Been working hard lately? Spending too little time with your family? Relying on fast food too much this week? Too tired to enjoy the simple pleasures of life?
You need a break. It’s called a vacation—in case you’ve forgotten. Your kids need one, too. Vacations help everyone experience the moment more fully. Plus they bring families closer together. When was your last vacation? If it’s been more than a year, drop everything and start planning your family’s next getaway. If you don’t start planning now, before you know it, another year will whoosh by.
You don’t have to go far. Here in Virginia, you’ll find plenty of vacation destinations with lots of opportunities for new experiences. No plane ticket required. Just a tank of gas and you’re ready to go. Here are some of my favorite Virginia vacation destinations.
Virginia’s Eastern Shore
Someone once said when you’re on the Shore, you’re twenty dollars and twenty years away from Virginia Beach. That’s about right. But what a lot of people don’t know is that Virginia’s Eastern Shore is a vacation paradise, especially for families looking for a peaceful getaway. The best part? It’s only a quick trip across the tunnel.
From Kiptopeke to Chincoteague, there’s plenty to do. You can camp in one of the Shore’s relaxing campgrounds or stay in a lodge or cabin. No matter where you stay, boating and fishing opportunities abound, so don’t forget your fishing poles.And after you and your kids have enjoyed a fish dinner, get out the ingredients for s’mores and enjoy the gooey, chocolate-y goodness around your campfire.
Older kids will enjoy kayaking on the bays and inlets of the Eastern Shore. Or try the newest sport: stand-up paddle boarding. For a more relaxing experience, consider a boat tour of Chincoteague Island. You’ll likely see wild ponies grazing on the shore, as well as bald eagles, egrets, great blue herons, and shorebirds. Don’t miss the beautiful beaches at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge—perfect for shelling and building sand castles. www.esvatourism.org
This vacation destination is close enough to be a day trip, but why not experience it like a tourist, stay at one of Williamsburg’s fine hotels, and make it a real vacation? Plan your visit to coincide with the cozy Saturday Farmer’s Market in Merchant Square, where you can buy fresh produce, flowers, and local crafts.
Make sure you stop in at the Visitor’s Center to buy your one-day pass. Through May 31, if you pay for a day, you get the rest of the year free—an amazing deal! We love the way Williamsburg gives kids up-close encounters with history. For example, on the Palace Green costumed interpreters lead children’s games, including an early from of baseball. You can also tour the Governor’s Palace and gardens. My kids love the hedge maze behind the palace. I remember getting lost in this maze when I visited Williamsburg as a child. Guess what? I still get lost in it!
Of course, when you’re Williamsburg, plan a day or two at Busch Gardens and Water Country USA. It will be the best vacation ever. www.colonialwilliamsburg.com
For more history, our capital city is a perfect vacation destination. There’s the Tredegar Ironworks, which manufactured Confederate cannons during the Civil War; the John Marshall House; the Valentine Richmond History Center; the capitol; and the governor’s mansion. If you’re a fan of the macabre, don’t miss the Edgar Allan Poe Museum for an intimate look at one of Virginia’s literary greats.
But there’s much more than history waiting in Richmond. My kids love exploring Maymont Mansion, a verdant oasis in the heart of Richmond with lush gardens and perfect picnic spots. Another great place for families is the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens. In addition to themed gardens, there’s a children’s area with a cool fountain. You can also climb up into a tree house nearby for a terrific view of the surrounding gardens.
Museums abound in Richmond—from the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, where kids can learn about art from ancient civilizations to modern times. My youngest son loves the “Egg Room,” where the delicate Fabergé eggs enthrall young and old with their tiny details and exquisite jewels. Don’t miss the Science Museum of Virginia with exhibits about nature, the human body, and outer space, as well as the Children’s Museum, where kids of all ages can play, imagine, and create. www.visitrichmondva.com
If you need a mountain fix, Wintergreen Resort is a great vacation destination and only 3 ½ hours away. As you wind up the mountain to the resort at the top, you and your family will leave the pressures of daily life down at sea level. Amazing views and much more await at the summit.
You can rent a condo or a vacation home and plan an active or relaxing visit—you decide. The kids will love Wintergreen’s outdoor activities, like hiking, zip lining, summer tubing, and boating and swimming in Lake Monocan. There’s also a bungee trampoline and climbing wall.
