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Fun in the sun

By Gwen Albers

Any kind of beach you need. It’s all here.

Virginia is for Lovers, especially for those who love beaches. One might say the same for North Carolina.

Virginia has 5,000 miles of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean and Chesapeake Bay, so there’s more than enough room to play.

The state offers more commercial destinations, like Virginia Beach, where vendors rent umbrellas, boogie boards, sling-back chairs, bikes and roller blades. Virginia Beach also offers many free, family-oriented events on weekends, including the Boardwalk Art Show & Festival and Sandstock: A Blast from the Past.

Though Virginia Beach may be the best known and most centrally located of America’s mid-Atlantic beaches, savvy travelers know that there are plenty of other options available to them when it comes time to head for the sand and surf.

In fact, there’s a beach for just about every taste in the Virginia/Carolina region.

Near Virginia Beach, but far quieter and more laid-back in its vacation approach is Sandbridge.

“We do recommend it as one our more secluded beaches,” said Tiffany King, media and communications coordinator for Virginia Beach Convention and Tourism Bureau. “It’s definitely family-oriented. There’s fishing, as well.”

Not far from Sandbridge lies the 8,000-acre Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. Five miles beyond the refuge is False Cape State Park, a remote oasis along the Atlantic Ocean.

Head north from Virginia Beach, across the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, and find yourself on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a different world that lies between the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay, where sister islands of Assateague and Chincoteague beckon to those looking to spend time on the beach.

Suzanne Taylor, executive director for Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, calls Chincoteague Island one of the most attractive areas on the East Coast.

“It’s family friendly, we have nice beaches, lots of wildlife, a combination of motel accommodations and restaurants, and things for families to do,” Taylor said. “We also have the peacefulness of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, the beach, bicycle trails, boating tours and a lot of things for people to do.”

When vacationers think of heading to the beach in North Carolina there’s a good chance that they’ll start out looking at the Outer Banks, including Cape Hatteras National Park.

“Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one the natural gems not only on the East Coast, but in America,” said Aaron Tuell, director of public relations for Outer Banks Visitors Bureau in Manteo. “It has 30,000 acres of recreational and protected undeveloped coast. It’s absolutely gorgeous. I think people are impressed and surprised such an area even exists.”

Hatteras is known for its four-wheel-drive-accessible beaches, for secluded stretches of sand and for some of the best fishing on the East Coast.

Now a little bit more about these beaches, moving down the coast from the north:

Chincoteague Island

AOL Travel named Chincoteague Island in Virginia America’s Best Beach Town for 2010. It is, perhaps, best known for the Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim, held the last Wednesday of July. During the pony swim, some 40,000 visitors watch from the shore.

Nearby is Assateague Island National Seashore, which features more than 37 miles of pristine beach and covers 48,000 acres in Maryland and Virginia. It’s known for its more than 300 wild ponies that wander the beaches, inland pine forest and salt marshes.

The vehicle entrance fee to Assateauge Island National Seashore from Virginia is $5 a day or $15 for a seven-day pass. It’s free if entering on foot or bicycle.

Sandbridge

Sandbridge is a quiet, family-oriented five-mile beach sometimes known as the Outer Banks of Virginia.

At its south end, Back Bay National Refuge is situated on and around a thin strip of coastline typical of barrier islands found along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Habitats include beach, dunes, woodland, farm fields and marsh. Approximately 10,000 snow geese and a large variety of ducks visit the refuge during the peak of fall migration, usually in December.

A tram ride or hike through Back Bay brings the visitor to False Cape State Park, which features primitive camping and an environmental education program in one of the last undisturbed coastal environments on the East Coast. For more information, call 1-800-822-3224 or email vabvc@vbgov.com.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina extends more than 70 miles from South Nags Head to Ocracoke Inlet. The first national seashore in the country, it includes both natural and historic attractions, such as climbable lighthouses and lifesaving stations.

Cape Hatteras lies close to the towns of Manteo, Roanoke Island, Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Hatteras and Ocracoke.

The best time of the year to visit depends on the individual, said Tuell. July is the busiest month.

“People are drawn to the beach,” he said. “The most popular time is from mid-May through September. If you like to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle, summer is a great time.”

After Labor Day, activity tapers off, and lodging prices drop.

“The water’s still relatively warm from the summer, and restaurants are open,” Tuell said. “The late summer and early fall is just a milder experience and a little less crowded, yet all the benefits of the seasonable businesses being open.”

Follow Route 12 south of Hatteras, hop aboard the free ferry and you’ll find yourself on Ocracoke Island, which promises tranquility and isolation, along with a variety of eclectic shops and restaurants and beaches accessible to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Topsail Island

North Carolina’s Topsail Island includes the towns of North Topsail Beach, Surf City and Topsail Beach.

“They each have their own little flavor,” said Suellen Brooks, interim executive director for Greater Topsail Area Chamber of Commerce. “North Topsail and Topsail are more residential — not that they don’t have commerce. Surf City is the pretty much the commercial hub.”

The 26-mile island lies off U.S. Highway 17, about midway between Wilmington and Jacksonville. Topsail Island features maritime forests and is a sanctuary for turtles. The topsail was supposedly the only part of the pirate ship that could be seen by passing victims as the pirates lay in wait in the channel between the island and the mainland.

There is a legend that Blackbeard hid treasure on Topsail Island, and folks still search for it today.

Brooks said the best time to visit is in the spring and fall.

“The prices are cheaper, and the beaches are still quite warm,” she explained.

Dot Cotman, coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce, says living in Topsail is like being in paradise.

“It’s a very family-oriented beach and has been ever since the beginning,” Cotman said. “We hope it always stays this way. The beaches are beautiful, and we are very proud of that.”

For more information, call the Chamber at 800-626-2780 or visit
www.topsailcoc.com.

Family Kingdom Water Park in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has wet and wild water flumes, (over 100’ drop), exhilarating speed slides, intermediate speed slides and a spacious 425’ long lazy river with waterfalls.

Myrtle Beach

Myrtle Beach gets 15 million visitors a year. It offers the quintessential mid-Atlantic beach vacation experience.

“It is the number one destination for families on the East Coast,” said Kimberly Miles, public relations manager for Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We encompass 60 miles of uninterrupted beach.”

Myrtle Beach features eight live entertainment theaters, along with history, culture, and South Carolina cuisine, she added.

“It has a little bit of something for everyone,” Miles said.

Myrtle Beach has 102 golf courses, where more 3.1 million games are played annually, nearly 50 miniature golf courses, and more than 1,700 full-service restaurants and 425 hotels with accommodations for 89,000.

Call Myrtle Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at 800-537-1690.