A November 2002 trip
to Virginia Beach by Idler
Quote: Virginia Beach, for me, has greater charm off season than it does during the summer. Leave the suntan lotion, bug repellant, and swimsuit at home and pack woolen socks, binoculars, and hiking boots. The shoals of tourists have departed, but the sun still rises each morning out over the ocean.
My husband, a native Virginian and beach person to the core, came to the rescue by suggesting a Thanksgiving weekend trip to the beach. I hate cooking that turkey, so I readily agreed. It was time to drop my longstanding grudge against the Atlantic beaches and given them another try.
Virginia Beach in November was a pleasant surprise. The things I enjoy, such as nature preserves and museums, were open, while the things I could care less about were not. The absence of crowds allowed me to focus on the area’s abundant natural resources. By casting aside traditional beach pursuits, I found my inner beach person. This is her story.
Bring or rent a bike or kayak to explore some of the areas accessible only on foot, bike, or by boat. Of course, the usual admonition to dress in layers applies to all outdoor activities, but especially to the windy beachfront. Bring binoculars, nature guides, sturdy shoes, and patience. Learn what you can beforehand about the coastal Chesapeake Bay area and the complex issues involved in its management.
Weather rules at the beach, and this especially true in the fall and winter. Many people come to Virginia Beach from nearby metropolitan areas such as Washington and Richmond, and thus have the relative luxury of being able to take a last-minute trip when the weather looks like it will be cooperative. Keep and eye on that long-range forecast and when a warm or sunny weekend is predicted, go for it. You won’t regret it.
However, the vast majority of people travel here by car. It’s almost sinfully easy to navigate the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Hampton Roads area. The main expressway, 264, literally dump cars onto the beachfront, which causes the well-known summer gridlock on Atlantic Avenue. Blissfully, this is not a problem off season.
It’s worthwhile getting off of main track and meandering along the small roads leading to less well-known beach communities such as Sandbridge, a favorite with locals.
Navigating the trails in the nature preserves is not difficult, as everything is clearly marked and free maps are made available. There are a number of restricted military areas around Virginia Beach, as well as seasonal restrictions in certain wildlife refuges, but it’s always evident where the unrestricted areas end and restricted ones begin. Simply read the posted signs.
Hotel | "Marriott Towneplace Suites"
Budget travelers, too, know having access to a kitchen can save them a bundle. Thus, when I found out that Marriott has a fairly inexpensive chain of "extended stay" hotels for business travelers, it seemed a logical choice. When I found out that the Towneplace Suites in Virginia Beach were a mere $59 a night for a studio over Thanksgiving weekend, I was ecstatic.
One caveat here: When I say "in Virginia Beach," I mean within the town limits. The town itself sprawls miles and miles from the strip of boardwalk hotels that most travelers consider "Virginia Beach." In fact, the Virginia Beach Towneplace Suites are a full ten miles inland from the oceanfront. However, we were only a minute from 264, the main expressway running from Norfolk to Virginia Beach, and thus we found, in fact, that the location was quite convenient given that we spent almost equal amounts of time in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. If you have your heart set on standing on your room’s balcony and looking out at the ocean, you probably won’t enjoy this hotel. If, on the other hand, you’re primarily seeking a place that’s clean, quiet, and convenient, this may suit you. It spoke volumes to us that while the beachfront hotels seemed virtually empty that this inland hotel was doing quite a brisk business.
We liked the unpretentious look of the place, too: two rows of neat townhouse-style buildings. After checking in with the friendly lady staffing the front desk, we settled happily in to our studio suite. The kitchen was better than I had hoped it would be. There was a good-sized refrigerator and a small dishwasher, plus a reasonable amount of counter space and plenty of dishes, dishtowels, and utensils. My son, who had a school project he was working on, immediately claimed the spacious worktable. The furnishings were corporate America comfortable, neither inspired nor objectionable. My one complaint was that the pillows were rather skimpy. (Granted, I could easily have asked for an extra pillow.)
All in all, I’d say that Marriott has a winning formula here for low-key travelers. In addition to the basic amenities, our hotel had self-service laundry facilities, a small pool (closed for the season), and a workout room. On Monday nights, there are snacks and drinks for guests watching football in the comfortable guest lounge, which boasts a big-screen TV. Pets are welcome here, too. While there’s no place like home, Towneplace Suites are a good stand-in.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 22, 2002
Towneplace Suites Marriott Townplace by
5757 Cleveland Street
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23462
The day after Thanksgiving, we have a belated holiday feast at Captain George’s Seafood Restaurant, an "everybody knows it" institution that attracts tourists and locals alike. A huge neon sign guides us to the sprawling restaurant on Laskin Road. With that blinding efficiency that’s the hallmark of good buffet restaurants, we are whisked to a table as soon as we step inside.
