Prior to my recent visit to Virginia Beach, Virginia, I hadn’t been there in decades. The last time I was there, back in the early ’80s, I was participating in a brainstorming session for an NPR radio series and we were holed up for an entire weekend in a hotel room with tantalizing views of the beach outside, but with no way to even get a whiff of fresh air.
Why they bothered to fly us all the way to Virginia Beach and ensconce us in a waterfront hotel, I’ll never know. The series, which was about the “Future,” never even got made.
It was torture, because the beach at Virginia Beach is truly beautiful, the boardwalk and waterside seafood restaurants beckon, and there are any number of activities to enjoy — including historical sights, parks, and a few offbeat attractions thrown in.
But now the future had finally arrived, even without the insights the radio series would have provided, and I was able to return to Virginia Beach with my wife, Catharine, spend three nights in the scenically located Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront Hotel, with balcony overlooking the Atlantic, and experience all the fresh air and sunshine we could take in.
Here are ten things I didn’t know about Virginia Beach until my recent visit, when I was free to actually go out and explore:
* The Virginia Beach boardwalk is three miles long, 28 feet wide, and extends 60 feet deep into the sand — the latter to control flooding. Four oceanfront stages provide nightly entertainment in summer, and a 24-foot-high, 12-ton statue of King Neptune at the junction of 31st street offers the most popular photo op. A separate bike path runs alongside the wider walking promenade, which, by the way, no longer is composed of boards, but concrete.
* The late Edgar Cayce, the “Sleeping Prophet” — who is said to have psychically diagnosed illnesses, retold past lives, and even predicted the future (my doomed NPR series could have used him) — lived in Virginia Beach because he “saw” that the coastal city would never be hit head-on by a hurricane. And, knock on concrete boardwalks, so far it has been spared. Today, an impressive-looking edifice in Virginia Beach houses Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment.
* Virginia Beach is the most populous city in Virginia, with nearly 440,000 residents, outnumbering nearby Norfolk by almost 200,000. Approximately 1.5 million people reside in its metropolitan area.
* Virginia Beach’s Mount Trashmore, 60 feet high and 800 feet long, is the bulwark of a city park made from landfill. Created in 1970 by compacting layers of solid waste and clean soil, Mount Trashmore features no faces of past Presidents (that we know of), but does boast two lakes, two playgrounds, a skate park, and hiking paths — and is the city’s most popular park, drawing about a million visitors per year. No dumping allowed.
* The octagonal-shaped Cape Henry Lighthouse, situated near the ocean at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, was the U.S. government’s first public works project, dating from 1792. You can climb to the top via 192 steps — after clearing security: The lighthouse is currently situated within Virginia Beach’s Fort Story, a military training base. (Prepare to open your trunk and leave your contraband behind.)
* Near the lighthouse, you can visit the site of the First Landing, where English colonists landed in 1607 before establishing the first permanent colony at Jamestown. First Landing State Park, Virginia’s most popular state park, extends for miles up Chesapeake Bay, with a sandy beach and 20 miles of hiking trails as well as camping, fishing, kayak rentals and tours, a bike path, and nature programs. Chesapeake Bay waters are generally calmer than the Atlantic Ocean surf for swimming, but there are no lifeguards. (By the way, all regional public beach access is free.)
* Also near the lighthouse, look for the Cape Henry Memorial to 1781’s Battle of the Capes, which helped end the Revolutionary War and is part of the Colonial Historical National Park. French ships (aiding the American cause) held off the British naval forces here and prevented them from resupplying British General Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown (Cornwallis then surrendered). Had the French failed, Americans might be celebrating Benedict Arnold as a true patriot, and you could forget all about your Fourth of July barbecues.
* The excellent Virginia Aquarium in Virginia Beach includes a nature trail that leads to a new Aerial Adventure Park complete with zip-lines — all comprised of reclaimed marshland.
* Virginia Beach receives more than 5 million visitors per year — 60 percent of them in the off-season, between Labor Day and Memorial Day.
* The ocean beach at Virginia Beach hosts the annual Neptune Festival Sandsculpting Championship, one of the top sandsculpting competitions in the world, drawing contestants from around the globe. This year’s festival (from September 25-27, 2015) will be the 42nd.
My recommended Virginia Beach restaurants:
Catch 31 at the Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront Hotel
Pocahontas Pancake House (for breakfast)
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