A summer trip to Virginia Beach can be maddening if you happen to hit the traffic that clogs the I-95 corridor south of Washington, D.C., and as you close in on the Chesapeake Bay through the snarl of Hampton Roads and Norfolk. Of course, the sunny delights of Virginia Beach's pristine stretch of sand and its festive boardwalk quickly wash away the lingering effects of a long day in the car, but for a totally refreshing take on this popular resort town, now's the time to make the trip. Here's our guide to the best of Virginia Beach in the off-season.
Rip the Boardwalk
Virginia Beach's three-mile boardwalk is the obvious centerpiece of all that happens here throughout the year, lined with hotels, restaurants, fairground rides, and historic attractions like the Old Coast Guard Station. Recently renovated, the boardwalk is broad and nicely landscaped, with a dedicated two-lane trail for bikes and surreys. However, in summer, there's no escaping a steady blitz of rollerbladers, skateboarders, joggers, and even errant bikers on the pedestrian portion of the boardwalk. Naturally, without the crowds, you'll get to enjoy even more of this pleasant oceanfront stretch to yourself, not to mention easy access to more crowd-free sand than you'll know what to do with.
Go Where the Wild Things Are
Dolphin-watching tours, run in partnership with the Virginia Aquarium, are a summer highlight (you can also regularly spot the mammals from the beach). But, as with the summer crowds, the dolphins begin to meander south as water temps cool. They are, however, replaced by migrating humpback and minke whales making their own way south from their northern breeding grounds. Whale-watching tours are available from December through March, though plan on packing a good warm jacket as it can get very cold out on the water! And don't forget that even if it's too cold to get in the water, it's still possible to get on the water. Several local outfitters offer guided kayaking tours that will take you out into the ocean as well as back bays and estuaries to spot local wildlife.
Birding at Back Bay
As with the aquatic creatures out in the Atlantic, this part of the coast is a prime layover for migratory bird species. Fall and early winter see many species, including some 10,000 snow geese, making a call at 9,250-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (as well as False Cape State Park, over the state line in North Carolina). Miles of hiking paths thread the refuge, including along the beach as well as through an interior of ponds and marshland. Along with 350 recorded bird species numbering bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and piping plovers, keep your eyes peeled for feral hogs, raccoons, bobcats, red and gray foxes, snakes, and even river otters. Note that some sections of the refuge are closed during winter to allow for seasonal habitat and wildlife protection. (For more interesting regional wildlife insights, also check out the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum, located at 11th Street along the Virginia Beach Boardwalk.)
Eat Like a Local
The Virginia Beach Boardwalk has its share of disappointing eateries serving burgers, fried fish, and surf 'n' turf—which is why you should look to those places that have taken pains to stock their menus with the freshest local, as well as seasonal, ingredients. Family-owned and -operated since 1981, Waterman's Beachwood Grill participates in the Sensible Seafood Program, which is run in partnership with the Virginia Aquarium to promise the seafood on your plate is sourced from plentiful, well-managed, and environmentally sound fisheries. Tucked away on the Rudee Inlet at Virginia Beach's south end, Todd Jurich's 21st Century Burger Bar offers a tasty range of burgers made from locally-sourced, 100 percent grass-fed beef that's ground daily on premises. The quiet location is also the perfect spot for a relaxed afternoon beer on the outdoor deck! (Talking of beer, Virginia Beach's Craft Beer Festival takes place October 20-21 and features 25 local breweries, as well as live music and competitions.)
Explore the Wonders of the Undersea World (at Your Own Pace)
As someone who's done his share of crowded aquariums where elbows, screaming children, and cameras outnumber dorsal fins, take advantage of the off-season's slimmer crowds to enjoy an attraction that's year-round, the excellent Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. Here you get to enjoy some of the big aquatic creatures that people love to ogle, including nurse sharks, sea turtles, and stingrays. The aquarium, however, also does a good job training the spotlight on regional ecosystems like the Chesapeake, rivers, marshlands, and Atlantic Ocean and the creatures that rely on the health of these habitats for their survival.
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