The restaurant’s interior resembles a vast but cozy ship, one that Tiffany, had he been a shipwright rather than a jeweler, might have built. Stained and etched glass is everywhere, with the reflections of thousands of holiday twinkle lights adding a festive air. There are some goofy touches, too, like the impossibly mauve octopus sculpture atop the enormous salad bar, all tentacles and grin. Lots of zaftig mermaids, shiny bronze ship ornaments, ship wheels, and, well, you know how these seafood places are. It’s best just to submit to the silly nautical fantasy and have a good time.
Now, some buffets are badly designed. People collide into each other, end up standing in line for the most prized items, or, worst of all, have to go down one main line to get anything. Captain George’s breaks up the serving areas, which is good, but there are some traffic flow issues. While eating, we hear the resulting clash of dropped plates and silverware.
However, I’d give them a B+ or maybe even A- for variety and quality of food. How do you like your seafood? Cold, hot, raw, fried, baked, steamed, casseroled, stir-fried, breaded, or on the half shell? They’ve got it. The side items, the usual round of vegetables, breads, soups, and salads, merely cover the flanks of the seafood army, with its batteries of clams casino, regiments of stuffed flounder, battalion of snow crab legs, and platoons of pink salmon. A true glutton, on these occasions, feels slightly giddy contemplating all this, but summons her courage and enters the fray.
As a veteran of the smorgasbord wars, I have a finely-honed battle plan, taking a mere teaspoon of anything appealing-looking on the first pass, then renewing my attack after this elimination round. The only dish that’s an out-and-out failure is a gooey mess called the "Norfolk Special." Poor Norfolk! Our son maintains an unflagging assault on the crab legs, while my husband and I, after narrowing our focus, execute a pincer maneuver on the scallops, crab imperial, and shrimp in all its guises.
Service is efficient and no-nonsense, as the busy staff easily keeps pace with our onslaught. "You finished with this?" Whisk! Some two hours later we emerge, having fought the battle of the bulge, and um…lost.
Captain George's Seafood Restaurant
1956 Laskin Rd
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23454
Attraction | "The Sounds of the Back Bay"
There are several trails starting from the ranger station, and we begin by walking along the short Charles Kuralt Trail. It cuts through a dense thicket of salt tolerant plants: wax myrtle, trumpet creeper, bayberry, highbush blueberry, poison ivy, and wild black cherry. The shrubs are alive with the movements of sparrows, wrens, titmice, and chickadees. Not for the first time, I wish I were better at identifying birds by sound, as they dart so quickly through the thicket that they’re almost impossible to see.
We then walk along a boardwalk trail leading out into the marsh, the dense woodland scrub quickly giving way to marshland plants. The boardwalk eventually ends at an observation deck set amidst a sea of reeds. I sit on a bench, gaze out over the marsh, and soon the rustling of the reeds hypnotizes me. As I listen, I become aware of four layers of sound. The sounds of the surrounding marsh are primary, but there is also the call of birds from the nearby pine scrublands, the distant sigh of grasses out on the dunes, and, more distant still, the muted chant of the ocean. For a moment, time and tide converge as I give myself over to pure listening. Then the sharp honks of a skein of passing geese draw me back to the moment.
A third trail leads us out over the dunes, to the restless world of the shore. The dunes have a voice all their own, a little, dry whisper of sand in continuous motion. Here the terrain is ever shifting; for no two days does it appear the same. The tides advance and retreat, the wind sculpts elegant ridges and furrows, and life clings tenaciously to small pockets and niches, wherever it can find purchase.
The accompaniment of the surf will grow stronger as winter approaches, but now the rhythm of the sea is gentle. It is low tide, a time of opportunity for small shore birds racing back and forth nimbly in synchronization with the teasing waves, calling to one another in sweet, piping voices. Two sounds predominate on the edge of the sea – the sound of the waves moving endlessly up and down the sand and that of the breeze moving steadily over the water.
We walk in time to the slow, measured beat of the ocean, the reassuring pulse of the world. Everything and nothing changes, as the waves sweep the shore, erasing the marks of our footprints. When we depart, it is as if we had never been there.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge
4005 Sandpiper Road
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23456
Attraction | "Bidding autumn farewell, First Landing State Park"
Or has it?
