Summer travel: The real value of a family vacation might not be in the here and now

During their vacation Virginia Beach, Va., the Shelby family — Luke, left, Ace, Gabrielle, Leo and Graham — went kayaking in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
During their vacation Virginia Beach, Va., the Shelby family — Luke, left, Ace, Gabrielle, Leo and Graham — went kayaking in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.

First, let's be honest: Family vacations are not relaxing. To pretend otherwise is a form of parental self-delusion, at least when you're the parents of 9-year-old triplet boys.

Now, I love these guys and their mother more than the sky, and I enjoy exploring the world together. That said, our recent beach vacation involved 1,300 miles of round-trip driving and seven nights in hotel rooms, all while trying to:

■ Eat reasonably healthy meals.

■ Keep an eye on our spending.

■ Rein in the children's thirst for combat (virtual and physical).

All of this is about as conducive to relaxation as trying to pull off a family bank heist.

Nonetheless, here we are, on the crowded deck of the Rudee Flipper, a 65-foot, two-story catamaran, motoring up the coast of Virginia Beach, Va. We're on board because my wife and I respond to the phrase "dolphin-watching boat trip" like ancient sailors to a siren's song.

But on this late-summer evening, the sun is unforgiving, the children are restless and there is nothing to see but sea. My wife, Gabrielle, is resolutely making the best of things behind her sunglasses. Our son Luke stares longingly at the parade of hotels on shore. His brothers Leo and Ace offer me accusing looks, as if trying to decide whether my role in engineering this seeming nautical fail constitutes cruelty or just incompetence.

This wasn't what their mother and I had in mind, of course, when we picked this tour or this vacation spot, although we did find that if you have a complicated, even contradictory vacation agenda, Virginia Beach probably can accommodate you.

Surf and sand

If I'm honest, I should admit I'm not that good at relaxing (distrustful of the instinct, I suppose).

Still, circumstances make a difference. During the week we visited in August, bright red flags flew from the lifeguard stations, indicating a strong rip current, the kind that can pull swimmers out to sea. If anyone ventured too far from shore, lifeguards blew their whistles and waved them back. Not soothing, though it was good to know they were paying attention.

Everyone else in our party seemed to keep this in perspective. For Gabrielle, just sitting by the ocean offers some measure of solace and nourishment that seemingly nothing else can. The boys liked that the winds were high, the waves hit hard. They liked that a visit to the beach could be like wrestling with a partner who could tickle them, nudge them or topsy-turvy them into the sand and leave them laughing saltwater from their noses.

Near the beach

Between the water and the strip of beachfront hotels lies the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, a 28-foot-wide strip of concrete that stretches from First to 40th streets and is designated for pedestrians only. It's incredibly user-friendly and means that if you stay at a beachfront hotel, you leave your car parked the whole time and still have plenty of options for eating and entertainment. At night, especially during the summer, the boardwalk and various nearby streets feature free live entertainment, from singer-songwriters to chain-saw jugglers to Kenyan acrobats.

Parallel to the pedestrian walkway is a separate lane for bicycles, in-line skaters and surreys — multiperson pedal-powered contraptions that we'd seen other families riding, nearly always with big smiles. We checked out a surrey (no fringe on top, sadly) from Cherie's Bike and Blade Rentals ($25 for one hour) and were told that five passengers would be no problem.

We discovered, however, that the surrey, like our roughly 400-square-foot room at the Comfort Inn and Suites Oceanfront, was an example of a tourist product that technically could accommodate five humans, but really shouldn't, at least not us.

At 6-foot-3, I felt my head was pressing against the surrey's roof and my knees were nearly hitting me in the face. The children were too crowded in the back to maintain peace, so we alternated sitting one in the basket area in front of the surrey. Equipped with a strap, the basket seat didn't seem unsafe, though I felt as if I had turned my son into a living hood ornament.

The steering was awkward, and we kept scraping the bushes that lined the concrete path. I found this somewhat stressful; the kids found it hilarious. They also treated pedaling as both tedious and optional, which left Gabrielle and me to generate most of the propulsion, thus giving the ride a certain Flintstones quality. We turned in our surrey after 30 minutes.

"That was fun," Ace said. "Can we do it again?"

Off the beach

For a different kind of experience, we arranged a kayak trip in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, 9,250 acres of federally protected wetlands and other habitats. John, our good-natured twentysomething guide, helped us divide into grown-up/child pairings and lumber into three two-person kayaks.

John explained that somewhere within in the refuge, there were a few poisonous snakes — cottonmouths. "But if you see one, just let it go by," he said. "It's more scared of you than you are of it."

The kids, I could tell, found this hard to believe and cast fearful eyes over the surface of the water for much of the trip. (OK, so did I.)

Still, the kayaking proved a terrific counter to the beach, where I felt at the mercy of the water. There was something very satisfying about moving under our own quiet paddling power, through the calm water, under a canopy of trees that gave way to open sky.

The kayaks also proved challenging to maneuver, particularly the more we tried to involve the children, who struggled with the choreography of paddling. Several times we collided with one another, a maneuver one of the boys described as "bumper kayaks." Leo's paddling frequently untrenched swamp grass that flew from his oar to my face (accidentally — I think). He also had to lie back several times to avoid being clotheslined by a tree branch. "Look, Mom," he shouted, "I'm doing the limbo."

Sunset at the lighthouse

The Rudee Flipper's engines gradually quieted, and we floated near Cape Henry Lighthouse, which marks the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. Completed in 1792, the lighthouse's construction was approved by George Washington, and it stands within a few miles of the spot where the English colonists who settled James town made landfall in 1607.

The sun slid behind pink clouds, taking the heat with it, and just then, as if under contract, the dolphins appeared.

They moved so fast it was impossible to count them, though we tried. From his pocket, Luke pulled out a piece of popcorn shrimp he smuggled from dinner and tossed it toward the dolphins. He and his brothers had never seen dolphins outside an aquarium, and the boys smiled with wonder and delight, watching them slide gracefully between air and ocean.

Vacations like this, I decided, are really for making memories, building your family history one shared, sometimes messy moment at a time. One day, their mother and I will take relaxing vacations, and maybe I'll even let myself relax. Maybe the boys, years from now, as men, will reminisce about this trip:

"Remember that boat we were on in Virginia Beach?"

"That was so hot."

"Yeah, but those dolphins, they were pretty cool."


Virginia Beach, Va.

Getting there: Norfolk International Airport serves the greater Virginia Beach area.

Lean more: Virginia Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau,

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