Weather is fickle. No individual weather prognosticator — from the venerable National Weather Service to the local TV weatherman — seems to be particularly accurate in predicting the weather beyond a one- or two-day horizon. Sometimes, though, if you see enough predictions, all at once, that agree with one another, their collective forecast appears more reliable.
So, a couple weeks ago, after several days in a row of balmy weekend weather forecasts from multiple meteorologists, and a broad nod of assent from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Dawn came up with the brilliant idea to spend a couple of days tramping around the dunes on Assateague Island. Fingers crossed, she booked us a room in Ocean City — in the middle of January! ($85 a night at the Park Place Hotel in a room that goes for $368 during the season.)
It turned out the be a fortuitous decision. We were rewarded with two mid-winter beach days with blues skies, temperatures in the 60s, and, most important, none of the crowds that plague the Maryland shore during the season. We couldn’t have been more pleased.
Which was a surprise. The truth is, we’re kind of beach snobs. After more than a decade of living in Hawaii, and years of travel to beach hot spots in the Greek Islands, Thailand, the West Indies, and the Yucatan, we developed a prejudice against our local beaches.
Not for any good reason, mind you. In fact, almost our whole experience of the Maryland shore was an abortive summer camping trip to Assateague 30 years ago. We barely lasted half an hour, driven off by swarms of biting flies. After that, we never returned.
But it was clearly our loss.
First of all, the off-season commute is comparatively stress-free compared to the traffic jam on the Bay Bridge every summer weekend. Coming from Southern Maryland, we have to first head north for an hour to get to the bridge, then reverse course for the southerly run down the Delmarva. Even so, we made the trip in a peaceful three hours.
And once we arrived, we got right to business. Since the check-in time at the hotel wasn’t until 4 pm, we headed straight to Assateague, crossing the old bridge over Sinepuxent Bay before 10 am. We arrived just in time to spot a couple of the elusive Assateague ponies munching beach grass in the bayside marsh. So much for Internet rumors that the ponies were a rumor.
Minutes later, we were through the National Park gates, pulling into the massive (though virtually empty) parking lot for North Ocean Beach. That’s where it became clear to us what a spectacular day was ahead of us.
There’s nothing quite like strolling through that gap in the dunes onto the broad, low tide beach. The wind-sculpted dunes stretched 24 miles to the south. To the north, we could see the tall hotels of Ocean City. But what really caught our eye was the small pod of dolphins making their way slowly down the shorefront.
Score two for animal life in the park.
Really, given the warm weather and lovely scenery, we probably could have spent the day there on the beach. However, we usually like to get an overview of any destination when we first get there. That way, we know where to spend more time and what we activities can save for another visit. So, we climbed back in the car and went exploring.
First, we toured the Maryland end of the park. We had been looking forward to hiking the Life of the Forest Trail and the Life of the Marsh Trail, but both were closed for maintenance. However, we were able to visit the other oceanside beaches and drive to the end of Bayside Drive and Ferry Landing road to check out the intricate network of marshes along Sinepuxent Bay.
Standing on the old ferry bulkhead, we could easily envision the boatride over to the island in the days before the old Verazzano Bridge was built. And, since the tide was surprisingly low, we could walk out on the hard, rippled mud flats to better admire the views of the bay.
We also explored campsites for future reference. There are both bayside and oceanside campsites. Given our previous experience with biting flies, we’d recommend the oceanside sites where the sea breezes might keep them at bay. In cooler weather, though — the shoulder seasons in late spring or early fall — the bayside might be more protected.
Driving to the end of the Maryland section of the park, we once again parked and crossed the dunes. And once again, we were rewarded by a nearly empty beach and (the same?) dolphins traveling down the shoreline. We also noted for future reference a sign indicating a trail to a bird blind.
LUNCH IN BERLIN
By then, we were hungry, though. So, we climbed back into the Subaru and headed back across the bridge toward Berlin.
