Mini golf, salt-water taffy and lazing on beach towels are all well and good (ok, they're pretty great), but for the nature lover Virginia Beach offers so much more. Explore maritime forests of knotty, windblown sea pine, hike trails that run alongside waist-high swamp grass, watch playful dolphins frolic in the surf, or kayak down tranquil tributaries. Whether you stay in the city limits or venture slightly further afield, there's plenty of outdoor adventure to be had. Here are a few suggestions for those of you who prefer bird-watching to sunbathing.
Work those biceps with a half- or full-day kayak trip through Tidewater Adventures. Tidewater's experienced guides will lead you through the calm, blue waters of the Chesapeake Bay, around the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, or can take you further afield, down the inky Blackwater River (1.5hrs from Virginia Beach), along the spooky, cypress-dotted tributaries of the Great Dismal Swamp (1hr from Virginia Beach). For more experienced paddlers, rental kayaks are on offer as well. If you're lucky, you might spot anything from an endangered bald eagle to a surfacing North Atlantic humpback whale from the comfort of your kayak. Bring a waterproof camera!
Dolphin and whale-watching tours
Get soaked with a salt-splashed kayak trip to catch dolphins in their natural habitat with Tidewater Adventures or take a slightly more sedate journey on one of Rudee Tours' double-decker boats. Either way, catching sight of playful bottlenose dolphins leaping through the waves will soften even the most jaded heart. Tours are seasonal – humpback whales show up in the winter, while bottlenose dolphins are more likely to frolic during the warmer months. If you opt for a dolphin kayaking adventure, plan on getting wet. Really wet.
Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
Maybe it's raining. Maybe you're so sore from outdoor activities you can't bear the idea of more. Maybe you just feel like watching some otters goof around in an artful reproduction of a river habitat. Whatever the reason, the Virginia Aquarium (www.virginiaaquarium.com) is an excellent place to spend an afternoon. Walk through the tropical fish tank tunnel, gawk at the tubby harbour seals playing in their outdoor tank, or stroll the nature path to the Marsh Pavilion and hang out with the pelicans and Great Blue Herons in the aviary. Book ahead for dolphin-watching trips or behind-the-scenes peeks at the sea turtles.
First Landing State Park, Virginia's most-visited state park (and for good reason – it's stunning!), has some 20 miles of hiking trails through the pine forest on the edge of the Chesapeake Bay. Keep your eyes peeled for osprey, Great Egrets and Southeastern Five-lined Skinks, among other local wildlife. On a thin ribbon of barrier islands, the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge has more than 9,200 acres of sandy dunes, marshland, open fields and shady woodland. Two hiking trails span the sandy shores, perfect for spying migrating birds like Canada Geese, Tundra Swans and warblers. Just watch out for snakes – as well as harmless reptiles, Back Bay is also home to poisonous Cottonmouths!
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge is an important stop for migrating birds. Some 10,000 snow geese and a huge variety of ducks take a rest stop at Back Bay during their fall migration – December's the best time to spot them. If you're exceedingly lucky, you might also spy endangered species like peregrine falcons, piping plovers and bald eagles. The Seashore to Cypress Birding Trail, a loop linking Back Bay, False Cape State Park, the Princess Ann Wildlife Management Area and other primo birding spots, is on many bird-lovers bucket lists. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a stunning 20-mile-long feat of architecture connecting mainland Virginia with the Delmarva Peninsula, attracts a vast variety of species to roost on its concrete guardrails and rocky islands. Species to spot here include King Eider, Little Gull, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, and Black-Tailed Gulls.
This article was originally published in September 2012. This article was updated in October 2012.