- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

The contrast couldn’t be greater: wild horses vs. high-rises; undisturbed shoreline vs. trinket shops and bars. Yet these polar opposites — Assateague Island and Ocean City, Md. — are only a few miles apart.

In fact, they are part of the same system of barrier islands and at one point were headed for the same destiny: summer resorts extraordinaire. Ultimately, that was not in the cards for Assateague Island. Planned development was forever abandoned in the wake of a huge storm in 1962 and a National Park designation in 1965.

So, today, visitors to Maryland’s short stretch of Atlantic Ocean-front, about a three-hour drive from the District, easily can get a piece of both worlds: From back-country hiking on undisturbed beaches where humans are the sideshow to go-karting and strip cruising where humans are the main attraction.

Let’s start — and linger — in a place where the main attraction has four legs, eats for about 19 hours a day and runs wild: Assateague Island and its famous wild ponies.

There are about 120 of them on the Maryland side of the island and another 120 on the Virginia side. (Assateague Island is 37 miles long, of which about 60 percent belongs to Maryland and 40 percent belongs to Virginia; most of it is inaccessible by car.)

While that equine number may sound small, don’t fret, chances are you will see not only one but a dozen or more ponies as these creatures are fearless, roaming and grazing close to the road, oblivious to cars and cyclists.

They are descendents of a domesticated stock that has grazed on the island since the 17th century. Apparently, Eastern Shore farmers grazed their livestock on the island to avoid mainland taxes, according the National Park Service.

They are on the small and scruffy side, but don’t be fooled by their cuteness — they are wild and can inflict serious wounds by biting or kicking says a National Park Service brochure. So, no feeding or petting, please.

A good place to start any island exploration if approaching from the Maryland side — the island also can be accessed from Chincoteague, Va. — is the Barrier Island Visitor Center just off Route 611 before the bridge to Assateague.

Aside from maps and information about camping permits, the center features short films about the island and kids’ activities including a touch tank with horseshoe crabs.

There is also a gift shop that offers books and activity sets as well as a driving tour on CD. Make the $13.95 investment as the hourlong tour gives a wonderful overview of everything from island history to ecology while you drive a short loop, stopping in several places of interest, including Bayside Drive, where you can rent kayaks, or the South Oceanside Beach, where you can swim, fish and shower.

On a recent overcast afternoon, the beach with its grayish, soft sand and never-ending horizon was almost empty and the waves were tall and angry. Being virtually alone, the setting felt wild and timeless.

According to the Park Service, visitors will be far from alone once Memorial Day rolls around as beaches and campgrounds tend to fill up early during the busy season from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend.

At no time of year are Assateague and Chincoteague as crowded as when the Virginia-side ponies are rounded up for their annual 1,000-yard swim from Assateague to Chincoteague to be culled and auctioned off to the highest bidder. (The auction is a way to make sure the herd stays at an optimal number.) At least 40,000 people are expected to watch the swim on July 29.

While summer is a beautiful time of year for a visit to Assateague, considering it also is high season for mosquitoes, biting flies and ticks, it also can be the worst time of year. Taking plenty of good bug repellent is a must, especially for visitors planning on going back-country camping at the marshy bay-side sites. These sites, which can be reached only on foot or by kayak, do not provide fresh water. Visitors are advised to bring at least one gallon of water per person, per day.

There are about 20 miles worth of back-country trails where, chances are, you’ll see everything from horses to bunnies and deer to egrets.

If you’re not the camping type, west Ocean City offers plenty of family-style hotels, such as the Francis Scott Key, which, along with an on-site restaurant offers everything from an arcade to a minigolf course and two pools.

Or, if you’re traveling with older kids — or no kids at all — and you’d rather go quaint, the town of Berlin just a few miles away offers several bed-and-breakfasts as well as the 1895 Hotel Atlantic, which features rooms with period furniture. The town also has several nice restaurants, galleries and antiques shops.

A nice — and almost surreal — way to cap the day after a hike in the Assateague Island paradise is to pay a visit to Dumser’s, a 1950s-style ice cream shop at the corner of U.S. Route 50 and Route 611. There you can enjoy ice cream while surrounded by delightfully mosquito-free parking lots and cars.

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