Beach Road Trip Destinations - A Boardwalk Bonanza!

Some of the top road trip destinations in the summertime are beach communities – particularly ones with active boardwalks along the seashore. To do them justice, your intrepid road tripper (me) hit some of the lesser-known but popular beaches with boardwalks on a recent road trip and took notes to help you plan the perfect beach vacation.

Beach Vacation

Skipping the obvious (Ocean City, MD), we hit East Coast beach road trip destinations Virginia Beach, VA, Rehoboth Beach, DE, and Ocean City, NJ. Although selecting a beach may seem like a no-brainer, that’s not the case at all. Many beaches have a very honky-tonk feeling while others are quiet understated havens for those seeking a more subtle seashore experience. These three beaches run the gamut!

Road Trip Destination – Virginia Beach, VA
I’d heard that this beach was pretty lowbrow – and it certainly has that element in spades – but there were some sparkling and surprising gems here, too.

Boardwalk Review – What they call a boardwalk here is not a boardwalk. It’s a wide paved pedestrian walkway (and mini road for rental surreys, those goofy but fun group vehicles you pedal like a bike). A boardwalk has, yes, boards – not concrete.

There are no shops, arcades, and other typical things lining it like on other beachside walkways either. What it does have is a great view of the beach and the hotels lining it as well as a cast of characters walking it. As one person we met there put it, "It is what it is."

Pros:

  • HUGE beach that’s groomed daily with lots of beach volleyball nets available for a game plus chair/umbrella rentals galore.
  • Hopping nightlife on the "strip" (Atlantic Avenue) that runs next to the beach/hotels. There are tons of bars, restaurants, street performers, amusement park-like venues (Nightmare Mansion, Pirate Adventure, Fun House), live bands, and rides for the kids.
  • Lots of nearby amusements (related to us by our trusty bartender Chris Ebert at a hidden gem restaurant about to be revealed) including Seashore State Park, Ocean Breeze Water Park and Motor World (great all-day fun for the kids), and the excellent Marine Science Museum. Also, Colonial Williamsburg is not far away – a great day trip option if you’re here for a week.
  • Hidden GemsTautogs Restaurant – In the midst of a lot of mediocre restaurants (or worse), this gem sparkles brightly. Dig into some outstanding fresh seafood in this 1920’s beach cottage that’s been converted into a restaurant and enjoy some real beach-house ambiance and excellent service. The crab cakes I ordered were 100% crabmeat and delectable. My husband had the special – yellowfin tuna topped with crabmeat (Virginia crab should get more kudos – it’s wonderful). We had the pleasure of sitting down at the bar after our meal (and getting a seat – it quickly filled beyond capacity) and bending the ear of one of their bartenders, Chris (mentioned above). In addition to his recommendations for local amusements, he also told us the story of the resident ghost (Old Lady Winston, who has been known to descend the stairs and enter the ladies bathroom before disappearing), pointed out that the bar was made of the cottage’s original doors and floors (beautiful shining paneled wood), educated us on the origin of the restaurant’s name (never heard of tautog fish before), and recommended another gem, Ocean House, on the water. We didn’t eat at Ocean House, but we got a chance to meet Diane Roberts, another friendly and helpful bartender (are we sounding like drunks yet?) who was given the seal of approval by one of her regulars as being "the best bartender in Virginia Beach". The atmosphere at the Ocean House is fun and beach oriented with lots of surfboards and other seashore décor and the great added benefit of sweeping views of the beach from the second floor bar.
Cons:
  • Well, all of those who told me that Virginia Beach is "redneck" and "honky tonk" can reach around and pat themselves on the back. It is. It’s also very laid back and that can be a plus if you feel like wandering the streets wearing only a bathing suit (cover-up? What’s a cover-up?).
  • Traffic and parking in the evening is insane. Your best bet if you’re going to make Virginia Beach your road trip destination is to stay at a hotel on the strip and leave your car there to wander around on foot. We were able to walk everywhere (and watch as cars idled and inched slowly along the road). This piece of advice came directly from my friend and once-Virginia-Beach-resident, Christina. Thank God we listened!
  • The beach itself, though large, is the product of dredging (thanks Chris (again) for letting us know what the deal was!) and you can tell. The sand is more granular – like a sandbox – rather than powdery like at other beaches on the Atlantic. Also, there are none of those hallmarks of a natural beach: dunes and grasses. I’m a huge fan of dunes and grasses, so that was a big minus for me. For those of you who don’t care about that, this beach will do you just fine.
  • This is not a quiet beach getaway road trip destination. The others on this list would be much more up your alley.
Road Trip Destination – Rehoboth Beach, DE
My godmother and her family have been going to this beach and its neighbor, Dewey Beach, forever. They talk about it with that glazed-happy look that only beach community regulars get – "I wish I was there right now (in the summertime)" is the best way to put it.

