A Southeastern Virginia Road Trip
Southeastern Virginia is where you will find Virginia’s most-popular beaches. I know it sounds ridiculous, but relaxing on the beach makes me antsy. I have major FOMO and the thought of using up vacation days lying on a beach stresses me out. So if you are like me and you want to take a walk on the beach, jump in the ocean, and then see what else is around, this beach-focused road trip itinerary is for you. I pulled together this itinerary from several visits to this region and with input from a friend who is a native to the area. This suggested road trip itinerary includes Virginia's largest botanical gardens, a shipwreck wildlife sanctuary, a sinking island, and wild horse studded beaches. It's a five day trip but you could definitely spend more time in Virginia Beach or Chincoteague to make it a full week or more. Note since this is a beach trip, it should be done sometime between June and September.
Day 1 - Norfolk Botanical Gardens
Norfolk is home to an international airport and is about one and a half hours southeast of Richmond, Virginia - so it would be a great first stop for many Southeastern Virginia roadtrippers. In my opinion, the main attraction in Norfolk is the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. I have a keen interest in all horticultural things, and I have visited many botanical gardens over the years. You may even say I am a botanical garden connoisseur, and Norfolk Botanical Gardens sticks out as the largest and most kid-friendly I've ever visited. I visited Norfolk Botanical Gardens in August with four kids age 3 months - 4 years old. During this time we were greeted by about 500 giant pink Crape Myrtles which was absolutely stunning.
Since we were outnumbered by toddlers on this trip, we spent a lot of time enjoying the 3 splash pads in their children's garden.
We rounded out our visit with a trip to the butterfly house.
Splashing about + chasing butterflies makes for some happy and tired out toddlers. And happy, tired out toddlers + pretty flowers is a win-win for this mommy. We really just scratched the surface during our visit to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens. In fact, my friend from Virginia Beach who visits at least monthly says she has still not been to all the gardens. So do yourself a favor and devote a full day to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.
After you are gardened out, make your way to First Landing State Park and set up camp for the evening. First Landing's campsites are tucked into the woods, yet still just a short walk to the beach. It can feel like you are far from civilization, but actually there are plenty of restaurants within a five minute drive of First Landing. This is a huge plus if you are like me and enjoy nature but also can't be bothered to do any campfire cooking. If you want to grab a bite on your way to the park, Taste is the place to stop. They have a huge selection of healthy options plus some great ice cream to balance things out. Taste is also fast-casual which is a bonus with toddlers - no waiting around for a server while your toddler has a meltdown.
Day 2 - Virginia Beach
While at Virginia Beach you should of course enjoy the beach. Here are three options:
My favorite is First Landing's beach because it is much more peaceful and less crowded than other Virginia Beach beaches I have visited.
First Landing also has some easy trails that will allow you to view some magical Bald Cypress swamps.
There are longer trails to lakes for the more ambitious.
If you want to visit this beach, stop at The Bee and the Biscuit for breakfast on your way down. Everything on their menu is to die for, but there is usually a 45 minute wait. They have a nice shaded area outside where you can wait until your name is called. Sage Kitchen is a great place for a lunch or dinner near Little Island Park with lots of healthy options including toddler approved green juices.
More in the center of the tourist scene is Grommet Island Park. This beach also boasts a nice playground and bathrooms that are close by, but Grommet Island's claim to fame is that is was America's first handicap accessible beach park. So this also makes it pretty stroller friendly.
The Virginia Aquarium is near Grommet Island which could be another plus if an afternoon thunderstorm is in the forecast.
If you are here on a Sunday and have someone that will play with the kids on the beach - take a brunch break at Croc's 19th Street Bistro. They have one of the best drag brunches I have ever been to. I can't stress enough the part about leaving the kids at the beach.
Obviously you should not attempt to do all of the above in one day. Choose one of the three beaches to enjoy or spend three days in Virginia beach and enjoy all three.
Day 3 - Kiptopeke State Park
Pack up your campsite and head to Citrus Cafe on W. Great Neck Road for breakfast. From there, cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel to get to the Delmarva Peninsula. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel is a 23 mile long bridge-tunnel that dips in and out of the water. Crossing it is an interesting experience, but traffic can be very heavy so I recommend checking the traffic before you leave.
Without traffic, it’s only a 30 minute drive to Kiptopeke State Park, where you should spend a few hours on the beach. The Kiptopeke Breakwater. consists of several World War II ships that were intentionally sunk to protect the nearby ferry during strong storms. Since the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel opened in the 60's there is no longer a need for a ferry to connect the peninsula to Virginia's mainland, so now the concrete ship ruins serve as a refuge for wildlife and a really cool backdrop to the beach.
