By Renée S. Gordon
Virginia Beach is the East Coast’s premier, year round, family friendly resort. It’s a virtual cornucopia of history, sites, attractions, recreational activities, concerts, restaurants and affordable accommodations all enclosed by more than 29 miles of sandy beach, according to Guinness “the longest pleasure beach in the world” and Atlantic Ocean shoreline. Visitors can take advantage of everything the city has to offer or simply stroll or bike the 28-ft. wide, 3-mile boardwalk.
The natives who inhabited the area, from 800 BC to the 1600s, knew the Hampton Roads region as “Chesepioc,” or “Mother of Water.” It was they who met the three first three ships of English colonists in 1607 who landed, after a 144-day journey at a place they named Cape Henry. The settlers stayed there only a few days and then sailed up the James River to establish a permanent inland colony at Jamestown.
First Landing State Park, originally Seashore State Park is a 2,888-acre site constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This gem of a park is the most visited in the state because of the nature programs, cypress swamp, maritime forest, dunes, hiking, biking, swimming, boating and camping opportunities. There are 20-miles of trails including the Cape Henry Trail that interprets the Native American experience with markers, replica Indian shelters and a Native American gravesite, notable because it contains the bodies of 64 Chesapeake Indians who were reinterred in sacred soil on 1997. Only a third of the park is developed and because it is unspoiled it has been the scene of several films including The New World.
In 1951, four African Americans tried to enter the park but were not allowed entry based on their race. The case was taken to court and to prevent integrating the park the state attempted to lease the park so it would be privately owned. This was a landmark case and the Supreme Court ruled the “lease” illegal because it was for purposes of circumventing integration in 1956. VA then closed the park until 1961. Ironically the CCC group that built the park was African American. There is a museum on-site and special wheelchairs are available that are made to travel on sand. www.first-landing-state-park.org
Old Cape Henry Lighthouse, the first built by the US government, is located on Fort Story. Construction began in 1774 but was interrupted by the Revolution. It was completed in 1791 and functioned until the brick structure was declared unsafe in 1878. A new, cast iron, lighthouse was completed in 1881. Visitors must have government issued identification in order to be admitted to the base to tour the Old Lighthouse. There is also a marker nearby to commemorate the 1781 Battle of the Capes, a pivotal battle between the French and British fleets during the American Revolution. www.lighthousefriends.com/light
Settlement of the Virginia Beach area began in the 1620s and, to the surprise of many, there are portions of several of these early homesteads still standing.
The Adam Thoroughgood House, circa 1680, is one of the earliest, colonial, brick homes remaining. Thoroughgood came to Virginia as an 18-year old indentured servant and by age 35 he owned many acres of land. The current house sits on 4.5-acres and his heirs probably built the 45 by 22-ft, 1.5-story home. It has a 10-ft. wide main hall with a room on either side. The house was restored in 1957 and opened to the public. (757) 460-7588.
Ferry Plantation Is probably the most renowned of the historic plantation houses. Erected in 1642 it was so called because there was a local ferry stop there. The current three-story Federal house, built in the 1800s, is fully furnished and tours include plantation life as well as the home’s haunted history. Legend has it that the Witch of Pungo, Grace Sherwood, was tried and convicted of witchcraft in the courthouse that was on the on the property in 1740 and is one of 11 identified spirits. Three others are slaves who were hung from a still standing tree in the rear of the house.
Lynnhaven House was built circa 1725 in the Virginia Beach vernacular-style of brick in an English bond design. Architectural highlights include the closed-spindle staircase and Champford ceiling beams complete with marks made by the original carpenters. The house is furnished to interpret the years 1725-27. www.virginiabeach.com/attractions/history/lynnhaven
The Georgian style Francis Land House dates from 1804 and was once the focal point of a plantation that had as many as 20 slaves. The federal-style period rooms are furnished with antiques and replicas and tours interpret plantation life, including the lives of the enslaved, and can include educational activities. There are several gardens on the grounds including herb, vegetable, formal and pleasure gardens. www./virginiabeachhistory.org
PHOTO: Old Coast Guard Station.
Two events jumpstarted Virginia Beach Beach’s resort history, the opening of the 2-block long Princess Anne Hotel and the establishment of rail service in the 1880s. The city was incorporated 26 years later. There are numerous activities that revolve around water and the city’s two most iconic symbols reflect that heritage.
The Norwegian Lady Statue was a gift from Moss, Norway in memory of the 1891 shipwreck of the Dictator, a Norwegian vessel. The ship’s wooden figurehead washed ashore and was preserved until it was replicated in bronze. An identical figure stands in Moss.
King Neptune, the 34-ft. Greek God of the Sea, stands ever vigilant in Neptune Festival Park. He rises from a 12-ft., 100,000-lb. rock base while surrounded by dolphins and other sea creatures. This massive bronze statue weighs over eight tons and is the creation of artist Paul DiPasquale.
