20 miles E of Norfolk; 110 miles SE of Richmond; 207 miles S of Washington, D.C.

Just as downtown Norfolk gave itself a major face-lift, so has Virginia Beach done a bit of cosmetic surgery. The city's 20 miles of unbroken sand and surf have always lured families from throughout the region to take their annual beach vacations here. Traditionally the beach took on a certain "Redneck Riviera" flavor from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But that image is changing as new hotels and surfside parks add luster to the oceanfront area.

The actual city of Virginia Beach covers a huge geographic area between the Chesapeake Bay and the North Carolina line. There's no downtown; instead, it's like one giant suburb from Norfolk to the Atlantic Ocean. The largest commercial district is known as Pembroke, off I-64 at the intersection of Independence and Virginia Beach boulevards, where the new Town Center of Virginia Beach houses national restaurants and retailers.

You can forget all that sprawl if you're here on vacation, for the fun is at the Oceanfront, the prime resort area where you will find a solid line of big hotels, restaurants, beachwear and souvenir shops, and video-game arcades. Although resorts line the beachfront and obscure ocean views from everywhere except their own rooms, the 59-block-long Boardwalk (it's actually concrete) boasts immaculate landscaping, wood benches, small parks, a bike-skating path, public restrooms, and attractive white Colonial-style street lamps. And during the summer, the Boardwalk hosts free live entertainment most evenings.

There is more to do in Virginia Beach than lying on the sand, swimming, kayaking, fishing, and chasing dolphins offshore. Nature lovers can drive a few miles south to the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which attracts migrating birds and protects several miles of beach and marshlands from development, and then walk or take a tram to the deserted beaches of False Cape State Park down by the North Carolina border. Here also is the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, the most popular museum in the state and a terrific place to take the kids even if it isn't raining. History lovers will find several sites of interest, including the First Landing Cross, where the Jamestown settlers planted their own cross on April 26, 1607.