Whereas at home in Maryland the palette in late November has been reduced to the muddy browns of oaks and mulberries, driving south we notice colorful foliage reappearing. What’s more, in the many parks and nature preserves near Virginia Beach, we find an interesting mix of both subtropical and temperate plants.
First Landing State Park has a number of visitors this fine day after Thanksgiving. Family groups, contented-looking retired couples, and joggers on the path nod to each other in implicit recognition: we’ve all come to this place to enjoy what’s left of the season before some inconsiderate wind delivers the coup de grace.
What’s most striking about First Landing is its rich variety of ecosystems: beach gives way to dunes, then marsh, swamp, and forest, all interconnected on 19 miles of well-marked trails. We’ve brought our bikes, and thus spend most of our time on the Cape Henry bike path, which runs for some five miles through upland forest. We pedal along slowly, the better to appreciate the play of light upon the yellow ashes, red maples, and burnt orange sassafras. Of all this autumnal ensemble, however, the standout performer is the melodiously named Liquidambar, or sweet gum tree.
Now, anyone who has sweet gum trees can tell you what an inconvenience they are. Covered with miniature spiny balls that become unsightly litter, not to mention a barefoot walker’s nightmare, the tree redeems itself in autumn when its broad, shiny star-shaped leaves suddenly catch fire. Here at First Landing, sweet gums abound, their scarlet leaves handsomely set off by a dark green backdrop of pines.
We cross a wooden bridge leading to the swamp, realm of the bald cypresses, peculiar conifers that drop their needles like deciduous trees. Covered in the ghostly silvery tresses of Spanish moss, the cypresses raise their ungainly "knees" from the still, tannin-stained waters of the swamp. The purpose of these structures once baffled botanists, who ultimately decided the knees act as buttresses, giving the cypresses better purchase in the wet soil.
And then, suddenly, we pedal from the gloom of the swamp into the broad vista of a tidal marsh. There is a white flash of some wading bird, an ibis perhaps, sailing to the protection of a line of tall loblolly pines. The wind bends the reeds to its steady will and ruffles the flat surface of the water.
Finally, we come to the beach itself, our bike tires slipping in the sand. There’s an enormous parking lot nearby, but not a single car in it. We imagine, with no little satisfaction, the absent crowds of beachgoers.
First Landing State Park
2500 Shore Drive
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23451-1415
Attraction | "Biking the Boardwalk"
We’ve spent Thanksgiving Day driving south from Maryland, with traffic crawling all the way from Washington to Richmond. It’s nearly four o’clock when we settle into our hotel, but I can’t stand the thought of just flopping back and watching the evening news. So, as we had brought our bikes along, I suggest taking a ride along the boardwalk.
It’s been years since I was last in Virginia Beach. I remember a snarl of traffic along Atlantic Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and a motley parade of humanity roiling along the two-and-a-half mile stretch of concrete called the boardwalk. (The boardwalk was replaced by concrete long ago, but the name persists.)
Now the bikini shops and soft-serve ice cream stands lining Atlantic Avenue are shuttered. Who wants Tastee Freeze when the temperature hovers near freezing? Nearly empty high-rise hotels march like pastel dominoes along the beachfront. Clumps of palm trees, swathed in thick layers of protective plastic, look faintly ridiculous. We park in an almost deserted lot near the far end of the boardwalk and take our bikes from the back of the car.
Not everyone enjoys biking in cold weather, but I do. Of course, it helps that I’m dressed in polarfleece, with a windproof jacket and sheepskin hat. We set out against the wind, looking forward to the pleasure of having it to our backs on our return.
It’s interesting to see who’s out and about on a chilly Thanksgiving evening. There aren’t many, but those few wear the giddy looks of holiday escape artists. A disproportionate number are walking dogs. The best way to avoid becoming a couch potato is to own a large, active dog. Or even a small one.
There’s a narrow bike path running alongside the boardwalk, but it’s not as smooth or inviting as the expanse of concrete boardwalk. In the summer, cyclists are confined to the brick path, but now we can wheel freely on the concrete, in great swoops like seabirds. Occasionally we pause to regard the sunset-stained sea. An amethyst sky, with a skein of cotton-candy clouds, deepens rapidly to purple.
