The Enduring Pleasures of Virginia Beach
By Randy Southerland

uring the warm lazy days of summer, the Oceanfront boardwalk is filled with vacationing throngs. Couples walking arm and arm, kids running or skateboarding, older folks and families pedaling bike carts, and a muscular, bare-chested hardbody or two on roller blades are just a few of those who appreciate Virginia Beach as one of the most eclectic resorts on the East Coast.

Stretching from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to the border of North Carolina, this city has long attracted a decidedly mixed crowd. In the early years of this century, the renowned “Sleeping Prophet,” Edgar Cayce, told his followers that this resort area was not only the safest place in the country, but also the ideal location to carry out his organization’s healing work. (Even the beach sand is thought to have healing properties due to its high mineral content.)

Nearly a century later, hundreds of thousands of tourists know Virginia Beach as a premier summer beach destination. As the most populous city in Virginia and reputedly the biggest resort town in the country, the city holds immense appeal to vacation seekers of all stripes who crowd its streets in the summer and then slip away at the first chill of Fall.

Yet the city is more than just a fair weather resort. While it boasts few truly commercial attractions, there is a quality that seems to draw all kinds of folks here – including New Age seekers, military retirees and young families, outdoor enthusiasts, and those who just want to lie around on the beach and work on their tans.

That quality has also attracted local residents as diverse as televangelist Pat Robertson, mail order queen Lillian Vernon, and Rudy Boesch, the retired Navy Seal made famous by the original “Survivor” TV show.

For many, the Oceanfront and its boardwalk – originally wooden, but now a modern, pedestrian-friendly concrete thoroughfare – are a focus of year-round activity for temporary visitors and beach-loving permanent residents alike.

Hotels of every variety line the beach’s white expanse. On wide stretches of sand and dunes at its northern end, rows of cottages face out on the Atlantic, providing both permanent and summertime residences for those affluent enough to afford the pricey waterfront view.

The Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, of course, are the main attractions, and no expense has been spared to make sure that the 14 miles of public beach adjoining the hotel district is well maintained. Like many beaches along the East Coast, it has suffered from the eroding effects of wind and tides. But thanks to a massive joint local and Federal replenishment project, sand is being dredged from under the shipping lanes leading into the Chesapeake Bay to expand the beach out from the hotel strip. In fact, the lumbering dredges that pump transported sand through a long black pipe onto the beach have become something of a tourist attraction themselves.

As a result of these efforts, the rows of tanned and not so tanned bodies are a little less crowded during the five or so months of the year that sunbathing rules. The rest of the time the beaches are mostly empty, except for the hardy locals who like to walk and jog and meditate on the ever-changing ocean.

Visitors can find hotel accommodations with all the major chains and in various price ranges. Most of them hug the “resort beach” that stretches from Rudee Inlet to 42nd Street. Of these, one of the most elegant is the stately old Cavalier Hotel – which was a prime destination for Hollywood stars in the 20s and 30s and today is a national landmark.

In fact, the Cavalier is really two hotels in one. The more recent high rise along Atlantic Avenue offers conventional rooms and easy beach access. Across Pacific Avenue looking down from a carefully manicured hill is the original brick building constructed in 1926. Its rooms are older and more expensive than its younger sibling, but this historic landmark fairly bristles with the charm of an earlier era when it was the hotel of choice for visiting VIPs.

A visitor to Virginia Beach isn’t likely to spend much time indoors – particularly when there are so many outdoor attractions to keep you busy. Nearby marinas at Lynnhaven and Rudee Inlets offer boats bound for sport fishing or whale and dolphin watching, and during the summer season, they are bases for parasailing, scuba diving and jet ski rentals.

Back on shore you’ll want to travel the Boardwalk down past 24th Street to the Old Coast Guard Station for a peek at the city’s early seafaring history. This restored 1903 facility features exhibits on the history of the Coast Guard and its many lifesaving services. There are also displays detailing some of the many shipwrecks that occurred along the Virginia coast during the past three centuries.

By now you’re likely to have worked up an appetite, and while there are many fine restaurants along the Boardwalk, a taste for something different and a one-block walk along Laskin Road will take you to the Heritage Store. Renowned for organic produce and health products, its Café offers a wide variety of dishes. Diners may even be tempted to down a cup of wheat grass, which is grown and processed right behind the counter.

Needless to say, the area is teeming with restaurants that offer the best seafood the surrounding waters have to offer. Long famous for its oysters and blue crabs, the Chesapeake Bay also serves up some of the best flounder and rockfish to be found—just to name a couple of the local favorites.

A little farther away from the resort strip, but well worth the drive, is a jewel of a restaurant tucked away on the Lynnhaven River. Located the end of a quiet road in an unassuming residential neighborhood is one of the best, unadvertised dining experiences in the area.
Steinhilber’s Thalia Acres Inn– built near the former site of one of the East Cost’s most notorious brothels — offers fine dining at its best. In operation since 1937, and still owned and operated by the same family, its business has grown by word-of-mouth as locals delighted in dishes such as their famous fried shrimp. The only sign that identifies their location is found at the entrance to the property.

Once fed and energized, you’ll be ready to search out more of this area’s considerable links to America’s early history.

A vigorous walk north on the beach from the hotel district will take you to Cape Henry, on the grounds of Fort Story, an historic military base. Located on the base are the two Cape Henry lighthouses that have kept watch over passing ships for over 200 years. Not far away, you’ll find a granite cross that marks the spot where the Jamestown settlers first came ashore in 1607. Abandoning the paradise they had just discovered, they quickly moved on up the James River and established the first permanent English settlement in the New World at Jamestown. It was not until 1621 that the first settlement inside Virginia Beach was established on Lynnhaven Bay, and there are several historic homes from that era that offer tours for history buffs.

Virginia Beach is clearly a city well suited for those who like to spend their time outdoors. The area boasts numerous RV resorts and campgrounds as well as parks that offer considerable fun at virtually no cost beyond shoe leather and driving. These range from the likes of First Landing and Seashore State Parks to the infamous Mount Trashmore. Built on the site of a former landfill, Mount Trashmore is not just the only highest hill in town, but it is also a recreational Mecca with trails, gardens and other amenities.

A short drive or trolley ride down General Booth Boulevard takes you to the Virginia Marine Science Museum, which offers an up close look at the local aquatic environment through an 800,000 gallon aquarium, live animal habitats and more than 300 hands-on exhibits, as well as an IMAX theater. If you arrive at the right time you can watch the daily feeding of the harbor seals in a 60,000 gallon salt water filled glass tank at the front entrance of the modernistic building.

For those with a more esoteric frame of mind, a three-story building overlooking the ocean at 67th Street houses the Association for Research and Enlightenment, or the ARE to locals. This organization carries on the work of Edgar Cayce through a host of educational programs, including a massage school and a university. Each year the organization attracts thousands of visitors attending conferences or seeking information from its world famous library on subjects ranging from holistic healing to the lost continent of Atlantis.

The ARE is perhaps the perfect example of the wide-ranging appeal of this resort city. And while Cayce claimed that he selected the area with psychic assistance, most visitors need no such help. The appeal of Virginia Beach is obvious to anyone who takes the time to explore its numerous charms.