WHEN AN ENGLISHMAN mentions the queen, no one asks, "What queen?" And when a Virginian mentions the beach, no one asks, "What beach?"
In the affections of a Virginian, few places rank higher than Virginia Beach, a pristine 15-mile strip of Atlantic coastline just south of the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.
In the past 10 to 15 years, high-rise hotels have sprung up like dune grass along its ocean front, from Second Street at Rudee Inlet in the south all the way up to 32nd Street at the northern end of Atlantic Avenue. Cheek by jowl they stand, Holiday Inn, Hilton, Ramada, Radisson, Sheraton -- it's Brand Name Row.
There also are dozens of condos, motels and small hotels that cater to families looking for a one or two-week stay, most within a block or two of the water.
Despite such development, the beach has lost none of its appeal. It is broad, white and unlittered. Few stretches along the Atlantic seaboard are more inviting.
The boardwalk (which is of concrete, not wood) borders the beach along this same strip. On fine days it's crowded with strollers, skateboard whizzes and hand-in-hand lovers. Year-round residents and summer householders stake out their own beach claims up at the North End, within sight of the Cape Henry lighthouse.
But there's more to Virginia Beach than sand and sea. Blessed with a benign climate, it's a year-round mecca for golfers. With eight public courses, all well-maintained, fairways remain relatively uncrowded, even in midsummer. Since Virginia Beach encompasses countless ponds, creeks, bays and inlets, it's not surprising that most of its courses have fiendishly tricky water holes.
Of the private facilities, the Princess Anne Country Club, started in 1916 by a handful of old families, still retains its antebellum Southern charm. Its 18-hole golf course, recently rebuilt to the tune of sev
eral million dollars, probably is the finest course in eastern Virginia.
There's also a plethora of tennis courts within a 10-minute walk of the ocean -- 188 at last count. At Owl Creek Municipal Tennis Center, there are 50 courts, all of them lighted for night play.
Through its abrupt growth, Virginia Beach remains idyllic for kids. With a few cautionary words about traffic, they are free to bike wherever they want. Swimming is safe virtually the entire length of the beach.
At Rudee Inlet at the south end of the beach, a fish head lowered on a string will produce a peck of crabs in less than an hour. Wild Water Rapids lures kids with flumes, chutes, surf pools and an obstacle course over man-eating plastic crocodiles and ravenous schools of rubber sharks.
With the Atlantic Ocean at its doorstep and the Chesapeake Bay in its back yard, Virginia Beach truthfully claims the richest choice of fishing grounds anywhere on
the East Coast. A day's fishing excursion can mean just a pole and a can of night crawlers at the end of the Fishing Pier on 15th Street or a pricey, classy charter aboard a high-powered inboard boat with a surefire promise of bluefish, bluefin and yellowfin tuna, shark or marlin.
Virginia Beach dining, like its fishing, comes in all price ranges. Southern home cooking at its delectable best is regular fare at Mary's on 17th Street. Open just for breakfast and lunch, this old-time favorite has been serving corn bread, grits, barbecue and fried chicken to several generations of locals.
The huge platters of Lynnhaven oysters that once were a daily special at local restaurants have, alas, all but vanished. The once-rich oyster beds of the Chesapeake have succumbed to pollution and bay-side development.
But excellent seafood restaurants still abound. Duck-In, at the mouth of the Chesapeake; Blue Pete's, south of Rudee Inlet; the Helmsman on 24th Street, and the Lynnhaven Fish House on the Lynnhaven Fishing Pier all specialize in fish hauled only hours before from the nearby bay or sea.
Virginia Beach, like the rest of the state, takes its past seriously, saving its historic landmarks from incursions by developers and urban planners. The First Landing Cross, marking the spot where the first English settlers came ashore in 1607, and the Cape Henry Lighthouse, built in 1791, remain favorites of weekend artists and photographers.
The Maritime Historical Museum and the Virginia Marine Science Museum are among the state's most frequently visited, as absorbing to children as they are to their elders.
For more information, write the Virginia Beach Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 200, Virginia Beach, Va. 23458.