Before deciding to check out offseason options in Ocean City, we had contemplated staying in scenic Berlin instead. We had never been there before, but these old, Eastern Shore towns are always so appealing. Besides, Berlin is home to the venerable Atlantic Hotel, the 18-room Victorian inn that has presided over the historic downtown district for 128 years. It’s also home to the Drummer’s Cafe, a beautiful high-end bistro and bar.
But we were looking for something a little more blue collar for lunch, opting instead for burgers and a shake at the venerable Rayne’s Reef Soda Fountain & Grill.
It was lunch hour by the time we arrived, so we ended up having to wait for a table. On the plus side, that gave us time to explore the historic district for a bit.
It’s pretty clear, Berlin was once a prosperous little town. The hotel alone gives a since of opulence out of proportion to such a small agricultural area. But the whole downtown area is surprisingly charming, and it’s clear a lot of money and sweat has been put into restoring the beautiful old buildings. We’ll definitely mark the town down for a future visit.
BERLIN TO CHINCOTEAGUE
After lunch, though, we decided to see what the Virginia end of the National Seashore looked like. That entailed an hour’s drive south to NASA’s Wallop’s Island facility then crossing the new causeway through the marsh and over Queen Sound and Black Narrows into the quaint waterfront of Chincoteague Island.
Chincoteague is a curious step back in time. There are still plenty of signs of the old fishing community that predates tourism on what’s now Virginia’s only resort island. There are also plenty of expensive second homes and fancy hotels in Chincoteague. But intermingled among these are nostalgic-looking camper lots and mobile home parks. Not to mention scores of 1950s era resorts, little clusters of cabins and cabanas nestled down narrow sidestreets or in sleepy pine groves.
If you’re looking for a low-key, old-timey vacation with access to the park and waterfront activities, Chincoteague is definitely worth the visit. It’s certainly a far cry from the dense development and highrises of Ocean City.
But the town is best known as an access point to the southern end of Assateague Island and the adjacent Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
There are two herds of ponies on Assateague Island. The Maryland and Virginia herds are separated by a fence along the state line. Technically, the Virginia herd belongs to the Chincoteage Volunteer Fire Company, which pays the park for grazing rights on Assateague.
But, to prevent overgrazing in the National Seashore, the Park Service limits the size of the Virginia herd to just 150 horses. Each summer, so-called “salt water cowboys” round up groups of the herd and swim them across Assateague Channel to Chincoteague. There, the ponies are checked by a vet and the foals are auctioned off to thin the herd. Then, the following Friday, the rest of the herd makes the swim back to Assateague where they spend the remainder of the year in the wild.
That whole week-long process is a major tourist attraction for the Chincoteague resort, bringing thousands of spectators for the pony swim and visitors who want to see the ponies while driven down the beach.
But while we were there, the park was once again almost empty. In the parking lot at Little Toms Cove, the farthest south you can drive in the park without a registered “over sand vehicle,” there were just a handful of cars rather than the hundreds that would be there in season. And yet, when we ambled through the gap in the dunes, it was the same wide, gorgeous beach stretching unimpeded to the north. And, as it turned out, what appeared to be the same pod of dolphin cavorting just offshore.
The wildlife refuge, which sprawls across the wetlands behind the National Seashore, is one of the highlights of the Virginia part of the park. If you’re a birder, like us, the wildlife loop circumnavigating Snow Goose Pond is worth the visit. You can pull over almost anywhere along the loop, and the dark waters of the marsh are host to dozens of bird species, including some rare and endangered birds.
Even more intriguing than the park’s roadways, though, are the miles of bike trails that meander through both the Maryland and Virginia parts of the park. Since barrier islands are almost flat, this seems like the ideal way to visit the park. At least until the biting flies return. We’ll definitely bring bikes for our next visit.
After a long day in the car, we pulled into the parking lot of our Ocean City hotel just after dark. By now, it was a little chilly and we were tired. Surprisingly, though, we were able to grab a slice of pizza not far from the hotel. Although much of the town was shut down for the season, there turned out to be more open than we expected.