Your Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center adventure starts on the exterior of the center at the Seal Splash where you can watch seals cavort in a glass aquarium. Highlights of a tour are a journey through time from the mountains to the shore, a visit inside a submersible research vehicle and “Fish and Chips,” an interactive exhibit where fish have been implanted with microchips and as they pass by you in the aquarium information appears on a computer screen.
The VAMSC has 800,000-gallons of aquariums, more than 300 interactive exhibits and a host of special programs. Dolphin and Whale Watching Trips and Behind-the-Scenes Tours are also offered. www.virginiaaquarium.com
The Military Aviation Museum Complex opened in 2005 and it has been growing ever since. The museum features rare aircraft from World Wars I and II. All have been completely restored and are in their original flight worthy condition. Ninety-minute tours include the museum, WWI Hangar, WWII Hangar, Fighter Factory Maintenance Building, Warehouse and 1939 German Hangar. The German Luftwaffe Hangar was purchased from the Army Airfield in Cottbus near Berlin. The 10,000-sq. ft. structure was steel with a wooden roof and designed to be disassembled and relocated as the troops moved. Every piece in the museum is a jewel but there are still pieces you should not miss. They include, General MacArthur’s staff car, the P40E flown by the Tuskegee Airmen and the Flying Tigers, a German Messerschmitt and the first plane to land on a ship. The collection is valued at $30-40-million and only three or four of the planes are ever flown at the same time. Plan to spend several hours. www.militaryaviationmuseum.org
The 1903 Old Coast Guard Station preserves and presents the history of the United States Life-Saving (1878-1915) and Coast Guard Services. Two floors of exhibits relate the story of the government’s response to the numerous shipwrecks along the coast. The stations were approximately five miles apart and saved thousands of lives. Displays and a film on the second level recount tales of German U-boats on our coast during WWII. www.oldcoastguardstation.com
Edgar Cayce, “the sleeping prophet,” is the first and most documented psychic in American history and is regarded as the father of holistic medicine. He believed that wellness incorporates mental, spiritual and physical health and that we write the stories of our lives through our thoughts, deeds and interactions with others.
Born in Kentucky, as a youth Cayce’s psychic abilities manifested themselves and for the majority of his remaining life he gave two readings a day, totaling more than 14,306, largely dealing with issues of health. In 1931 he founded the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) headquartered in Virginia Beach Beach. Cayce chose the location for three main reasons, the sand here is high in the detoxifying agents gold and radium, it is near the ocean and he felt the area was an energy center.
The A.R.E. campus encourages people to visit and use the services. The library contains transcripts of his readings as well as the 3rd largest collection of books on metaphysics in the world. The Bookstore and Gift Shop feature a superb selection of books and products and a Health Center & Spa on the grounds offers outstanding treatments including holistic massages. Tours include a film on Cayce’s life and a room dedicated to him furnished with the couch he used for his readings. www.edgarcayce.org
This is the point at which the Atlantic Ocean kisses the Chesapeake Bay and nobody gets out of Virginia Beach Beach without having a taste of the famous “coastal cuisine.” The fish are fresh and prepared in creative ways. A few dining suggestions are Big Sam’s Inlet Café and Oyster Bar (www.bigsamsrawbar.com), Chick’s Oyster Bar (www.chicksoysterbar.com) and Margie & Ray’s (www.margieandrays.com) for casual beach dining and Catch 31 at the Hilton Virginia Beach Beach (www.catch31.com) for a more upscale experience.
The Comfort Inn & Suites Oceanfront is a great choice for family accommodations. It offers all the standard amenities and a central location, free WIFI, heated indoor pool, parking and some of the best rates in town. www.comfortinn.com/hotel-virginia_beach-virginia-VA440 Virginia Beach is a total destination with everything a traveler could want, all at an affordable price. It is also a perfect place from which to drive the 17-miles to Norfolk, 26-miles to Hampton or 52-miles to Williamsburg. VA Beach has been welcoming visitors since 1607, isn’t it time you visited. www.visitvirginiabeach.com
I wish you smooth travels!
A Gift From Virginia Beach Tourism:
Enjoy the Taste of Virginia Beach With This Soft-Shell Crab Recipe: Blue crabs are the King of the Chesapeake Bay and the prized soft-shells, so named for when they shed their shells during molting, are in season through early September. Enjoy a Virginia Beach favorite in your own home with this “Soft-Shell Crab with Tarragon Dijon-Cream Sauce” recipe by Patrick Evans-Hylton. Evans-Hylton is a Johnson & Wales-trained chef, the Senior Food and Wine Editor of Hampton Roads Magazine, the Executive Editor of Virginia Wine Lovers Magazine and author of seven books.