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Virginia Beach provides weekend break from University

While summer school students can only daydream about palm trees and the serene seas of the Caribbean, a three-hour drive for a weekend getaway in Virginia Beach is within reach.

Imagine the excitement of a thriving boardwalk with local bands that play in outdoor pavilions. Or if a sense of isolation is needed to fully recuperate from the drudgeries of University summer life, imagine Sandbridge, Ocean View and Fort Story Beach. Here there are no sounds except crashing waves and the occasional seagull's cry.

Sure, maybe the water isn't as clear or as blue as the Caribbean. And forget the palm trees. But for a weekend getaway, Virginia Beach offers the University student a relaxing weekend at affordable costs.

Aside from the obvious attraction - the beach - many other attractions are available for exploration. When sun-dappled beaches darken due to an overcast sky, visitors can go back in time by exploring historic houses of the 1700s and 1800s. For students who burn easily, or for those who despise the beach, ecosystems can be enjoyed through museums and tram rides.

The following is a summary of several alternatives to the beach in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area.

Virginia Marine Science Museum

The Adventure: Visitors explore marine science in a highly interactive atmosphere that boasts over 300 exhibits, the only 3-D IMAX in the state, and three different boat rides.

In over 800,000 gallons of aquariums, tourists find sea turtles, sting rays, sea otters and different schools of fish. They also come face to face with sharks.

"One of the first things people ask when they come through the door is 'Where are the sharks?" museum spokesperson Deb Perry said.

The touch tank is another highlight that allows visitors to feel horseshoe crabs, skates, starfish and sea urchins. Other attractions educate tourists about weather, the mechanics of waves, and the effects of water pollution.

Boat rides provide a first-hand look at marine life as it appears in its natural habitat. In the summer, the museum offers a two-hour dolphin watching trip on a boat that seats about 100 passengers. Another boat ride, which lasts 30 minutes and is new this year, voyages to the nearby salt marshes that are home to osprey and other animals.

For students who willingly skip a Wednesday class to come to Virginia Beach, a two-hour ocean collection trip is available on this day. On these expeditions, staffers hurl nets into the water and bring catches aboard for tourists to see.

"We catch fish, vertebrae, horse shoe crabs and many other animals. But we throw them all back," Perry said.

Location: The museum is at 717 General Booth Blvd., a 10-15 minute drive from the beach strip.

Cost: Museum entrance is $7.95 for adults. An IMAX ticket is $6.95. A combination ticket is $11.95. Two-hour boat trips are $12.00, while the 30-minute trip is $3.00.

Back Bay tram ride

The Adventure: "You see a lot of animals, but you don't see other people. This is one of the most remote places in Virginia," said Eve Estes, Executive Director of the Restoration Foundation.

Indeed, the 8,000 acres that make up Back Bay are accessible only by hiking, biking, and boating through dense forests and grasslands. No wonder so few people get there. But a 45-minute tram ride sponsored by the Back Bay Restoration Foundation allows a few more people to experience the rugged terrain.

Last year the tram rides brought 2,600 people to the area. Each tram seats 28 people. Usually, only one tram makes the journey each day. But sometimes a large demand warrants two.

The four-hour trip begins with a 45-minute tram ride to False Cape where tourists have two hours to explore the area, which comprises a forest, a grassland, and a beach. The trip concludes with a 45-minute tram ride back to civilization.

Egrets, blue herons, osprey, turtles and tame horses and pigs are all on display.

"The pigs are really cute. They look like Miss. Piggy in black. They dance around. They were owned by farmers, but they ran away into the wild," Estes said.

Visitors beware: The trip is rugged. Guests are encouraged to bring a picnic lunch, bug spray and old shoes. The only bathroom during the four-hour trip is a hole in the ground.

Location: The tram ride begins at Little Island.

Cost: Adults pay $6.00. While reservations are not required, they are highly recommended. For reservations call (757) 721-7666.

The Old Coast Guard Station

The Adventure: The second oldest building on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, The Old Coast Guard Station, serves as a museum for historic shipwrecks off Virginia's coast and rescue missions. One exhibit recalls 1942, when German U Boats threatened coastal waters and destroyed unsuspecting merchant ships.

The museum additionally boasts TowerCAM, an interactive camera installed last July. Like surfmen who worked in the station when it opened in 1903, visitors pan up and down the ocean and look for ships in distress.

"Our most popular exhibit is the TowerCAM," says director Fielding Tyler. "Museums can be stuffy places. The TowerCAM is our first attempt to make the museum a little more modern."

Location: The museum is on the corner of 24th Street and Atlantic Ave. on the Boardwalk.

Cost: Adult tickets run $3.00.

Historic Houses

The Adventure: Since 1607, when Jamestown colonists first touched the Virginia shore at Cape Henry, many colonists and rich families have made their home in the Virginia Beach-Norfolk area.

The remains of early families and their homes are on display throughout the area. Tourists can see where it all began at the First Landing Cross, where Jamestown colonists first touched the New World's shore in 1607.

Tourists' cars then become personal time machines, as they jump ahead through the centuries to tour historic homes.

"Just surviving over the centuries in this area with all the change and construction is a major accomplishment for the area's historic sites," said Mark Reed, administrator for the Francis Land House.

For the Thoroughgood House, an English cottage built in 1636, more than just the structure survived. The house offers an herb and flower garden authentic to the 17th century.

Tourists then jump one century ahead when they explore the Francis Land and the Lynnhaven houses, which were built in the 1700s.

To boost its authenticity, The Francis Land House added a walkway in May that leads to what was once the house's access to the ocean.

An additional attraction at the Francis Land House is the "Timeless Trash" exhibit, which traces the history of garbage.

"We show what different people in different times considered trash and how they got rid of it," Reed said. "The exhibit focuses on the Native Americans, the English colonial period, the early 20th century, and the modern period."

Time travelers jump one more century for the Hunter House, a three-story Victorian house that was built in 1894. The house has a nursery, Renaissance Revival bedroom suite, and other family belongings.

Location: The Francis Land House is at 3131 Virginia Beach Boulevard in Virginia Beach, while the Thoroughgood House is at 1636 Parish Road in Virginia Beach. The Hunter House is at 240 Freemason Street in downtown Norfolk.

Cost: The cost varies, depending on the house. Tickets for the Francis Land House are $2.00 for students, $3.00 for adults. Prices will rise .50 on July 1.

Mount Trashmore Park

The Adventure: University summer students who find themselves homesick in Virginia Beach will find comfort at the city's only mountain, an artificial hill made from garbage.

Completed in 1976, the mountain was the solution to disposing the expanding city's increasing amount of garbage.

"Most cities have a landfill that they fill with garbage, but that wasn't feasible in Virginia Beach," park supervisor Harold Barkley said. "Here we are too close to the beach. If you dig a big hole in the ground in this city, you'll hit water."

To solve the problem, the city began the mountain with 18 inches of garbage. Six inches of dirt were piled on top of the garbage. This pattern repeated until the mountain grew to 68 feet.

The upper six feet consists of clay to prevent animals from digging up the garbage. It also prevents the stench of garbage from suffocating the city.

The soil for the dirt layers was taken from the land next to the hill. This created a hole, which was filled with water to make an artificial lake.

Aside from using picnic tables, basketball nets, and a skateboard ramp, students can relax by sitting in the grass and watching people fly kites. Or students can bring their own kites to fly. They can even bring extra bread and feed the ducks.

Perhaps University students want to regain their youths by playing at Kids Cove, a playground that can "accommodate 19 bus loads of children," Barkley said.

Location: The park is off Route 44.

Cost: Entrance to the park is free.