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Kid-Friendly Zones: The Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach, Virginia

by Elaine Sosa Labalme

As a little girl on family road trips from Connecticut to Florida, I remember driving through Virginia and being enchanted by the state’s “Virginia Is For Lovers” advertising campaign.  My sister and I giggled about it and pleaded with our parents for a stop to see what all the fuss was about.  Mom and Dad finally relented one summer, stopping in Virginia Beach for a couple of sun-kissed days on our way south.  My sister and I talked about that adventure all summer long.

Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, “Virginia Is For Lovers” grew to become one of the travel industry’s most enduring, and iconic, advertising campaigns.  Eager to see if Virginia’s beaches have also stood the test of time, I take my husband and son to the state’s Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach.  Here’s what we found.

The Eastern Shore is at the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula, which is made up of parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.  At the northern end of the Virginia portion is lovely Chincoteague (SHIN-ka-tig) Island, best known for its ponies as memorialized in the children’s classic “Misty of Chincoteague.”  Many miles and countless small towns later is Cape Charles, the last stop before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and a haven for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.

On Chincoteague Island, it’s not just about ponies, though the sight of those sweet, wild creatures is something special.  Rent a bike at one of the many local outlets and head into the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a favored stopping-off spot for migrating shorebirds, among them the endangered snow goose and the too-cute piping plover.  Start at the Herbert Bateman Visitors Center, which is chock-full of informational videos about the Refuge’s seasonal visitors.  Back outside, follow one of the many biking trails to marshes and groves filled with birds and don’t be surprised if you spot a bald eagle among them. 

Must stops include the Assateague Lighthouse, a red-and-white-striped marvel reaching for the sky and the Assateague Island National Seashore, one of the most beautiful and unspoiled beaches on the East Coast.  To say that a morning or afternoon spent here is a sybaritic experience is an understatement – the merger of nature and beauty is worthy of Monet and the look on your child’s face on meeting a tri-colored heron or encountering mating turtles is priceless.  chinco.fws.gov 

Another amazing journey is the Captain Barry Tour, a four-hour fun-fest with the most affable sea captain around.  Aboard a pontoon boat that seats six, the Captain will quickly make the kids first mates and equal partners in seafaring adventure.  The stars of the show will raise crab traps and marvel at the blueness of blue crabs, snag a flounder (and no doubt name him Freddy), referee a snail race and collect palm-sized seashells on a nearby sandbar.  Peering into a laughing gull rookery and watching clamming aquaculture in action are more educational yet fun experiences.  The ride will go by in a jiff and leave in its wake children who will talk about it for a week.  captainbarry.net  Simpler pleasures can also be had on Chincoteague, among them a stop at the Main Street Store and Coffeehouse for tasteful island shopping and a cooling coffee treat mainstreet-shop.com and the Purple Pony Shirt Company, a tee-shirt emporium with much to look at and plenty of keepers.  purplepony.com

Where to stay and eat:  The Refuge Inn is a 73-room hostelry steps away from the Refuge and filled with creature comforts.  Each room is individually and comfortably furnished and comes with a patio or balcony along with wireless Internet, an indoor/outdoor pool and hearty continental breakfast.  Bicycles are available for rental on site and the penned ponies are a hit with kids.  refugeinn.com  A blast for everyone is Woody’s Beach BBQ, housed in an unassuming trailer on the traffic circle in the center of town.  The cooking goes on inside but everyone eats out at Woody’s, either standing at tall tables or on one of the many Adirondacks scattered about.  Everything is homemade, including creamy beans, cole slaw and apple sauce but the stars of the show are falling-off-the-bone ribs that are slow-smoked for eighteen hours.  Tetherball, ring toss and other kid-friendly games can be enjoyed between bites and next up from enterprising owners Larry and Gail Parsons is Woody’s Fried Chicken, occupying trailer #2 and promising more homey goodness (think red bliss potatoes and  succotash).  6700 Maddox Blvd., (757) 336-5531; woodysbeachbbq.com  Over at Don’s Seafood Restaurant, the owners take their boats out daily and return with a catch of flounder, clams and soft shell crabs.  The fish and chips is delicious yet topped by the plump, juicy oyster sandwich.  4113 Main Street, (757) 336-5715  All meals on Chincoteague should end at the Island Creamery, where the homemade ice creams (banana split, anyone?) are best enjoyed among locals on the spacious outdoor deck.  6243 Maddox Blvd., (757) 336-6236; islandcreamery.net

