It had been so long since I last visited the largest city in Virginia, that I treated my recent visit to Virginia Beach as a first experience. I’m glad I did too, because I discovered parts of the community that I would have otherwise missed and had an incredible experience along the way. I may be biased since I’m originally from Virginia, but I think there is a wealth of things to do throughout the Commonwealth and especially in the active community of Virginia Beach. If you’re visiting for a long weekend or even a longer escape, here are my favorite experiences that I think anyone will love. [I’m working with Virginia Tourism on this project but, as always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.]
The Cavalier Hotel
Historic hotels are unique in that yes, they offer incredible luxury, but they also have a certain quality that’s impossible to replicate. Their age and the many guests they’ve welcomed have created a patina of hospitality that, while not visible, is an important part of the experience. That’s especially true at the newly reimagined Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach. Originally built in 1927, almost immediately The Cavalier became a hotspot for the rich and famous. Thanks to nonstop trains from cities like Chicago, the halls of the hotel were soon filled with those who wanted to see and be seen. The Fitzgerald’s, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and several Presidents all were guests of the hotel and many say that The Cavalier is what put Virginia Beach on the map in the first place. This Golden Era came to an abrupt end though in World War II when the hotel was surrendered to the US Navy and became a site for radar training. Although the hotel was returned to its owner, it had lost its pizzazz and in the intervening decades lost the brilliance for which it had once been known. Several years ago though it was sold to new owners who went through an extensive renovation and restoration process and, somewhat miraculously, brought back the luxury and hospitality that made The Cavalier, now part of the Autograph Collection, famous during the Roaring Twenties. Everything at The Cavalier is done to perfection, from the quirky yet refined design to the food and of course the hospitality. The Cavalier originally put Virginia Beach on the map and it’s redefining it once again in the 21st century.
There are few things I enjoy more than being out on the water. There’s just a certain peace of mind and solemnity that accompanies it, and getting a little exercise along the way is an added bonus. Sure, I spent time along the city’s famous beach, but for something a little different I joined a morning kayak tour with VB Surf Sessions. The company specializes in paddle boarding excursions, including one that visits local pubs, but it was the kayaking that grabbed my attention immediately. Rudee Inlet is located in the Virginia Beach Oceanfront District and is next to the Virginia Aquarium. Most folks know the inlet for its marinas and restaurants, but it’s also a great place to go for adventure sports. Paddling along the tall grasses of the estuary, we saw all kinds of wildlife, including eagles, osprey and more. But it was also just nice to paddle around, exploring small little waterways and appreciating Mother Nature in what I think is the best possible way.
I could, and I will, devote an entire post to the culinary side of Virginia Beach because it really was that impressive. Like so many other communities around the world, Virginia Beach has enjoyed a culinary renaissance in recent years, with creative chefs, brewers and even vintners opening shop and offering their visions to the local community. Although I don’t eat seafood, I do recognize it’s an important aspect of visiting Virginia Beach for most people which is one reason why I was excited to dine at the new(ish) Porch on Long Creek. Overlooking the beautiful Lynnhaven River, this is a light and airy space that specializes in American Coastal cuisine. Yes, their clear strength is fish and seafood (brought in fresh daily) but they have an expansive menu so that even a non-pescatarian like me can thoroughly enjoy the experience. Another great spot to enjoy a delicious night out is back at The Cavalier Hotel in their equally historic Hunt Room. Originally a quiet space for duck hunters to enjoy a meal in the early days of the hotel, that same rustic feel is what I first noticed walking into the new and impressive Hunt Room. A massive brick fireplace is at the heart of the room, creating a warm and inviting space that I loved right away. The menu is just as impressive with modern twists on Virginia classics, like the charcuterie board made with local meats and cheeses and even a delicious fried quail as a main course. This is also where you’ll find the hotel’s on-site distillery, Tarnished Truth. This, the first hotel distillery in the country, features several craft spirits, including bourbon, rye whiskey and even AVA Vodka. Guests can also take flight tastings, tours and cocktail lessons here.
For me, breakfast is always an important part of staying at the beach, and in Virginia Beach the clear winner is the locally famous May’s Parlor. Recently celebrating their two-year anniversary, this small cottage at the Oceanfront serves up incredible fresh-made pastries, along with cakes and pies and other light bites guaranteed to fuel your day. There’s a lot to love about eating your way around Virginia Beach and I think that, like me, you’ll leave both surprised and impressed.
Love is everywhere if you’re willing to look for it, but in Virginia that’s more true than you might realize. Most people know that the state has had the slogan “Virginia is for lovers” for 50 years but unless you’ve been to Virginia in the last couple of years, you may have missed these massive LOVE signs found in every corner of the state. The LOVEworks project encourages local communities to come up with their own unique take on the LOVE sign and so far there are more than 160 around the state. I love this for so many different reasons but especially because in a time of increasing negativity it’s a good reminder that most people everywhere are basically good hearted folks. Virginia Beach has several of these now iconic signs, which you can find via the official LOVEworks site. It’s a fun way to explore new regions and what you discover on the way to the signs is many times even more impactful than the works of art themselves.
As a Virginian, and someone who lived for quite a while in Williamsburg, I thought I had a strong grasp on the Commonwealth’s impressive history. But I was surprised to learn that Virginia Beach has a lot more to contribute to the story of the country than I originally thought, starting at First Landing State Park. The average American doesn’t realize that the first English settlers landed in Virginia and not Massachusetts and that original landing spot is here in Virginia Beach. First Landing State Park honors the 100 English settlers who landed there in 1607, before they headed further up the James River to Jamestown. It’s more than a simple commemoration though, it’s a massive 2,888-acre park that features miles of beachfront and more than 19 miles of trails through protected salt marsh habitat. It’s a beautiful area and appeals to just about any type of traveler no matter their interest. While you’re at the park, also be sure to visit another historic site, the Cape Henry Lighthouse. This was the first lighthouse commissioned in 1792 by the newly formed US Government and although there is now a newer one, albeit built in the 19th century, both are beautiful to behold. You can also climb to the top of the original lighthouse for incredible views of the region.
Visiting a beach community also involves spending time inside as well, and in Virginia Beach I couldn’t wait to visit the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. In recent years I’ve been somewhat wary of zoos and aquariums and I make sure that they conduct research and important work as part of their mission, which is most definitely the case at the Virginia Aquarium. The facility is expansive and offers a terrific look at a variety of global ecosystems as well as native Virginia flora and fauna. In addition to the indoor exhibits, there’s also an outdoor nature trail running alongside Owls Creek Salt Marsh. I love how they intertwine the nature around them with the displays and together it’s a fun and definitely educational experience.
I honestly enjoyed my time in Virginia Beach a lot more than I thought it would. The community has changed a lot in recent years and the influx of creative individuals has left its mark on the city and surrounding region. But they haven’t lost sight of what made them popular in the first place and it’s how the traditional and the innovative are fused that fascinated me so very much. There’s also a lot more to see and do than I had time for, but hopefully this brief list has piqued your interest in visiting Virginia Beach.