Wintergreen Nature Foundation also offers educational programs tailored to kids, so your little naturalist can learn about the flora and fauna of the Blue Ridge Mountains. If you have a budding golfer in the family, Wintergreen offers several family golf programs, including Try 3, which includes 30 minutes of instruction from a golf pro, equipment, and three holes of play. www.wintergreenresort.com
Primland Resort, located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, welcomes families for even more outdoor adventures. You can choose to stay in the main lodge, which looks like a Swiss chalet, or rent a luxurious mountain home. They even have treehouse lodgings available! Activities at Primland are as varied as the mountain terrain and include geocaching, horseback riding, and fly fishing. You can also take an exciting ATV tour and try your hand on the clay shooting course. The guides offer excellent instruction even if you’ve never tried any of these activities before.
My favorite activity at Primland is the Tour of the Universe. The resort has an observatory dome with a Celestron CGE Pro 1400 telescope that can see into deep space. The resort’s director of astronomy offers evening programs—perfect for families—which combine education with the excitement of peering at constellations and planets in real time. The resort’s remote location makes viewing the night sky a new experience since there is practically no light pollution emanating from the surrounding 12,000 acres. Fabulous restaurants, golf, and a state-of-the-art spa ensure that everyone in the family will love this Blue Ridge Mountain destination. www.primland.com
Salamander Resort and Spa
This luxury resort in Northern Virginia welcomes families year round, but especially in summer when the outdoor pool becomes a favorite gathering spot. The resort also offers geocaching, bike riding, and bird watching, as well as croquet and cornhole. Camp Salamander for ages 4 -10 is the perfect place for kids to have fun while Moms and Dads enjoy a massage or facial at the Salamander Spa. In the nearby town of Middleburg, you and your kids can experience what it’s like to live in a small town, where everything is in walking distance.
If any of your young ones are equestrian enthusiasts, Salamander Resort offers programs that will bring smiles of joy to your horse-crazy boy or girl. From pony rides to trail rides, even the youngest family members can experience the excitement of riding on a horse. You can also sign up for a private lesson or a horse clinic. Horses 101 for ages 5 and up is a great introduction to this noble animal and includes instruction in grooming and safety and culminates with a gentle bareback ride. The Middleburg region also offers horse shows from spring until fall, so there’s plenty to keep your young equestrians busy. www.salamanderesort.com
Shangrila Guest Ranch
You don’t have to go all the way across country to the Wild West to experience a dude ranch. Just 3 ½ hours west of Tidewater, Shangrila Guest Ranch welcomes families who want to enjoy a horse-y vacation. Accommodations range from an historic home with three bedrooms—perfect for families; a cozy cabin with a loft; and the packhouse, comfortable lodgings with a nice deck, where you can watch the sunset.
Gary and Julie Holmes, who own Shangrila, are all about making sure you and your family have a great experience. You can ride as much or as little as you want. The rates are all inclusive, so it’s up to you. Most guests enjoy a trail ride in the morning and in the afternoon, but more experienced riders might want to go on a longer ride. The family’s property seems endless and contains 100 miles of trails that wind through woods, across pastures, and over babbling brooks. At night you can sit by a campfire and sing cowboy songs before hitting the hay and dreaming about more horseback riding when you wake up. The ranch is rustic, relaxing, and perfect for anyone who enjoys viewing the world from the back of a horse. www.shangrilaguestranch.com
Virginia State Parks
Still haven’t made up your mind where to go on vacation? Here’s one more idea that should do the trick. Check out Virginia’s amazing network of state parks that extend from right here in Tidewater to Virginia’s distant corners. One of my favorites is Claytor Lake State Park, not far from Radford, where you can combine swimming and boating in the lake with hiking adventures on beautiful mountain trails. Besides campgrounds, most state parks offer cabins and lodges at very affordable rates.
Another favorite is James River State Park, which has three miles of shoreline along the James River. You can hike, bike, canoe, kayak, fish, and float on the lazy river at this lush state park. Well-equipped cabins offer comfortable lodgings. And all you need to bring is groceries!
Of course, camping with kids can be tons of fun, and there’s something about lying in a tent with the sound of the rustling leaves or a distant owl hooting that makes the world seem like a better place. Taking your kids camping also helps them develop an appreciation for nature and encourages them to become stewards of the environment. Plus it’s healthy! Spending time outdoors while enjoying activities, fresh air, and sunshine with your family—it doesn’t get any better than this. www.dcr.virginia.gov/state-parks
Don’t wait. Pick a place to vacation in Virginia today and discover what a wondrous state we live in. www.virginia.org.