Cape Charles, on the Eastern Shore’s southern tip, isn’t looking to compete with Chincoteague’s charm and that’s a good thing.  The adventures here are sporting and those who go for them will have captured the essence of what the place offers.  With that in mind, join Dave Burden and his team at Southeast Expeditions for a Kayak and Clamming Expedition.  The journey begins aboard a trusty one-or two-person kayak for a paddle along Cherrystone Creek, home to Cherrystone clams and akin to a pristine mountain lake.  At some point, you’ll pause in shallow water and start digging for clams, mindful to keep only those that are at least 7/8-inch deep.  Haul on board, make your way back to the dock, where your guide will steam the clams and serve them next to a picnic lunch (or dinner) accompanied by a crisp Virginia chardonnay.  You may return the next day for more of the same – the trip is that memorable.  (757) 678-6182; sekayak.com  More outdoor fun can be had at Kiptopeke State Park, where you can fish, swim, hike or bike.  Children will love the Baywoods Trail, where they can find tracks belonging to fox or deer and use their binoculars to spot an endless array of migratory birds.  The Park’s butterfly garden is also worth a visit and a mellow counterpoint to dune climbing along nearby beaches.  dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/kip.shtml

Where to stay and eat:  The Lodges at Kiptopeke State Park are ultra-roomy accommodations that scream “family reunion!”  Whether it’s your brood or everyone else’s, too, settle into a six-bedroom, three-bath lodge replete with pine furnishings, cathedral ceiling and warming fireplace.  There are bunk beds galore, a well-stocked kitchen for indoor eats and an outdoor grill and picnic table.  The Park’s splendor is right outside your front door, along with the main picnic area and its rambling play structure.  dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/kip.shtml#cabins  An original if there ever was one is Sting-Ray’s Restaurant, behind the local gas station and the place for tasty seafood dishes.  cape-center.com  The perfect picnic lunch can be arranged at Cape Charles Coffee House, where they’ll pack a meal to go while you savor their signature “Cafe Cape Charles.”  capecharlescoffeehouse.com

The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is a seventeen-mile shore-to-shore span that was designated “One of Seven Engineering Wonders of the Modern World” when it opened in 1965.  Decades later, it’s still a marvelous ride and the best way to get from the Eastern Shore to Virginia Beach.  What will you find when you arrive at this beach front resort?  An affordable and accessible family vacation destination free of the incessant funnel-cake smell of far too many East Coast beach resorts (and you know who you are).  Yesteryear and forward thinking happily coexist on Virginia Beach, which is why it’s still worth a visit – and yes, a beautiful beach does help!

Where to stay and eat:  The Hilton Virginia Beach Oceanfront is hands-down the best bet on the beach, where a colorful, splashy lobby announces its mod, fun appeal.  Choose a oceanfront corner king on the Empyrean Club level, since the club lounge offers a terrific continental breakfast and numerous day-long snacking options for hungry kids.  Back in your room, shades of moss and sand bring the natural world in, with the modern world well-represented by a 42-inch flat-screen TV and multiple-thread-count king bed.  There’s even room for a rollaway or two and the Jacuzzi tub with small TV makes the bathing experience complete.  The hotel’s rooftop infinity pool faces the Atlantic and is easily as pacific as the many bed-like loungers scattered about; the adjacent SkyBar is kid-friendly by day and grown-up at night.  You can feast all day at Catch 31, the Hilton’s lobby level bar/restaurant, but be sure to check it out come nightfall:  the cobalt blue and white color scheme calls to mind an eye-popping scene out of “Finding Nemo” and the seafood treats (Chincoteague and Lynnhaven oysters, sublime crab cakes) are arguably the best in town.  hiltonvb.com  Locals are quick to make a beeline to Rockafeller’s alongside picturesque Rudee Inlet for seafood, and you should, too.  The she-crab soup is a must starter, with the meaty fish and chips another excellent choice; the shrimp Christo offers up ten plump shrimp in a Cajun-Creole cream sauce and you can wash their heat down with the sparkling house-made limeade.  308 Mediterranean Avenue, (757) 422-5654; rockafellers.com  Waterman’s is another seafood fest, in this case a throwback to the Sixties.  The beach front establishment sports a massive swordfish on one wall, no doubt caught by the owners, avid fisherman all.  415 Atlantic Avenue, (757) 428-3644; watermans.com  The livin’ is easy at Chick’s Oyster Bar, a slightly-off-the-beaten-path seafood shack where the oysters might be gritty (sand = fresh, some say) and the tuna tacos a hit with kids.  2143 Vista Circle, (757) 481-5757  Doc Taylor’s is the place for a diner-style breakfast, as in buttery eggs, crispy bacon and sweet potato-pecan pancakes locals die for.  207 23rd Street, (757) 425-1960

