A year-round, top value destination where families can learn history, absorb culture and appreciate the environment, the sand, and and old-fashioned boardwalk.
Viriginia is a value vacation destination where families can learn some history, absorb a little culture, appreciate the environment, play in the sand, and enjoy some old-fashioned boardwalk strolls. While some of these activities are more fun in the summer sun, the state's many attractions make it a year-round vacation destination.
Whether your family is in need of a beach vacation or a dose of the deep-seated patriotism found at Colonial Williamsburg, we know you'll find whatever traditional family 'values' (both social and economic) you're looking for.
Learn History in Williamsburg
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (800/HISTORY) offers many travel packages for families interested in America's early history. Seasonal packages are available that usually include nightly accomodations and Historic Area passes for the family. Two other nearby attractions — Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA — are close to Colonial Williamsburg, but don't even think about trying to schedule both in a day. Busch Gardens offers the "Busch Gardens Williamsburg Bounce Ticket" which includes a length of stay admission into Colonial Williamsburg, Busch Gardens, Water Country USA, Jamestown Settlement, Historic Jamestowne, Yorktown Victory Center and Yorktown Battlefield.
Busch Gardens is one of the country's prettiest and most intellectually engaging theme parks, with international exhibits and multi-cultural themed rides, as well as Alpengeist, continually voted a "Top 10 steel rollercoaster." Water Country USA is a super water park with more than 30 rides and attractions, including several high dive shows daily, a heated kids pool and numerous water playgrounds, spread over 74 shaded acres. Parents will be pleased to hear that all children 42" tall and under are required to wear lifejackets (provided free) and that swim diapers are dispensed in vending machines. One look at H2O UFO, a transformer/robot/slide that shoots out water tinged with magical powers, and you'll know why you need to spend an entire day here.
If you need more than a day, the Kingsmill Resort (800/832-5665, 757/253-1703) is a bucolic, four-diamond property nearby whose golf course extends past 18th century plantation buildings to the James River. Comforts include an impressive indoor lap pool, 15 tennis courts, boat rentals on Wareham Pond and a seasonal daycamp for the 5-12 years crowd who've tired of Busch Gardens.
Naval Lore in Norfolk, Virginia
Even if the kids spend a day at each theme park, you'll want to base yourselves in one of Hampton Roads' key cities: Norfolk, Virginia Beach or Hampton. Although Norfolk is supported by the world's largest naval base, it is diversifying from an industrial port into one which smartly takes advantage of the picturesque Hampton Roads harbor. From the veranda of Joe's Crab Shack, junior officers can watch aircraft carriers being repaired in Portsmouth's shipyard while their kids frolic in the playground.
The city has pushed ahead with arts festivals, the state-of-the-art MacArthur Center shopping mall (with 'family' bathrooms where Mom and/or Dad plus kids go together, a Johnny Rockets as well as a farmer's market, mini-arcade and 140 stores, an 18-screens theater, and strollers are available), and sophisticated new museums. In summer, you can catch the Norfolk Tides, a AAA affiliate team of the NY Mets who play at Harbor Park (757/622-2222) located on the Elizabeth river.
Of interest year-round is the Nauticus maritime center (757/664-1000), where more than 150 exhibits highlighting the sea and ships draw visitors into the Aegis Theatre, the simulated command deck of an Aegis class destroyer. After about 15 minutes' training, our audience was asked to respond to various 'attack scenarios' from unidentified vessels and most voted to blow them right out of the water! Moral issues aside, this is great fun for boys above 6 years. Naval history buffs will cherish the model boats at the small Hampton Roads Naval Museum upstairs (entrance is free with admission to the Nauticus). The technically-challenged and most kids under 6 years will feel more at home at the Chesapeake Bay aquarium or the nurse shark touch tank.
Afterwards, you can hop a water taxi or paddlewheel ferry across the river to Olde Towne Portsmouth, where there's a nice children's museum amongst the antique stores. The NET electric bus or foot power are the easiest ways to get around when staying at one of Norfolk's downtown hotels.
A Big Beach, Queens & Castles in Virginia Beach
If sun 'n' sand is more to your liking, classic Virginia Beach is timeless fun, as much now, all spiffyed up, as it was when we were kids. The renovated boardwalk around 24th Street features beach ball sculptures; along its three-mile, perfect-for-rollerblading length you'll find a haunted house, the North America's busiest Dairy Queen, many pizza parlors and a string of low-rise hotels.