You should leave Kiptopeke by at least 3:30 PM so you can catch the 5:00 PM ferry from Onancock to Tangier Island. If you leave earlier and have some time to kill, I recommend a stop to the Cape Charles Coffee House which has the grandest interior. Cape Charles is a cute little town for wandering aimlessly too.
Once you get to the Onancock Wharf you will leave your car and board a ferry for a one-hour boat ride to Tangier Island. I recommend making reservations ahead of time to make sure you have a spot on the ferry. I also recommend reserving a room at the Bay View Inn, so they will know to pick you up from the ferry.
Tangier Island is an anthropological gem that is slowly sinking into the Chesapeake Bay. Natives of Tangier Island have a distinct language which I can best describe as a mix of Elizabethan English and Redneck. Tangier is also unique in that there are no cars on the island - everyone navigates the 1.2 square miles by golf cart, bike, or foot. Tangier's unique language and culture is largely a result of its isolation in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. The Bay's crabs and oysters have supported the livelihood of the Tangier watermen for generations, but now the bay is swallowing up Tangier due to a combination of sea level rise and sinking land. It is expected that without serious mitigation projects, the Island will need to be abandoned within 50 years. So I recommend you visit this gem before it is gone.
There are only a handful of restaurants on Tangier and most are near where the ferry dropped you off. I recommend eating dinner at the one with the most locals. This is of course a good indicator of quality, but more importantly it will give you a chance to eavesdrop and appreciate Tangier exclamations and euphemisms. Note that Tangier is a dry island so you won't be able to buy any alcohol with your meal.
Day 4 - Tangier Island
The Bay View Inn has a really extensive and delicious breakfast included with their cottage rental, so make sure you don't pass that up. I recommend taking the 3:30 PM ferry back to Onancock which gives you plenty of time to explore Tangier - remember it's only 1.2 square miles and shrinking everyday. You can rent bikes or a golf cart from Four Brother's Crab House to aid in your exploration.
The Tangier History Museum is definitely worth a visit so you can learn more about the history and culture. It's also interesting to ride by Tangier's one school which teaches all kids on the Island. When we were there, we were told that the whole school only had about 50 students and that some grades only had one student. It's really interesting to see the kids interact together. We often saw large groups of kids age 6 - teenager all having a good time together. The beach is a lovely place to stop and take a stroll, but I found it to be teeming with sand flies which will attack as soon as you stop moving.
After your ferry-ride back to Onancock, it's a 45 minute drive to Chincoteague Island. If you have a large group, I recommend staying at The Moorings North. The elevator in this house was the highlight of the trip for my 4 and 6 year old nieces. I loved that the house came with tons of beach gear, board games, and bikes. There was also crabbing equipment set up on the waterfront so you could catch your own dinner.
The sunsets from this house overlooking the bay are truly stunning, so there is no better way to finish this day than with a cold beverage on the porch.
Day 5 - Chincoteague Island
I recommend packing a picnic and a bunch of beach toys so you can spend the whole day at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. There are three beaches, several trails, a charming lighthouse, and an educational center to explore here. My favorite part was SUP boarding in Tom's Cove with its peaceful water and no one else to be seen.
My nieces loved boogie boarding on the beach side.
For dinner, you can pick up some fresh crabs or hit up Woody's Beach BBQ for dinner with a side of yard games.
If you are in Chincoteague in late July, you can watch the Annual Pony Swim. This is where the wild ponies in this area are herded from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island. Just know that the herding of the ponies brings herds of people and lots of mosquitoes. My last visit was in September which was quite peaceful and bug-free. We could still see wild ponies from afar in the wildlife refuge as well.
Notes on Expanding this Roadtrip North
If you are headed north, Williamsburg and Richmond are on your way and are worth visiting.
My pick for a short visit to Williamsburg would be the Jamestown Settlement. If you would like to stay longer in Williamsburg with kids, you can balance out the historical sites with a trip to Water Country USA or Busch Gardens.
Richmond's Canal Walk features some really cool murals and ends up at Belle Isle where you can cool off in the summer.
For families with toddlers, the Richmond Children's Museum can be made into an all day adventure. It's huge and includes a splash pad outside.
There are also several restaurants just across the street so you can take a legitimate lunch break and then go back for more fun. The Science Museum of Virginia is next door and would suit older kids better.