It’s natural for tours of Virginia Beach to focus on its three-mile boardwalk and generous beaches. But adding stops that blend the seaside and ecology could make for an even better trip.
A Seaside Start
A logical place to start is First Landing State Park, which preserves the spot where English colonists first landed in 1607. With a mile and a half of sandy beach along the Chesapeake Bay and 20 miles of trails through swamps and hardwood forests, it’s no wonder First Landing is Virginia’s most popular state park. On guided hikes, groups can learn about the native people, pirates and Civil War soldiers who once trod there, or hear about its native plants and varied wildlife and the swamp’s role in balancing the environment. Active groups can take a kayak tour arranged through a local outfitter.
The Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center is a deep dive into aquatic life. In its aquariums, sharks, crocodiles, and saltwater and freshwater fishes glide through 800,000 gallons of water. Thousands of animals represent 300 species, including the crowd favorites, harbor seals and river otters. “They like to show off,” says Jim Coggin, Tourism Sales Manager with Visit Virginia Beach.
Early this year, the aquarium’s South Building reopened after an expansion and renovation with more hands-on exhibits, including one where visitors can safely touch moon jellyfish.
The aquarium is also home base for dolphin and whale watching tours. Spring through fall, boats follow friendly schools of bottlenose dolphins. “We have the largest population of bottlenose dolphins on the East Coast,” said Coggin. In the winter, the search is on for whales. They aren’t quite as plentiful as dolphins, but when whales are spotted, it is a breathtaking moment, and often, the adults have their young alongside.
New and Nautical
The area’s newest environmental attraction, the Brock Environmental Center, was built about a decade ago on a peninsula next to the Lynnhaven River at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Striking in its design, the center demonstrates the value of alternative energy, water conservation, recycling and reuse. Built from pieces and parts of buildings being torn down in the area, it grabs more energy than it needs from the wind and sun and collects thousands of gallons of rainwater for its needs.
The center is also hard at work to rebuild the oyster population using mobile oyster restoration barges. Along its Oyster Path, visitors learn about the steps that are being taken to reestablish the oysters, which not only provide food but also help clean rivers and the bay and provide critical habitat for other creatures. Both Native Americans and African Americans have been involved in oystering, and themed talks about those topics and others can be arranged through center staff.
The center’s ambitious goal to add 10 billion oysters is inspiring; it might also whet some appetites, sending tours off to end their day at a seaside restaurant that specializes in oyster dinners.
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Tourism Sales Manager