Boardwalk Review – This is a real boardwalk in the sense that there are wooden boards, but it isn’t elevated, so you can’t go "under the boardwalk" as the song says. It’s fairly short compared to either Ocean City boardwalk – only a mile long and only 1/3 of that has the usual entertainments (arcades, candy, rides, ice cream). There is more of a mixed crowd here – clean cut and less so all hanging out together and having a blast on "the boards".

Pros:

  • Nice downtown with lots of walking distance restaurants to choose from (if your hotel is near the boardwalk). There’s everything from a great Tex-Mex restaurant (Dos Locos) to gourmet vegetarian offerings at Planet X Café. Unlike our next hit on this list of road trip destinations (Ocean City, NJ) this town isn’t dry, so the number of aspiring restaurateurs is greater and of higher quality.
  • Rehoboth has a beautiful natural shoreline with dunes and grasses creating a seawall in the case of storms. This means that the beach itself isn’t miles wide like that in Virginia Beach, but the sand is soft and powdery white and pleasant to wiggle your toes in.
  • Further north than Virginia Beach, this beach has less heat and cooler evenings which can be a blessing in June and July when the beaches further south are cooking. August is usually consistently hot, though.
  • This is a great road trip destination for a family with small children. The boardwalk is plenty big enough for them and every possible amusement is provided (on a smaller scale).
Cons:
  • Although this beach is far more upscale than the last, it still has some rough edges and unique characters, so I wouldn’t characterize it as squeaky clean (if that’s what you’re looking for).
  • The small boardwalk and limited downtown would grow very old for an older child (nine and up) if this road trip destination was a place you were planning to spend more than a day or two. Teenagers wouldn’t have enough to do to keep them out of trouble unless you schedule something or have lots of friends also staying there (like my godmother’s kids).
Road Trip Destination – Ocean City, NJ
Before my husband’s family introduced me to the New Jersey Ocean City, I only knew of one: the sprawling mega-beach-community Ocean City, Maryland. This little-known beach is a dream come true road trip destination for families: a dry community (nearby towns supply plenty of booze if you want some) means a quieter squeaky-clean beach experience plus Ocean City, NJ has one of the best beach boardwalks in the country.

Boardwalk Review – Now, this is a boardwalk! Miles of wooden boards stretch as far as the eye can see along some beautiful natural coastline (the famed Jersey shore). There is every kind of entertainment lining the boardwalk making it an all-out festival all summer long with every kind of food vendor, tons of shops and arcades, two large amusement parks, tons of themed mini-golf courses, bike and surrey rentals, and a cool old-time music pier. The crowds are mostly clean-cut families looking for a wholesome-goodness beach experience. You can go under the boardwalk and get out of the sun, or just rent a chair and an umbrella on the beach.

Pros:

  • Did I mention the boardwalk? Oh, yeah, well – it’s amazing!
  • The beach is beautiful and you can quickly see why the Jersey Shore is so famous – it’s really one of the best beach areas in the U.S. All the goodies are here: plenty of hunky lifeguards to protect you, soft sands fringed by grassy dunes, shallow enough water to walk out and just stand in the water if you don’t like to swim, waves for boogie boards, skimmers, and body surfing, plus chair and umbrella rentals if you don’t feel like packing them for your road trip.
  • There are plenty of great nearby "wet" towns that have outstanding restaurants. Our family favorites are in Somers Point and include the Crab Trap and the Inlet Restaurant.
  • If you want a quiet classy place to bring your family, Ocean City, NJ is it. You will not see the rough and ready crowd or the stray bum – the fact that the community is dry seems to keep them away. It’s great for older kids as well as younger kids – there’s plenty to keep them all busy.
  • There are tons of hotels and house rentals available – in fact the number of house rentals available is much higher than average, so you’ll have your pick.
  • Like Rehoboth, June and July (and even August) can have cooler evenings and some cool days, unlike the steam bath further south.
Cons:
  • Dry communities seem to drive away restaurateurs, so the pickings are slim as far as places to eat dinner. Breakfast is highly represented, and the best place to get lunch is on the boardwalk (especially if you want junk food), but where to go for dinner? Not much to choose from.
  • If you’re looking for a party scene, you’ve gone to the wrong place. Go a little further down the coast to Wildwood for a party on the beach.
*** UPDATE 2012 *** As of this year when we returned to Ocean City, NJ, the place has changed in the sense of being "squeaky clean". I would say it's more like Virginia Beach now: rough around the edges and a lot more lowbrow than it used to be. That said, the boardwalk still can't be beat and has even more attractions than ever. As well, the beach itself is still beautiful and natural, though extremely crowded. If you want to see New Jersey's Ocean City at its best, I recommend going there during the first few weeks of September when the crowds diminish yet the boardwalk is still open and the beach is still warm and welcoming...

So, that's it! If you want to hit "the boards" and enjoy a great beach vacation, these road trip destinations have a lot of fun in the sun as well as plenty of boardwalk entertainment to offer.

Under the boardwalk,
Out of the sun,
Under the boardwalk,
We’ll be having some fun,

The Drifters

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