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Virginia Beach for all Seasons

Hopping in summer, quietly engaging otherwise: Visit, and you'll be back. - By Bill Reed

We have to come back here. We've driven through Virginia Beach on a rollicking summer Saturday night when every motel was booked, and we've spent an off-season weekend when we had our run of the place. So, the next time we'll put the two together and see just how rockin' this seaside resort gets. Based on our spur-of-the-moment visit a few weeks ago, it should be hopping.

My wife, Valerie, and I saw a kite festival, horseback riders and volleyball games on the beach, bicyclists and in-line skaters along the boardwalk, and teenagers riding roller coasters and playing in the video arcades. But the four oceanfront stages were quiet, and entertainers weren't due to start energizing Beachstreet USA for a few weeks.

If we return when all that's going on [see "10 for the Road," N2], we'll need a vacation from the vacation. This seaside resort at the southeastern corner of the state is large enough to offer more than 11,000 motel and hotel rooms a night, yet small enough to explore on foot, bikes or shuttles. It offers swimming, sunbathing, boating, fishing, jet-boating, parasailing, horseback riding, miniature golf, shopping, dining, nightlife – all within a block of the beach. Drive a few miles and golf at one of 10 courses, including the Tournament Players Club course that is used on the PGA Tour. Or, learn about the area's role in founding and defending the country.

The city's slogan is "Live the Beach Life," and we got into the spirit as we drove on the panoramic, 20-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (a $12 bargain) that drops visitors off at the city's doorstep. But the forecast and the sky said "rain," so we decided to stop at Cape Henry, a little-known historic landmark. On April 26, 1607, English colonists set foot here after a voyage of more than four months. They erected an oak cross to mark the spot before sailing inland and creating a settlement at Jamestown.

The spot also overlooks the scene of the pivotal Battle of the Capes in 1781. A French fleet commanded by Adm. Comte de Grasse repelled a British naval force led by Adm. Samuel Graves, leading to the British surrender at Yorktown. A granite cross marks the colonists' landing, and a statue of de Grasse and a granite memorial commemorate the naval battle.

Happy to soak up some history without getting soaked, we drove to the center of the city – the 40-block, three-mile boardwalk. It runs between a 600-yard-wide stretch of beach and a string of 50 high-rise motels and hotels. The boardwalk, which dates to 1888, was replaced about five years ago, with tourists – and hurricanes – in mind. The 28-foot-wide concrete thoroughfare has a lane for bicyclists and in-line skaters (unlike those at the Jersey Shore), access ramps to the beach, access lanes to Atlantic Avenue – the main drag – and four stages for entertainment.

We wanted to rent bikes for some exercise after the 5 1/2-hour drive, but the rain started, so we window-shopped along Atlantic Avenue instead. The goods were much the same as in any beach town – shirt and souvenir shops, old-time photo studios, a few bars, and plenty of all-you-can-eat breakfast and seafood places.

Although we were staying at the Sea Gull, one of the oceanfront motels, we decided to check out Barclay Cottage, the city's only bed-and-breakfast. Stephen and Marie-Louise LaFond welcomed us into their living room, gave us sightseeing tips for the weekend, recommended a restaurant for dinner, and gave us a tour of their five-bedroom inn.

We couldn't resist their hospitality or their comfortable, handsome B&B, so we booked the next night and headed to Tautogs, "where the locals eat." Even with directions, we almost missed it – it looks like a regular house on a side street. The name on the sign was so faded that we couldn't read it. We could read the menu, though, and it was perfect – mostly seafood items, and low prices. We split a Margarita and a bowl of she-crab soup; I had the tuna with cracked black pepper, and Valerie enjoyed the baked flounder stuffed with lump crab meat and shrimp – all for $53 with the tip.

The next morning, we ate breakfast while watching life on the beach and the boardwalk. Wanting to join in and ride bikes, we wavered over the weather. All the forecasts predicted rain, but Chris-the-bike-rental-guy had our backs. "In Virginia Beach, if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes – it'll change," he told us. Sure enough, we got in an hour bike ride ($6 an hour per bike) before the rain came. We rode south, stopping at the festival to see dozens of kites of all shapes and sizes dotting the sky.

Across from 15th Street, a fishing pier extends 900 feet into the Atlantic. For $8, you can drop a line and try to catch spot, sea mullet (kingfish), or other bottom feeders; for $2, you can enjoy the view. At the southern end of the boardwalk, the section of beach from Fifth to Second Streets is where the surfers hang out. Since 1963, the city has hosted the East Coast Surfing Championships, attracting more than 100 professionals and 300 amateurs (Aug. 23-27 this year).

Heading toward the other end, we got as far as 31st Street and the boardwalk's dominant feature – a 26-foot-tall bronze statue of King Neptune. The 12-ton statue, worth more than $1 million, was cast in China and assembled here for last year's Boardwalk Weekend of the Neptune Festival (Sept. 29-Oct. 1 this year). Across from the statue is Neptune Park and 31 Ocean, a collection of upscale shops, restaurants and a 21-story Hilton Hotel. Condos are going up, and the city is planning to upgrade the streets as part of the section's renaissance.

After buying some souvenirs for our children, we took a short drive to the Francis Land House, one of three brick houses built from 1680 to 1810. Our guide acknowledged that the house, built about 1805 as a plantation, and the area do not have extraordinary significance. Still, we came across two nuggets.

On a hallway wall, a copy of a map drawn in 1775 by Peter Jefferson – Thomas Jefferson's father – shows "De La War Bay" and "De La War River." And in a bedchamber, the figure of a toddler is wearing a padded cap, called a "pudding cap," to protect his head as he learned to walk. Later, still in the mood for seafood, we found another "locals" place – Rudee's on the Inlet. My blackened snapper and Valerie's scallops were delicious, and the crab cake was the best we've tasted since we visited Annapolis.

The next morning, we sat around the table for Marie-Louise's scrumptious breakfast: fresh strawberries and cream, banana bread, apple french toast, and sausage patties. "Is this hand-squeezed orange juice?" Valerie asked. "No, we can't serve fresh orange juice – it's not homogenized," Marie-Louise said. "Virginia Beach probably has the strictest regulations in the state."

As we ate with John and Jeannie Rasmussen from Redondo Beach, Calif. – the others slept in – our hosts told us about the house, which has been a guest house since 1916.

The Rasmussens were visiting their son, who is in U.S. Naval Intelligence at Fleet Training Center Dam Neck, a part of Oceana Naval Air Station. Those bases, plus Fort Story and the Norfolk Navy Base, make the military the area's largest employer.

Number two is tourism. We could see why.

The Philadelphia Inquirer 5/14/2006