The snake was motionless, curled around the branch of a bayberry bush on the bank of an inlet to Back Bay. Chuck Conley, kayak guide and naturalist, approached it quietly, his paddle dipping gently into the brown water.
"It's not poisonous," he told us, "but it's got a mouthful of sharp needle-teeth. If one bit you, it'd be a bad day."
Of all the exotic creatures you would expect to see catching rays on a summer's day in Virginia Beach, a native brown water snake is probably not among them. Virginia Beach is, after all, known for its resort area stacked with one name-brand hotel after another, for its swath of silky sand that becomes a fury of colorful towels and beach toys under a beating sun, for its three-mile boardwalk, redolent of coconut oil and fried dough, for its rocking summer concert stage, water parks and nightlife. The 310-square-mile city of Virginia Beach, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, is the most populous (440,000) city in Virginia, and close to almost 3 million annual visitors share in all the fun.
But there's another, unexpected Virginia Beach: one where you can check into a 1930s-era wood-frame cabin in the forest, complete with a screen porch and a fireplace (but no TV or wireless); ride your bike on a trail through the woods to a secluded beach, stopping to watch a great egret flap out of a marsh along the way; or paddle a kayak with a guide or on your own along the shore or out to the bay.
Virginia Beach is bordered by two state parks. First Landing is the largest and most-visited in the state. The other, False Cape, is less known, hardly visited and only accessible by foot, paddle or a state vehicle. There's a wildlife refuge in between, for a total of 18,600 pristine and protected acres and 121 miles of waterways, navigable by kayak, canoe and the occasional powerboat.
Last year, the city was designated the first Green Destination by the State Department of Environmental Quality (see virginia.org/green), and many businesses bear a "Virginia Green" symbol. Restaurant menus around town have icons to identify sustainable seafood and "SOL" (sustainable, organic, local) foods.
Sold? Here are your options: frugal, green and a combination:
Frugal travelers appreciate accommodations that can save them the trouble and expense of eating out for every meal. Here's a selection of inexpensive motels and efficiencies (most are $75-$125 per night), close to the beach, complete with kitchenettes. Maybe not the Ritz, but after all, you're supposed to be out enjoying the sun, sand and surf!
* Beach Carousel Motel, : 1300 Pacific Ave., 757-425-1700; beachcarousel.com
* Blue Marlin Motel,: 2411 Pacific Ave., 757-428-6643; va-beach.com/blue-marlin
* Cerca del Mar, : 410 21st St., 757-428-6511; cercadelmar.net
* Royal Clipper Inn & Suites, : 3508 Atlantic Ave., 757-428-8992; royalclipper.com
* Sea Gull Motel, : 2613 Atlantic Ave., 757-425-5711; seagullmotel.com
* Seahawk Resort Motel, : 2525 Atlantic Ave., 757-428-1296; vabeachvacations.com/seahawk
* Springhill Suites, : 901 Atlantic Ave., 757-417-3982; marriott.com. Springhill Suites, recently opened on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, is designated Virginia Green. Eco-friendly lighting, recycling programs, and other modifications bring the 168-suite hotel in line with the program. The hotel faces the ocean, and has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, and a poolside cafe and tiki bar, plus room service and complementary full breakfast each morning. All rooms have microwaves and refrigerators, and there's on-site parking. Guest suites are decorated in bright, sunny colors, reminiscent of striped beach umbrellas, and all have private terraces overlooking the Atlantic. Rates are $279-$349 per night.
* Croc's 19th Street Bistro, : 620 19th St., 757-428-5444; crocs19thstreetbistro.com A Virginia-certified green restaurant, with an emphasis on local, organic and sustainable ingredients. Try the $15 wine club on the last Wednesday of each month. Entrees: $20-$27; sandwiches, salads, mezze: $5-$13.
* Doc Taylor's, : 207 23rd St., 757-425-1960. Located in a former home doctor's office, this breakfast and lunch place serves up hearty breakfasts and lunches, such as the Heart Attack with eggs and plenty of nitrate-laced meat, and the Nurse Ratched, an omelet with peppers, spinach and hollandaise. Next door, Tautog's takes over for dinner when Doc's closes. Entrees: $5-$15.
* Jewish Mother: , 3108 Pacific Ave.; 757-422-5430; jewishmother.com. The Jewish Mother deli with its New York style fare, rocks each night with live music. Entrees: $8.99-$17.99
* Farmers Market, : 3640 Dam Neck Road, 757-385-4395. The Virginia Beach Farmers Market has been offering fresh, local produce, dairy, meat and other foodstuffs for 25 years. The market also features plants and flowers, jams and jellies, gifts and a restaurant.
Parks and wildlife