When Christopher Newport and his hundred-strong group of passengers and crew landed at Virginia Beach in 1607, you can imagine how reluctant they might have been to move on. Under strict instructions to secure a spot further inland, away from the dangers of the open sea, they made for what is now Jamestown. But, you can envisage how tough it must have been, following almost 150 days at sea, to leave behind the pristine stretch of golden sand that lay just south of their landing site. Today, Virginia Beach is not quite as untouched as when Newport laid eyes on it, but the 35-mile long beach—the longest pleasure beach in the world—is still as inviting as it ever was. It’s here that fans of sport, sea and sand can enjoy a double whammy of seaside spectating this summer, with the National Volleyball League (NVL) tournament taking place from Aug. 26 - 28 and the East Coast Surfing Championships (ECSC) happening from Aug. 22 - 28.
As the East Coast’s longest-running surfing competition, the NVL was smart to pair up with the ECSC, where nearly 200,000 people were estimated to be in attendance before Hurricane Irene hit the East Coast. Amateur volleyball has long been a staple at the ECSC, where a record entry pool of 143 two-person teams comprised of 310 competitors competed in men’s, women’s and co-ed brackets and three skill divisions last year. This summer, pro NVL players were scheduled to join the existing amateur event, which is directed by Volleyball Virginia.
The NVL, which was created by former AVP player Albert Hannemann, planned to have sixty four two-person teams (32 men and 32 women) battle it out in a double elimination-style tournament on the oceanfront at 5th Street, with the championship matches starting Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, the hurricane, which was later downgraded to a tropical storm, forced organizers to cancel the event.
In addition to the volleyball and surfing events scheduled to take place, live music was going to be provided alongside skim boarding, a boardwalk 5K run, street skate and ramp contests, and swimsuit contests.
But Irene has passed and sunny skies have returned to Virginia Beach, and there is plenty to do in this seaside community. You can start by taking a little history lesson at the First Landing Site. A granite cross marks the spot where the English colonists erected a more primitive wooden version to celebrate their safe arrival in 1607. Nearby, the Cape Henry Lighthouse offers another historical encounter as well as some sweeping views of the coast. Vistas from the observation deck of the 72-feet high structure take in its 1881 replacement and the nearby First Landing State Park, as well as the crashing waves of the Atlantic.
The lure of the ocean will soon take hold and you’ll be forgiven for wanting to spend the remainder of your stay in or near the water. A great place to start is the excellent Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, set back from the ocean on the banks of Owl Creek. In addition to the usual tanks of all things aquatic, the Aquarium offers dolphin and whale watching trips and a unique chance to climb into the water with some friendly harbor seals. If you’re looking for something a little more energetic, join one of the many kayaking tours around Virginia Beach. Catering to everyone from first timers to hardcore kayakers, trips last between one and eight hours and explore the lakes and rivers of the state parks or the wilder waters of the open ocean where there’s a chance of spotting dolphins up close. If kayaking doesn’t grab you, how about surfing, parasailing, boat trips, jet skiing, fishing or just plain lounging on the sand?
Eating in Virginia Beach is all about seafood. Ocean-front restaurants abound, many of them serving local mussels, crab, lobster and oysters. For a laidback and well-priced seafood feast, try Harpoon Larry’s (24th Street & Pacific Ave, (757) 422-6000). The draft craft beer flows, platters are unbelievably affordable and the atmosphere is delightfully relaxed. It is open until 2 a.m. every day. If you’re looking for a more in-depth look at local cuisine, you can join a three-hour food tour along the boardwalk. As well as getting a little culinary culture and history (including what John Smith and his crew ate en route to Jamestown), you can sample a range of indigenous dishes and local foods like Chesapeake Oyster Stew. Wash them all down with a local beer or a homegrown cocktail. Tours cost $60, tel. (202) 683-8847.
As well as serving up superb sushi and seafood, Mahi Mah’s is an after-hours hang out offering an award-winning wine list, a range of beers both imported and local and a dose of live music. Sip a Mah’s Mangopolitan on the beachfront patio and watch the waves between songs. (6th Street and Atlantic Ave, tel. (757) 437-8030). If you’re looking for entertainment for the morning after, head to Croc’s 19th Street Bistro for a quirky start to the day. By night it’s a seafood joint with weekend DJs but come Sunday morning, the bar becomes a stage with their acclaimed “Drag yourself to brunch” – eggs, pancakes and coffee with a side order of drag queens to keep things interesting! (620 19th Street, tel. (757) 428-5444).
Outdoorsy types and those on a tight budget should check out the cabins and campsite of the First Landing State Park. Away from the coast and surrounded by lush forest, the two-bedroomed cabins are fully equipped and have large decks and barbecues. Campsites come with or without electricity hookups. There are hiking and biking trails in the park and it’s a great spot for birdwatchers. Cabins from $112 per night, camping from $24 per site. (2500 Shore Drive, tel. (757) 412-2300). For budget digs close to the coast, Angie’s Guest Cottage & Hostel is a winner (302 24th Street, tel. (757) 491-1830). This long-standing, friendly place just one block from the beach has dorms, en-suite doubles and one-bedroom units, some with awesome private decks. There’s a great, sociable vibe thanks to the barbecue area, ping-pong table and numerous places to lounge. Dorms start at $26. The rooms at Dolphin Inn Boutique Hotel might seem like a splurge (starting at $228), but if you’re travelling in a group it’s a great way to grab a little luxury without breaking the bank – each of their elegant suites sleeps up to six people. Sitting on Atlantic Avenue, every room boasts a sea view as well as a large jet tub and there’s a communal swimming pool on the roof. (1705 Atlantic Ave, tel. (757) 491-1420).
Originally published in August 2011