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Fall, winter lend Virginia Beach special charm

About 18 years ago, my friends and I decided to take a different type of spring break vacation. We didn't want to deal with the crowds in Fort Lauderdale or Daytona Beach; we had outgrown that scene. We were college juniors at the time and beginning to acquire more mature tastes.

"Why don't you guys go to Virginia Beach?" my eldest sister suggested. Figuring it was worth a shot, my two buddies and I hopped a flight and headed out for what I hoped would be a relaxing week. Perhaps we would run into some fellow college students looking for the same escape from the traditional spring break.

I could not have been more wrong.

We quickly realized that we were the only students in town. The only other people close to our age were the military kids in the area. Perhaps this place was a little too quiet for some college kids - albeit mature ones - looking to make spring break memories.

In hindsight, we were way off base. Virginia Beach is a great place to visit during off-peak periods. I might have missed out on the beach activities, but I still remember how easy it was to get a seat at some incredible seafood houses. Shopping throughout the entire tourist district was pleasant. That "touristy feel" was totally absent - we had the entire beach to ourselves.

If you want to experience the Virginia Beach most tourists never see, then now's the time to make an off-peak visit.

Unique lodging on the beach

Just like many beaches, Virginia Beach has a "hotel row," where an endless chain of hotels line the main drag.

"Hotel prices are a definite perk for visiting Virginia Beach during the off season," said Rachel Nestor, a local public relations account executive. "They are substantially cheaper."

If you'd like something more personal, then a Sandbridge house or cottage rental may be the answer. A stay at a Sandbridge Cottage provides you with five miles of secluded beach that beckons you to enjoy a picnic or take a romantic stroll. If you feel cut off from the world, not to fear: The property is only 15 minutes from the main area in Virginia Beach.

Sandbridge also provides you with a wealth of concierge services, including grocery shopping, referrals and appointments for spa services, tickets for entertainment events, golf packages and transportation to the airport.

Down on the farm

Some cynics might think bringing kids to Virginia Beach in the autumn would make for very bored children. Those cynics probably don't know about the Hunt Club Farm.

Only 10 minutes from the beach, the Hunt Club is a family-friendly destination. Children love coming here for the petting zoo and rides while parents are wowed by the Farm Market. You will also be impressed with Crafter's Row, where artisans are hard at work demonstrating their unique skills.

Now through New Year's Day, the Hunt Club Farm will be decked out in holiday style. You can take a walk through the Farm Market, which will feature a selection of Cathedral Christmas Trees right after Thanksgiving. Even if you're not taking a tree back, you can enjoy the experience of shopping for one while sipping on hot cider and listening to the holiday music. If you visit now, you can see Santa's helpers at work in the Toyland. Of course, kids have the chance to get their picture taken with Old Saint Nick himself.

Have a whale of a time

Just because it's a little chilly outside doesn't mean you can't enjoy a water excursion. Visit here in late December through March and take a boat tour - these one-of-a-kind excursions arranged through the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center provides visitors unbelievable viewing opportunities.

In addition to possible whale sightings, you'll be treated to a display of Northern gannets, brown pelicans and double-crested cormorants. Twilight trips are extra special in late December, when the Virginia Beach oceanfront is decorated in holiday lights.

If you can't make it on one of the boat tours, then head to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center. It offers a number of hands-on exhibits, a marsh habitat and a 3-D IMAX theater.

Activities abound

Now through New Year's Day, Virginia Beach is home to a dazzling lights display. The beaches and boardwalk become a holiday wonderland. Plus, it's the only time of year when city officials let you drive down the boardwalk.

Even though it's the off-season, there's always an event going on here. New Year's Eve festivities will include live entertainment by country/soul artist Delbert McClinton. And in the new year, Virginia Beach will hold the Killian's Irish Red Shamrock Sportsfest, a series of marathons with an Irish theme that runs from March 17-19.