As we reach our turning point at the end of the boardwalk, suddenly there’s a flicker, then a blaze of light. We’ve stumbled into the festival of lights held each evening from mid-November to January. The boardwalk is closed to pedestrians, then opened to motorists, who pay to slowly cruise a two-mile stretch decked out in Christmas gaudy. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in succession. Surfing Santa. Dancing crabs.
Men in reflective vests are shooing the few remaining strollers from the boardwalk, but we wheel by, unhindered. For us, it’s free, in every sense of the word. The wind to our backs, we take in the display all the way back to the car.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 22, 2002
Virginia Beach & Boardwalk
Throughout Virginia Beach
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23451
Attraction | "Virginia Marine Science Museum"
He rolls his eyes theatrically, veteran of a hundred-and-one museum trips. Parents, of course, feel morally obligated to take their offspring to as many museums as possible. We’re no exception. We’re in luck in Virginia Beach, though, because there’s a museum here that really is something special.
Much is made of "interactive" museum exhibits these days, but the dismal fact is that many displays billed as "hands-on" are a waste of space. Children wander aimlessly, punching a button here, clicking a mouse there…not much engages their attention on more than a superficial level.
But the exhibits at the Virginia Marine Science Museum are simple but inspired. Sure, there are the usual touch-tanks for petting shore critters, but there’s also a large pool of gliding cow-nose rays. With the supervision of a kind docent, my son places his forearm down into the pool and a ray obligingly passes under his hand. "Just don’t grab their tails," she advises. In a side exhibit, developing ray egg cases and live embryos depict each stage of ray development.
"Mom, watch this!" My son stands on a raised, rotating platform used to mimic the Coriolis effect, the tendency for any moving object on the earth's surface, such as an ocean current, to drift sideways from its course because of the earth's rotation. When the platform is still, a simple ball on a string holds a straight trajectory when released, knocking over a target. When the platform is rotating, however, the ball flies in an arc, missing it. It’s an effective, easily understood demonstration.
Or how about the wave maker, a long plexiglass case half full of several hundred gallons of water? Everyone has read why waves form at the beach, but it’s another thing to observe it. In fact, it’s practically impossible to separate my son from this display. Repeatedly, he pulls the big lever to start the waves in the tank, watches them hit an artificial shelf, break, and flow back again. Energy dynamics. Cool.
The best is yet to come, though, when we come to the area with the large aquariums. The first showcases sea turtles of the Atlantic – loggerhead, hawksbill, ridley, and green – all gyring slowly about the enormous tank. We stand a full quarter hour in the dimly lit room, holding silent communion with the turtles. Then it’s on to the next exhibit. Sharks! Dozens of the efficient killers glide through the largest of the tanks, which represents a shipwreck in the Norfolk Canyon. Nearby, a full-scale replica of a submersible acts as a kid magnet. My son eagerly joins the clutch of junior oceanographers playing Robert Ballard. Parental stomachs, meantime, begin to rumble.
"Can’t we stay just a little longer? This place is awesome!
Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center
717 General Booth Boulevard
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23451
Mount Trashmore is the product of what in retrospect was a blindingly obvious idea. Rather than continue to add to an unsightly and expensive landfill, which involved digging and filling a succession of enormous holes, the solid waste was instead heaped high, then covered with dirt. The resulting mountain and surrounding area were then converted into a park. The dirt needed for this process was taken from a site adjacent to the trash mountain, thus creating the lake.
We’d seen the 60-foot tall "mountain" when first driving along the expressway toward Virginia Beach. In fact, we couldn’t have missed it. The Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Hampton Roads coastal area is completely flat, an immense network of suburbs and shopping malls radiating from the original beach- and river-front towns, merging into one other without discernible boundaries. The irony of the area’s most prominent landmark being made of the inevitable by-products of suburban sprawl was not lost on us. Even more ironic are recent suggestions that the name "Mount Trashmore" be changed, as certain civic promoters do not feel it is sufficiently dignified.
On this cold and piercingly blue-sky bright morning, we stand in the parking lot adjacent to the lake and regard the birds. If the public obeys the sign, why are they here? Most numerous and loudest are the gulls, endlessly engaged in their internecine squabbles, periodically rising from the water in quarrelsome clumps. Is there, I wonder, a collective term for gulls? Let’s think: a bevy of quail, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows... Perhaps an umbrage of gulls? What brings these creatures, symbols of the sea, so far inland?