Of these beachfront inns, the Holiday Inn Sunspree resort, with its five indoor and outdoor pools and KidSpree play area, is the most complete; the charmingly restored Cavalier, out of the hustle bustle at 43rd Street, is the prettiest; and the Best Western Ocean Front: Virginia Beach, with two pools, is the best value. High marks go to the Quality Inn Pavilion (5 blocks away with an outdoor pool and free internet) and the rural Best Western Center Inn (12 miles from the beach, 35 miles from Williamsburg, with gardens, an indoor and outdoor pool and a fitness center) which, though not directly on the sand, are excellent values. Other choices include the Seashore State Park's rustic cabins and campground, and the Founder's Inn, a very posh inland resort and conference center. Its celebrated Swan Terrace is an elegant dining room that's perfect for a special birthday or anniversary brunch.
Boardwalk, blade, or push a stroller past rows of time share condos, surfing gear rentals, blue brick summer homes, taffy shops and a ca. 1903 Old Coastguard Station museum (757/422-1587) with a rooftop 'tower cam' that kids can manipulate to survey ships and storms offshore.
The Virginia Marine Science Museum (757/385-FISH) is not to be missed — even if it's sunny day! This contemporary science museum uses new technologies and an IMAX Theater, aquariums, interactive habitat exhibits and touch tanks to bring the local environment alive.
On rainy days, pile everyone back into the car and drive to the small and intriguing Contemporary Art Center, or wander over to Edgar Cayce's A.R.E. Museum (800/333-4499) where the teachings and practices of the father of holistic medicine are enshrined. Waterman's Beachwood Grill at Atlantic and 5th Street is one of the better boardwalk eateries, with fresh seafood and salads, a large kids' menu, and indoor and outdoor seating (757/428-3644).
Culture & Aviation in Historic Hampton, Virginia
At the core of small town, historic Hampton are the sophisticated shops, Euro cafés like Bobby's Americana, and clubs like Goodfellas which line the postcard-perfect Queens Way. Reminiscent of Alexandria, Virginia, Hampton makes an especially welcome base for adults who are looking for more educational diversions for their kids. Unusual local sites include the Museum at Hampton University (757/727-5308), whose collection of ethnic fine arts will surprise visitors to Booker T. Washington's alma mater.
Fort Monroe dates from 1823 and is a National Historic Landmark; its Casemate Museum (757/788-3391) is one of many stops on the Virginia Civil War Trails (888/CIVILWAR.)
On the waterfront, you'll be able to stroll the quiet harbor esplanade or see a special IMAX showing at night, enjoy patio dining at Oyster Alley, or roll out of bed and hop aboard the Miss Hampton II harbor cruiser. A few miles away, the Ocean Breeze Waterpark is getting a big facelift and Caribbean theming for 2011, with upgrades to its 16 water slides, million-gallon wave pool, and Buccaneer Bay – a water activity area with pint-sized slides and a lazy river for children. Your littlest family members will have a wet blast here.
Just a few minutes' stroll around Settler's Landing brings you to the Virginia Air & Space Center's collection (757/727-0900). Historic aircraft and intriguing space vehicles are displayed here by the NASA Langley Research Center, NASA's HQ until its 1963 move to Houston. With any luck, volunteer Kenneth Flick will accompany your family and regale you, as he did ours, with the anecdotes and adventures of each aircraft.
Virginia has Wintery Pleasures, too
Family fun doesn't stop after the busy summer high season; the theme parks may close in September and October but there are cultural enticements year round.
The cool and sometimes rainy winter weather prompts many families to pick up the Virginia Tourism office's (800/847-4882) self-drive brochures and tour classic Richmond, or the seaport and sophisticated Mariner's Museum at Newport News, on their own. For Portsmouth's annual Olde Towne Holiday Music Festival in December, music and welcoming festivities line the streets from concerts at High Street Landing, to street bonfires, to merchants hosting open houses, and with special trolley tours past candle-lit historic homes, all adding to the festivities.
Each holiday season brings families indoors to watch the Virginia Ballet dance "The Nutcracker" and the Richmond Symphony and chorus perform Handel's "Messiah." This year, as in past years, you can see the granddaddy of light shows- "100 Miles of Lights" — strung from Camp Pendleton past the Virginia Beach boardwalk in a scenic loop all around the region, highlighting the homes and businesses whose warm welcome makes visiting Virginia such a pleasure.
If your Canadian family would like guidance about visiting the state, contact any Canadian Automobile Association office by visiting the website or calling 800/992-8143 to inquire about travel packages.
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