Relinquish control to nature. That’s extremely difficult for an urbanite like myself. But, I was on the fast track to total anxietyville and desperately needed an escape. What better way to unwind than leaving yourself behind on a five mile bike trek through a barrier island refuge? Sighing upon spotting wild ponies? Napping on a deserted beach? Being bitten by insanely voracious mosquitoes?
Ok, this last is not quite as relaxing as the rest! Definitely watch out for those bloodsuckers while you enjoy some sea-drenched nature just three hours away from DC, on the Chincoteague Island National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague National Seashore. With some 14,000 acres of barrier island habitat including marshes and long stretches of beach, this is a naturalist’s dream.
The town of Chincoteague itself is rather like a rusty old tugboat that does its duty with a trusty nonchalance. It’s not a glamorous destination, but there are plenty of decent seafood places, surf shops, cute boutiques, and decadent ice cream parlours. It’s still milking the “Misty” books, Marguerite Henry’s tales of the penning of the famous wild horses. Yours truly learned to ride on a Chincoteague pony back in the mists of her teenage years and still has a soft spot for these extremely tough and beautiful animals. There are pony rides to be had here, of course, but I suggest you rather seek out viewing them in their natural habitat on Assateague (unless you are or have kids, in which case, they will love a ride).
The Assateague National Seashore has a modest entrance fee and features three wildlife trails of varying difficulty where you can view lots of interesting birds like ibis, heron, and egret – and the famous Delmarva fox squirrel natives kept telling me about (I began to think it was a myth like the Pine Barrens devil). If you are lucky you will come across a band of horses from the two herds remaining on the island, split into separately maintained Maryland and Virginia herds.
The beaches are flat and long as befits a barrier island. When I went as a kid there were huge dunes – no more, thanks to battering Nor’easters over the years. On a sunny June morning the beach was pretty deserted except for lone walkers and brave surfers. I expect however that with over one million visitors a year, this changes as the season picks up.
If you are looking for a rustic weekend break with plenty of nature photo ops, a long beach to sack out on, and glimpses of remarkable horses, then take the escape route to Chincoteague and Assateague. You could even camp, making it a pretty inexpensive jaunt. Just breathe in the salty marsh air and relax. Oh, and remember the bug spray.