Assateague Island

Going some place I have never been is a pleasure.   Looking at maps, searching for information about an area, it’s all more than planning; it is part of the discovery process.  The drive or flight is compared to whatever I have learned before the trip including matching and developing a sense of distances, encountering unexpected obstacles, and putting the topography into my mental map.  I adore travelling.  I do not regret any of the travels I took in my life, but do regret not having done more.

We have been searching for a trip we could make as a family every year.  A place within a certain one-day drivable radius from our home that would not cost us a fortune.   A place we could take the pop-up camper, and enjoy a week or two.

We have been to the Outer Banks, but for us it is only livable during the off-season, between November and March.  Yet, we liked the beach (not so much for the sun exposure, but for the ocean in all the natural awe it offers).  I had never been to the barrier islands of Assateague (in Maryland and Virginia) and Chincoteague, and it looked like an interesting area to explore.  We got incredibly lucky, and a five-day camp site opened up at the Maryland State Park in Assateague (check the internet site every morning and you might get lucky with a cancellation too; otherwise they are booked up to a year in advance for summer slots.  Oh, and try to make Sunday through Friday reservations, as traffic into the area is bumper to bumper on Fri-Sat, and bumper to bumper OUT on Sunday; the opposite directions are very open!).

Our site was paved, and backed up into a sand dune.  It was also about 150 ft. from the main dune that separates the rustic campgrounds from the beach.  The sound of the waves and wind were constant, and wonderful to hear at night.  The bathhouse (each small loop of sites has one) was clean, if somewhat worn from years of use, and has hot and cold running water for the showers and sinks.  Our particular campsite loop held mostly pop-up campers (and families at that), and thankfully NONE of the noisy, obstructive, gigantic RV’s so common to campgrounds.  The absence of the behemoths may have been due to the fact that most of the smaller loops do not have water and electric hook-ups, which was fine for all of us with propane stoves and water tanks in our popups.  The pop-up and tent crowd also know to bring large round water coolers, and food coolers, and cook out on the fire rings when one can.  It is worth it to have quiet, and low profile neighbors!

The barrier islands are wonderful, even the famed ponies (I am not a horse person, never was.  They are animals no more fascinating to me than the rabbits, unless they start adapting to eat seaweed like the sheep on North Ronaldsay island, Scotland) only annoyed our camp site once.  For people, especially women of a certain type, who have romantic ideas about the wild horses it is heaven.  I leave them to their cameras and fantasies, as there are many other things worth paying attention to on the island.

We were tempted only once to drive up to Ocean City to the north, by curiosity more than anything else.  We drove the main drag and noted that it reminded us exactly of Virginia Beach (with the requisite homeless population, drug addicts, prostitutes, con-artists, and tacky signage, over-built landscapes, and noise levels assaulting the senses).  We quickly turned around, and drove back the parallel road and over the bridge, laughing “Run away!  Run away!” as we drove highway 50.  But before getting out, we were lured into a large restaurant (Pirate Petes/Hoopers Crab House/Sneaky Petes was printed on the cups and we were never sure which one we were in) that hung into the bay.  Husband said, when the overly tanned waitress with blue eye shadow started huckstering about the small plastic cups for $5 (refills, if one did not buy the cups, ran about $3) we ought to have gotten up and left.  The requisite steamed crabs covered in old bay, with steamed corn on the cob for two ran $60 (the kids fish and chips, crab cake sandwich and fries fed them for about $12 each), when down on 611 we could get them for a dollar each at a crab shack.  We choked on crab shell bits AND the price, considered ourselves thoroughly made chumps, and tossed Ocean City in the Never Again bin with Las Vegas, Dallas, Virginia Beach, and various points in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Florida.  It was exactly as we had feared and expected, adding to the weird Stephen King sense when seeing the looming landscape in the hazy, far distance from our beach.  It could be one of his deserted, post-apocalyptic urban centers, which only adds to our sense of not wanting to visit again. 

Luckily, the Assateague State Park is as far away culturally as can be from Ocean City.  The park rangers are wonderful, and the small visitors center that serves both the National and State parks was very interactive.  The kids earned their Junior Ranger badges from the center, and had a lot of fun doing it.  The National Park is adjacent to the State Park, but completely different.  The bathhouses have only cold water, and pit toilets pervade.  Many day travelers use the National Park, and it was crowded with people and dogs.  We were grateful that there were no dogs at the State Park when we were there, and pets seem to be discouraged.  The National Park is also popular with the “deep” campers, the backpack and tent crowd who hike into sites where no autos can go.  Maybe twenty years ago we would have done that (pre-kids perhaps), but the pop-up serves us well for now.

Flying kites, collecting shells, swimming in the Atlantic, having picnics, taking walks, riding bikes (the paved trail is great), and so forth are all wonderful things when one has small children.  The nature center was next to our loop, and had activities all day for campers, and at night some movies were shown with a marshmallow roast.  The camp store is adequate, and the ranger station always had a supply of ice and firewood for sale.

The small village of Berlin is about fifteen minutes from the park, and offers a wonderful place to do laundry, get groceries, and grab a meal.  It is a town that has taken good care of the historic homes, streets, and beautiful city parks.  The Wednesday and Friday farmers market offers fresh clams, oysters, crabs, and various seafood, vegetables, and fabulous peaches to take back and make meals off of at a campsite.  The Baked Dessert bakery and café (http://bakeddessertcafe.com/bakedatthebeach/home.html) had the most amazing, fresh, hot crusty bread that we went back several times to purchase said loaves and some local sausages and cheese too (do not ask me about the cupcake bread pudding, peach tarts, or other desserts.  Just don’t do it.  I will cry).  The proprietresses are equally warm; as were all the villagers we met at the various shops, galleries, stands, restaurants, and parks.  It makes Assateague even better having Berlin to escape to from time to time.  Oh, and while we could not be there for the bathtub races, it seemed like something we ought to try to get to next year! 

Not much can be said of our foray to the southernmost part of the peninsula barrier islands, or Chincoteague.  Wallops Island NASA center, on the way to Chincoteague, has a good little museum but the underfunding of NASA is woefully evident and made us depressed. The National Seashore has a wonderful old lighthouse, remarkable for being open to the public (most along the east coast are closed to visitors).  The beach is crowded, and the swamp leading to it of interest biologically, but for little else.  The town of Chincoteague was all tourist trap, and the camp grounds abysmal combinations of homeless shelters (the sheer number of permanent residents in RV’s is overwhelming.  I think stats on this population, which are often older persons, needs to be examined in the wake of the economic collapse of the oughts) and country-pop loving, smoking, and drinking vacationers.  We moved campgrounds twice (I particularly warn anyone against Toms Cove campground for their horrifying bathrooms, policies, tiny sites, more than half “permanent residents”, and other issues), and were told by one woman we spoke with that the campgrounds attracted, as she delicately put it, “a certain type of person”.  Point taken, Madame.

We cut our visit to Chincoteague to twelve hours total, and headed down the peninsula to the undulating bridge/tunnel engineering wonder that gets people from the tip of the DelMarVa (Delaware/Maryland/Virginia) across the bay to Norfolk, VA.

Our last minute addition of Busch Gardens, Williamsburg to make up for the shortened trip was literally a wash- thunderstorms kept shutting down the park and after four hours and only three rides, BG refunded our money.  We drove home between flash floods and thunderstorms, wishing we had stayed a few extra days in Assateague.

Still, as a foray into the unknown it was a good trip, and gave us a place to escape to in the future.  Now I’ll have to start plotting a back roads course for the next visit.  Maybe I’ll finally find out how Assawoman got it’s name, too.