If I could change this mouldy me,By heaven! I would choose the lot,Of all the gypsy birds, to beA gull that spans the spacious sea."Grey Gull," Robert Service
The word "seagull," I have learned, is a misnomer. Gulls are not pelagic; that is, they do not live primarily out in open oceans or seas, as do shearwaters, albatrosses, terns, and petrels. They are coastal inhabitants, but venture far inland following the course of rivers and streams. Gulls are opportunistic scavengers; they go wherever the pickings are best. They are not dependent on a particular environment or food source, and they have few natural enemies. And, most importantly, they have been able to take full advantage of the habits of another highly successful species:
Gull populations have exploded along the Atlantic coast and elsewhere the past fifty years or so, mostly as a direct result of the human predicament. Gulls, of course, prosper when there is a plentiful source of garbage. Wherever new sources of food become available, their population steadily increases. A gull needs only fifteen minutes or so of earnest gorging at a fish processing plant, garbage dump, sewage plant, amusement park, or fast-food parking lot to supply its daily nutritional needs. The rest of the day, a gull is free to loaf where he pleases. ("Loaf," by the way, is the actual term employed by ornithologists to describe what a gull does when not eating, breeding, or roosting.) The usual loafing site is some pond or open expanse of grass not far from his food source. A grassy sports field or hillside park is an ideal place. Mount Trashmore, for example, is prime gull loafing territory, even without fresh garbage.
My husband and son are flying a kite on top of Mount Trashmore. As this artificial structure is the only hill for miles around, it provides a good, stiff, kite-flying wind even on a relatively calm morning. The city of Virginia Beach stretches out below us, but I’m looking up, not down. I am watching the kite dip and soar, but I am thinking about gulls.
Gulls are highly resourceful, built for versatility rather than specialization. They can drink both fresh and salt water, a trait they share with sea turtles, and are similarly equipped with glands that enable them to flush the salt from their systems through openings in their bills. Gulls learn quickly, and there are even some indications that they may share information on sources of food. They consume practically anything, alive or dead. They are not picky eaters.
While gulls are gregarious and form large colonies, they often exhibit as much or more antagonism toward members of their own species as toward others. They are a long-lived species, living as long as 40 years in captivity. In the wild there are frequent instances of cannibalism of eggs and chicks, as well as deaths resulting from defending territory from other gulls. Gulls are efficient thieves, snatching food from each other or birds such as pelicans. In fact, gulls have been implicated in the decline of other shore birds, such as plovers and terns. They thrive at the expense of less versatile and aggressive species.
We’ve come down from Mount Trashmore, on the side opposite the parking lot, to an elaborate play area known as Kid’s Cove. My son is on the cusp of being too old for this sort of playground, at least in the presence of his peers, but no one is here yet today to observe him, so he begs us to stay a while so that he can play. Not long after my husband and I arrange ourselves on a sunny bench nearby, a gull arrives.
Gulls, I reflect, don’t like us much. This gull perches on one of the wooden pylons that make up the "pirate fort" of the playground and dispassionately watches us with unwavering interest. Are we going to oblige him by having a picnic? We size each other up, the gull and I, and I admire his somewhat vicious beak, strong legs, and solid body. I have no idea what the gull is thinking, if anything, but I’m sure he doesn’t entertain romantic notions about how wonderful it is to be a human, whereas we have written poems, songs, and stories about the adventurous, freewheeling lives of gulls. This is one major difference between gulls and humans, regardless of what else we have in common.
The animals in our immediate environment are not really wild, so much as merely able to tolerate our presence. Our gardens and wooded suburban lots, for example, are virtual buffets for deer, whose populations have reached epidemic proportions in the sprawling suburbs that best suit them. In turn, the deer we hit with our cars become a different sort of buffet for vultures. Increasingly, the animals around us are those who can find a secure niche in a man-altered environment.
What is wildlife? Mostly we apply this term to the creatures frequenting our back yards or those that can be relegated to land unsuitable for development. The species that we don’t tolerate are known as pests, while those who actively court us are known as pets. Gulls have reached pest status in certain parts of the country, as the publication of manuals for gull control testifies. They contaminate water supplies, act as vectors for disease, and interfere with air traffic. And, of course, in many places they have simply become noisy, defecating nuisances.
Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two when he used gulls as the most threatening species in The Birds, but gulls, of course, are no more than bellwethers of the threat we pose to ourselves. On this lovely morning, sitting next to a buried mountain of trash, gulls momentarily become symbols to me, but not the symbols of freedom that once spanned the spacious seas in Robert Service’s poem. No, apart from themselves and in relationship to all others, gulls are symbols in the calculus of survival.