A respite for the restless in Virginia Beach

"Under the Sea" tunnel gets visitors close to marine life at Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - It was a fleeting existential crisis of sorts, as I popped my head into the clear dome of the Komodo dragon habitat at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. Who was on exhibit here: Ki Ki the dragon or me?

I'd certainly made enough of a scene, crawling into the approximately 2-foot-tall passage that led to the viewing area and then crawling out, rubbing the newly sore spot on my head. (The center's Web site describes it as an interactive experience for "young guests." Funny, that.) When a couple about my age entered the dome a few minutes later, I began to comprehend how absurd I, too, had probably looked to everyone else - and the dragon.

It wasn't the first time that afternoon that I had been overcome by curiosity in the recently opened "Restless Planet" exhibition at the aquarium and marine center. At various points, I found myself examining fossils under a magnifying glass, playing with touchscreen maps, and pumping a lever to set off a volcano model that spewed beads instead of lava. And that was only a small selection of the interactive portions of the exhibition. There are three dozen such hands-on activities throughout the 12,000-square-foot area.

That's not mentioning all the creatures, including the exhibition's most impressive feature, a more-than-100,000-gallon tank that allows visitors to walk through a tunnel surrounded by aquatic wildlife.

"Restless Planet," a $25 million project in the works for a decade, debuted in late November, and its four habitats - Indonesian volcanic island, Malaysian peat swamp, Red Sea and coastal desert/Mediterranean Sea - are modeled on contemporary environments that may also have existed in prehistoric Virginia.

First up was the peat swamp, where I was transfixed by one of the aquarium's rare Tomistoma crocodiles. The female was lying at the bottom of the tank with her mouth wide open. I asked staffer Alexis Rabon why that was.

She's just waiting for something to swim in there, Rabon replied. Not to worry, though, because the croc is sufficiently fed about once a week with rodents.

Next was something much more cuddly: sea horses. The tiny creatures in the coastal desert and Mediterranean Sea portion of the exhibition drew a crowd, especially as people started watching how they anchored themselves by wrapping their tails around the underwater greenery. A close second on the cuteness scale was the hedgehog.

The impressive main aquarium in the Red Sea habitat also attracted its share of onlookers. Surrounded by glass, the space is lined with benches that invite you to stay for a while as eagle rays and scores of technicolor fish soar overhead. There, I met Christy and Joe Weidenbenner, whose children - Aaron, 3, and Joshua, 18 months - gleefully ran up and down the 40-foot tunnel, looking at the fish.

The boys were doing "a lot of laughing," their mother said. She liked how close they could get to the animals.

In the Indonesian volcanic island exhibit, Jessica Steadman stood by as her sons, Jacob, 3, and J.P., 5, watched the Komodo dragons. The family has an aquarium membership, and Steadman said that they tend to come a lot in the winter. This was their first time seeing "Restless Planet."

"Look at his big tail!" exclaimed J.P., who provided the play-by-play on the dragons with all the zeal of an Animal Planet narrator. "He's digging!"

Leaving the aquarium, I made my way down Pacific Avenue, one of the town's main drags, and arrived at the Beach Spa Bed & Breakfast, where owner Danny Santos told me that I would be the only guest that evening. The converted 1937 beach cottage had just emptied out after a busy spell, and Santos' wife, Debbie, told me the next morning that she didn't mind the lull.

After a satisfactory amount of time flopped on my bed, I rallied for dinner at Ammos, a Greek restaurant. The dining room was just as quiet as the rest of the resort area, not totally surprising since it was the Monday after Thanksgiving. Given my choice of tables, I settled into one with an ocean view. Cars slowly rolled by on the boardwalk, through the inky darkness and past the city's annual holiday light display. And once I'd polished off my gyro, it was my turn to take in the full extent of the festive 32-block extravaganza.

The lights depicted the kinds of things you might expect in a holiday tableau at the beach - Santa sunbathing, Santa water-skiing - but also some unanticipated ones. Jurassic Beach, anyone? Still, I couldn't help smiling and humming as I cruised by representations of each of the items in "The Twelve Days of Christmas."


Getting Away: Virginia Beach

Places to Stay

Beach Spa Bed & Breakfast

2420 Arctic Ave.


www.beachspabednbreakfast. com

Just three blocks from the ocean, this tastefully updated 1937 beach cottage is an oasis of calm in the resort area. Rooms from $109.

Hilton Virginia Beach

3001 Atlantic Ave.



A stylish high-rise with a prime oceanfront location. Rooms from $107.

Places to Eat

Fire & Vine

1556 Laskin Rd.



A classy but casual restaurant that focuses on wood-fired cuisine. Entrees from $13.


1401 Atlantic Ave.



Homey Greek food, including gyros, moussaka, and pastitsio. Entrees from $12.95.

Sugar Plum Bakery

1353 Laskin Rd.



A dream come true for anyone with a sweet tooth, this storefront trains and benefits individuals with disabilities. Most pastries about $2.

Playing there

Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center

717 General Booth Blvd.



Admission: Adults, $17; children 3-11, $12.

Hours: Daily, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Holiday Lights at the Beach

On the boardwalk between Second and 34th streets (enter at Second Street)



Annual drive-through display, Nov. 19, 2010 through

Jan. 2, 2111. $10 per car.

- Becky Krystal