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Virginia Beach Makes a Great Family Vacation Break

My husband once suggested an unusual travel plan for March break. All five of us should get into the car at 7 a.m. on the first day of holiday, drive until it gets warm enough to shed our boots and coats and stay there for as long as it takes to shake off winter.

After navigating a raging snowstorm in New York State, fog and flurries in Pennsulvania, traffic gridlock in Washington, we finally reached the state of Virginia. There, the crocuses were already peeking through green grass, the forsythia was in full bloom and we were able to walk around without winter clothes. What a treat! After pushing onward toward the coast, we arrived at a setting of sea gulls and a wide strip of sand reminding us of summer. We had landed in Virginia Beach.

Yes, the resort town can be seen as somewhat tacky. The strip features souvenir shops on every corner stuffed with shell creations and tea towels; our local convenience store featured such bizarre magazines as one devoted to Wild Turkeys; the main street seemed to attract bunches of "Good Ole Boys" racing the strip in pick-up trucks. But for families, the town and surrounding area is a treasure trove of kid-friendly hotels at reasonable prices, family attractions and of course, activities centred around the 28-mile ocean beach.

We discovered that families could easily spend three or four days in the area and still not see everything. Nearby Williamsburg (about 50 miles away) has the Busch Gardens theme park (open March 28 this year) and Water Country USA (open in May), the famous Colonial Willamsburg settlement and the nearby NASA Langley Visitor Center and the Virginia Air and Space Museum. Virginia Beach offers a small but excellent Marine Science Museum, tacky fun houses such as Mirror Maze and Nightmare Mansion and the 28 mile strip of beach, roller blading paths and boardwalk. No wonder the territory that stretches from Williamsburg through Hampton en route to Virginia Beach has been dubbed the "Kid's Corner of Virginia." For our family, here were the highlights:

Colonial Williamsburg: This living history museum with 500 buildings recreates life in the 1770 capital, a period that was completely new to our kids. The complex can be overwhelming and, like a trip to Walt Disney World, it's better to plot out the visit ahead of time. Decide on how much time you want to spend and how much you want to see-there are different price packages depending. Cars are not allowed on historic site streets so you must catch a shuttle bus from the visitor centre. Pick up a copy of the weeely newsletter outlining specific events such as Women's History Month during March. At any time, kids can participate in such activities as hoop rolling on the lawn of the Governor's Mansion, acting as witnesses in 18th-Century court cases or watching colonial-style dressed kids engrossed in their daily activities-fetching water and firewood, music lessons or helping their silversmith father in the shop. The most fun, however, is in jesting with the costumed characters that stroll the site. Our boys had a great time outside the tavern, swilling pretend beer and egging on the tavern keeper.

Norfolk Naval Base: At nearby Norfolk, we took a bus tour of the world's largest naval base (they won't let you walk around unescorted).It was amazing to see the grey behemoth destroyers and submarines displayed all in a row like pastries in a bake shop and the marines going about their daily chores attending to lethal sea power. This base is home to 100 ships of the Second Fleet, a site that attracts tourists from around the world.

The Virginia Marine Science Museum: This small sea world science centre focusses on regional marine and wetland wildlife. The 80,000 gallon Chesapeake Bay aquarium holds sand tiger sharks, sea rays, sea turtles and harbor seals. Kids will also enjoy the new river otter exhibit. They can touch sea critters such as horseshoe crabs, watch an IMAX Movie or experiment with many hands-on exhibits. My gang particularly liked the one where you create a hurricane.

Plantation Houses: I didn't think that the fusty old homes along the north shore of the James River would be of much interest to the kids, but we did visit one, Berkeley House, and they didn't want to leave. A film in the basement lined with cases of bullets and cannon balls told of battles on the lawns. We learned that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated at the spot when a ship of settlers pulled up onto shore. Kids played with the cutout figures on the lawns near the replica of the ship. Also in the garden was a kind of maze and a pet cemetery.

If we had visited later in the season, we could have dolphin- or whale watched, swum along the shore and attended a concert at the new amphitheater in Virginia Beach set among the trees. Some of us could also have ridden the "Alpengeist," the world's fastest, tallest, most twisted inverted roller coaster in the world at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, home to more than 35 rides. This summer, the park introduces "Pirates," a swashbuckling adventure with buccaneer captain Leslie Nielson.

Accommodation: We really liked the Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort, with their lovely pools, two-room suites and kitchenette right on the ocean, but there are dozens of hotel choices. For information or to book a Family Fun Vacation Package that includes three nights lodging for a family of four (two kids under 12), unlimited general admission within five days to Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Water Country USA, the Virginia Air & Space Museum, Nauticus and the Virginia Marine Science Museum, call 1-800-828-7477. Prices start at $799 U.S. per family. A Revolutionary Fun package which includes tickets to Colonial Williamsburg and the old-fashioned ships of Jamestown Settlement starts at $629 U.S. Or, you could do as we did, hop in the car and set off for the beach with the highlight of shedding clothes along the way.





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