Assateague Island and Ocean City: Summer Fun with Wild Ponies
By Esha Samajpati
For most of us in New England, a long weekend in May is synonymous with a beach getaway.
Hoping to get some sun, my husband and I browsed through various websites and decided upon Ocean City in Maryland, along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Their website promised us ten miles of glorious beaches and great seafood.
Ocean City Boardwalk
Ocean City kept its promise. Clean beaches, all-you-can-eat buffets and loads of lodging possibilities. If you don’t book early enough, you may lose out on a ocean-front room which is what happened with us.
Once on the beach, we pored over the various activities available to us in Ocean City. We could check out one of the theme-based mini-golf courses, glide down a waterslide, shop for beach accessories or hit the famous boardwalk.
The classic wooden boardwalk has been voted one of America's best by the Travel Channel. We went there for a walk and enjoyed the crisp evening air, munching on salt-water taffy and caramel pop-corn. Wary of over-indulging our sweet tooth, we soon left for an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Most of the restaurants had similar buffet menus with fresh sea-fare. The choices range from seafood of every possible variety to a carving station where we were served prime ribs and hams.
As far as we were concerned, the steamed legs of freshly-caught snow crabs were the hands-down winner.
Cracking through the tough shells, we gorged on the soft, white meat. For amateurs like us, it did take some effort to crack, but the taste more than made up for it.
In spite of a lively night-time scene, we headed back to our hotel having made some early morning plans for the next day. By now, we were eager to get away from the bustle of the beach town into wilder territories.
Assateague Island National Seashore
Twenty minutes from Ocean City, we found ourselves at the gateway to a gorgeous beach where wild ponies roam free. Yes, we had reached the Assateague Island National Seashore.
Initially, Ocean City and Assateague Island were connected. In 1933, a storm formed the Ocean City inlet and thus separated them. Since then, the similarities between the two have been on a constant decrease.
While Ocean City boasts of a lively atmosphere with hotels, restaurants, amusement parks and night clubs, the Assateague Island offers wildlife, pine forests and marshy lands.
The rustic island with its 37-mile long beach, spans from Maryland to the north and Virginia to the south. As it is being maintained as a refuge for wild-life, the nearest hotels and restaurants can be found in either Ocean City, Maryland, or Chincoteague, Virginia.
We paid $15 for a vehicle pass (valid for a week) at the entrance of the Assateague Island National Seashore and headed straight for the bike and kayak rentals. When surrounded by wildlife, it is best to ditch motorized vehicles and opt for an environmentally friendly alternative.
Here we were told that the Maryland side of Assateague provides more than 300 campsites, while no camping is available on the Virginia side.
Maybe another time… As for now, we got ourselves a couple of bikes, nothing too fancy but basic sturdy stuff.
With a cool salty breeze for company, we explored the park on our bikes and found three short nature trails – “Life of the Marsh,” “Life of the Forest” and “Life of the Dunes.” Sticking our bikes into the stands, we walked into each of them and found ourselves in the midst of unspoiled nature.
The island is a paradise for bird-watchers, especially in late summer. Piping plover, a threatened species, nest at Assateague. Ducks, warblers, egrets, gulls, sand-pipers, ospreys and more can be spotted by the discerning eye.
My husband sneaked up on a milky-white egret and got a beautiful shot of the graceful bird. Not caring much for the unwanted attention, it took off on its black stocking-ed feet almost immediately.
While on the “Life of the Marsh” trail, we spotted a herd of ponies grazing on a jutting piece of land, few feet away from us. Beautiful creatures with a glossy coat and long eye-lashes, they grazed peacefully. Their diet mostly consists of marsh and dune grasses. Petting or feeding is strictly prohibited.
Imagine my delight when we came out of the sandy dunes and marshy grassland and saw that some of the ponies had ventured out on the paved roads.
Undisturbed, they grazed on the road-side shrubbery totally oblivious to the people around. Given the rising sun, they were simply out for a stroll and maybe, a quick dip in the ocean.
Seems that the hotter the weather, the better are your chances of spotting a pony. As we got to see more than our fair share of ponies, we didn’t bother to go on a Pony Watching Cruise which departs daily from Curtis Merritt Harbor in Chincoteague Island, Virginia. Only during summer months, of course.
Apart from ponies, the island boasts of many other forms of wildlife like deer, dolphins, otters and more. But undoubtedly, the stout ponies with their shaggy manes were the star of the show.
Idle Beach Time
In the excitement at seeing a pony on the very road I was biking on, I tried to stop my bike abruptly and hurt my foot. Seeing that I could hardly walk, we dropped off our bikes and made our way to the beach.
Warm soft sand soothed my sprained foot and the cool blue waters of the Atlantic gleamed invitingly.
Spreading our beach towels, we got ready to soak up the sun. Going by the activities around us, I would say that the island is great for fishing, clamming and crabbing.
Soon after, my husband went on a long walk, mostly to scout for photo-ops. I had to take it easy on account of my poor foot and as I lay there blinking up at the sun, I couldn’t think of a more relaxing way to spend a long summer weekend.
Esha Samajpati worked in advertising in India, before moving to Connecticut and becoming a travel writer. “Even now, when I visit a city, the billboards draw my attention,” she says. “How a city advertises tells me a lot about the place and the people.”