kids on vacation in Virginia Beach know there's only one thing more exciting than seeing real, live animals up close at the aquarium, and that's seeing fake animals while shooting a golf ball between their legs. Despite all the artificial turf and animals (including a giraffe and gorilla), Jungle Golf (22nd Street and Pacific Avenues, 757-425-7240) is certified "Virginia Green," a statewide program that works to reduce the environmental impacts of Virginia's tourism industry. That's cool - and so is the fact that, since it's been here for 40 years, the trees are mature enough to provide some shade.
A round of golf is $10 for adults and older children and $8 for kids ages 4-8, and the course is open 24 hours.
You have two options for dinner in Virginia Beach with kids: either wander along Atlantic Avenue and duck into the first family-friendly restaurant that looks like it can seat (and serve) you fast, or go a tiny bit off the beaten track and dine at Big Sam's Inlet Café and Raw Bar (300 Winston Salem Avenue, 757-428-4858).
It's actually less than a mile inland from the beach (take 5th Street, which turns into Winston Salem Avenue), but it's still located on the water and features a full menu of seafood, burgers and a variety of kid-friendly options, which range from popcorn shrimp to angel hair pasta, all priced less than $6. The restaurant is open 7AM-2AM daily so you're sure to get fed whatever time of day or night you go there with your kids.
And now, it's bedtime. "Oh c'mon, mom and dad, already?" Well, maybe not yet. Stroll the boardwalk or Atlantic Avenue: it'll be busy and crowded, but this early in the evening, still well-behaved and full of families like yours.
Catch a street performer or two and buy an ice cream from the local favorite ice cream store Handel's Homemade Ice Cream (2400 Elson Green Avenue, 757-430-0020), a short drive away and open until 10PM. They have a great variety of classic and offbeat flavors, including 'Spouse like a House' and 'Graham Central Station'. It'll be the perfect ending to a great day of family travel in Virginia Beach with kids.
Liam Callanan is the author of All Saints and The Cloud Atlas, a finalist for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, Good Housekeeping, Parents, and a number of other publications in locations ranging from Canada to Brazil. Read his blog on Red Room