On land, the beach is the place to be.  Think miles of soft, tan-colored sand filled with eager kids toting shovel-and-pail in their quest for the perfect sandcastle.  Virginia Beach’s expanse feels almost as wide as it is long and on a sun-drenched day, there’s no better place.  If the kids tire of the beach (it could happen!), take them for a walk along the three-mile boardwalk.  This beach front promenade makes for an easy stroll and you shouldn’t be surprised to encounter an art show or music festival during the summer months.  An easier excursion is along the adjacent bike path, where Cherie’s Bike & Blade has numerous beach front rental stations for the perfect cruiser or family bike (note to unsuspecting parents: those family bikes are a workout!).  (757) 437-8888  Back at sea, book a kayaking trip with Surf & Adventure, which offers daily trips to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  Encounter herons, osprey and other shore birds on a leisurely paddle along a narrow inlet; the trip is well-suited to young kids whereas more adventurous families might find it a bit tame.  surfandadventure.com  A far speedier ride can be had aboard a dolphin-watching cruise, since the captain of the 65-foot Rudee Flipper is likely to be a full-throttle guy in pursuit of elusive prancing mammals.  rudeetours.com  The Flipper departs from the Virginia Beach Fishing Center, where you can also charter a fishing boat for an up-close experience with our friends from the sea.  virginiafishing.com 

A bit of land and sea can be had at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, where the Bay & Ocean pavilion showcases over 300 varieties of Chesapeake fish while the Marsh pavilion features an abundance of shore birds, reptiles and other intriguing creatures.  Kids will adore the interactivity of the facility and flit from one exhibit to the next; “Restless Planet,” set to open soon, will encompass four modern-day habitats chronicling Virginia’s ecological history.  virginiaaquarium.com  Worth a quick visit is the Old Coast Guard Station, one of many “life-saving stations” set up along the eastern seaboard as a precursor to our current Coast Guard.  The self-guided tour explains the station’s role in detail, aided by an abundance of sea-worthy gadgets and gizmos.  oldcoastguardstation.com

Finally, save the better part of a day for a visit to the Founders Inn & Spa.  The full-service resort plays on Virginia’s heritage as a founder of the republic as evidenced in  colonial-style buildings replete with oils of Washington and Franklin and surrounded by formal English gardens.  Send Mom (Dad?) to the Flowering Almond Spa, where an hour-long massage will melt her (his?) cares away.  For a nominal fee, the rest of the family gets to enjoy the spacious pool and too-cool water slide.  Everyone reconvenes for lunch at the Swan Terrace, known for its sumptuous midday brunch of classic hot and cold dishes.  foundersinn.com

For more information on Virginia Beach, visit vbfun.com or call (800) VA-BEACH. Additional information on Virginia's Eastern Shore and Virginia Beach can be found at virginia.org.


Elaine Sosa Labalme is a food and travel writer based in San Francisco, California. When she's not busy as a domestic goddess she's out traveling with husband Fen and seven-year-old son Steven. She hopes to be the next Charles Kuralt.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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