Ocean City, in fact, was more than we expected.
We were up and out early the next morning to catch what turned out to be a spectacular sunrise. There were some joggers out and a handful of people walking the wide beach, but mostly it was just us and the seagulls loitering on the packed sand exposed by low tide. The eastern exposure gave us an uobstructed view of the horizon. And behind us, the rising sun cast the facades of the hotels and boardwalk shops in various shades of pink and orange.
But the real charm of Ocean City is in the more residential areas farther up the island. Here, the grim architecture of the big hotels gives way to little beachfront neighborhoods clustered behind the dunes and intriguing canal-front communities on the bay side of the island. (As sailors, those canal homes immediately got our imaginations running, but a quick glance at the prices on Zillow put an end to that.)
We drove as far as Fenwick Island State Park, where we checked out the beach once again. Then, we reversed course and drove to the inlet separating Fenwick Island, the barrier island Ocean City sits upon, from Assateague.
Geologically speaking, the inlet is brand new, carved through the dunes by the powerful Chespeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933. The Corps of Engineers took advantage of the calamity to make the inlet permanent and establish the small tourist resort as a major fishing port on the East Coast. Subsequently, the inlet was repeatedly dredged, with the spoils used to fill in the marshes on the bayside for additional development.
Maybe the biggest impact of the new inlet, though, has been its effect on Assateague Island to the south.
The forces that create and maintain barrier islands depend upon the longshore movement of sand. In calmer weather, that sand accumulates along the oceanfront, where winds pile it into the dunes that dominate the landscape. In storms, the waves and tide eat away at the beaches, occasionally overtopping them and depositing sand in the bayside marches.
Barrier Islands, in their natural state, are always in flux, always on the move.
But the sea walls and massive groins built to protect the new inlet at Ocean City have deprived Assateague of the sand it needs to sustain itself. As a result, the island has been in steady retreat westward since 1933. This dislocation is easy to see in contemporary maps and arial view of the coast.
Assateague is now several hundred feet west of Fenwick Island, its geological twin.
LIFE OF THE DUNES
But the highlight of our Assateague trip came at the end. Leaving Ocean City, we headed back to the Maryland side of the National Seashore. After a brief stop to check out the beach and dunes at Assateague State Park, we headed to the back of the park to check out that bird blind.
As luck would have it, the trail was too muddy and we didn’t have our mud boots on. However, as we made our way gloomily back to the car, we saw the sign for the Life of the Dunes loop trail. This lovely, white sand trail snakes its way south through the dunes, giving the visitor a close-up view of the beach grass, bayberry, and the stunted loblolly pines that create the unique habitat of the island.
Seaward, you can see the spine of the beachfront dunes that stretch along the eastern horizon. The bayside view is dominated by the scrub forest. And everywhere, there are signs of birdlife and the elusive Assateague ponies.
But the most memorable feature of the trail, oddly enough, isn’t a natural one. Strewn along the spine of the island — scattered like the dots and dashes of Morris code — are the ruins of Baltimore Boulevard, all that remains of a misbegotten plan to develop Assateague Island.
In the 1950s, before there was a National Seashore, much of the north end of the island was cleared and Baltimore Blvd. was paved in macadam all the way to the Virginia line. In addition, more than 130 cross streets were laid out behind the dunes. Altogether, developers hoped to sell up to 9,000 home sites.
That scheme came to an end in 1962 when a huge northeaster washed out the investors. By 1965, plans were underway for the creation of the park. All that remains of the near catastrophe are fragments of blacktop poking intermittently out of the dunes. When you visit Assateague, make sure to climb up on the cracked and slowly disintegrating blacktop slabs and enjoy the view that almost wasn’t.
Dennis is a travel, science, and business writer who has traveled all his life. The son of an Air Force pilot, he was born in England and lived in ten states growing up. Much of his youth was spent in Hawaii and Southeast Asia, where he traveled widely, including extended visits to New Delhi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vientiane, and old Rangoon.