My thirteen year old daughter is out of school already and as I had business to attend to in Norfolk on Tuesday, I decided to take advantage of a cheap rate at the Hilton at Virginia Beach and take her for a day at the beach. As some of you know, I grew up in Richmond, Va which is two hours (give or take with traffic and depending on how fast you drive) by car from Virginia Beach so my family vacationed there almost every summer while I was growing up. I also, on warmer days would skip school and spend the day at the beach upon occasion. (As Ferris Bueler says, “Life is short.”) And I actually spent an entire summer cocktail waitressing at Peabody’s following my freshman year at Boston University so I feel like I know the place fairly well.
There are two faces of Virginia Beach for tourists. One is the south end of the beach from 1st street at the southern most end up to about 58th Street (The Oceans condos) which is a strip of trucked -in sand delineated by a Boardwalk and lined with condos and hotels. It is commercial, sterile (there are no crabs or beach grass), abundant with tourist trap shops, tacky amusements and generally mediocre (at best) over-priced restaurants. It is loud at night and teaming with people. You can go out on the beach at night and sometimes see the moon.
The North end of the Beach the stretch from about 63rd Street to 89th Street (which butts into Fort Story) is crowded with mostly charming houses for rent and a few actual residents. The beach is wider on the North End and the sand is perhaps native to the area (it is at least the same as the sand I used to play in as a child when visiting Va Beach- lighter in color and less fine than the sticky sand of the South end). Rolling dunes with scattered clumps of beach grass separates the houses from the actual shoreline giving beachfront renters the opportunity to enjoy the sights, sounds and relief of the ocean and its breezes while affording lots of space along the shore. It is quiet, tranquil and crabs and sea birds are abundant. You can go out on the beach at night and see the stars, chase sand crabs and even swim.
In between is the Cavalier, a complex with two hotels. There is the new Cavalier, a beach front high rise with a Orion’s restaurant on top and the crown jewel of the beach, The Old Cavalier, a gem from the 1920’s set off from the beach across Atlantic Avenue on manicured emerald lawn (that features a groomed croquet court) and the classiest place within a hundred miles.
The two ends of VA Beach offer totally different beach experiences. One peaceful and more tranquil. One more Vegas-like. They are both fine depending on your needs and tastes.
I prefer the North end but the Cavalier (I like to stay in the romantic Old version) is under renovation and rooms were unavailable, so I opted for the Hilton on 31st having stayed there before and enjoyed the comfort of am elegant room on the 18th floor. Plus they had a good deal and the beds are super comfy with high count cotton sheets which is really important to me.
In short here is what I didn’t like about the experience:
1. I got a room upgrade because there was only one bed and I dislike sleeping in the same bed with my daughter who squirms a great deal in her sleep. The upgraded room was on the North side of the building closest to the beach without being beach front. The smell of cleaning solution was oppressive even after having the balcony door open for 30 minutes. I asked to be moved and waited for another 30 minutes. A nice bellman was sent and we were relocated. The second room also smelled but not as strongly. It was on the North side of the building but on a lower level and closest to the street rather than the ocean. At 5pm the noise was too much so I asked to be moved again. The desk clerk was civil but not overly polite or helpful but we did manage to get another room situated similarly to the first room. It also smelled of cleaning fluid but not as much and at this point I was too tired to pursue another relocation.
2. There was a significant amount of sand ( about a quarter cup ) swept into a corner of the bathroom which made me uneasy regarding the cleanliness of the rest of the room.
3. The cleaning fluid smell was too strong to stay in the room with the balcony door shut but the noise from the crowd at the hotel’s popular restaurant, Catch 31 (overpriced and mediocre in my opinion but does have a nice outdoor area for people watching) kept us awaked until closing time at 2am.
4. The rooftop pool was closed in the early evening due to a private reception- rather inconvenient for us since we were there for one night and the beach was now too chilly.
5. We spent a lot of time looking for a restaurant with passable food at an affordable price- something local with health conscious organic offerings.
6. We were accosted by a sales rep for the sister property- I detest this sort of thing on a vacation.
What I liked:
1. The bed was comfortable and the sheets really were cotton. Once asleep, I slept well.
2. There is a public bathhouse nearby for staying on the beach after check-out.
3. We rented bikes (the weather was a perfect 75 degrees with a light breeze and sunny) and had a delightful ride up to 72nd Street and down to the 13th Street Pier.
4. A mid-day visit to the Aquarium was relaxing and educational. I petted a ray- cool, smooth and squishy.
5. We stopped by the Pacific Ave location of Taste Unlimited for sandwiches (they now serve a good quality gluten free bread) and other goodies for a North End beach picnic. Their food is fresh, tasty and gourmet enough to please us. We parked somewhere in the upper 60’s and traversed to the beach with blanket and Nicole Miller umbrella in tow to enjoy good food and afternoon beach time. A few scattered people shared the beach with us and the fiddler crabs.
6. We stopped by the Taste Unlimited and farm stand on the way out Shore Drive towards 64 to get farm fresh veggies and some of their signature chicken salad for dinner and coconut chocolate squares for dessert.
I probably would not pay to stay at the Hilton at VA Beach again as I prefer a more serene holiday and less commercial, cleaner, friendlier environs. But I must send big kudos out to Tyler the ever patient, sweet bellman for hauling our stuff around so pleasantly during our room rotations.
Note: the one hotel on the North End is the Wyndom. Long ago it was a different hotel with a restaurant called The Happy Clam. I saw Bruce Hornsby play there before he made it big.