To many tourists, Maryland's Eastern Shore is nothing more than what lies on either side of a seemingly endless U.S. 50 and the long ride home to Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington after an Ocean City vacation. But meandering onto roads less traveled can make all the difference, as poet Robert Frost advised. It can even make you want to take a vacation from the beach, put the ocean behind you for a day or two and indulge in a leisurely look at the "Land of Pleasant Living."
Start with a walk on the wild side at Assateague Island, just 20 minutes from Ocean City. Traveling on U.S. 50 west from O.C., turn left at Route 611 and follow the brown park signs. Bear left at the fork, cross the Verrazano Bridge, nose straight into the state park or veer right into the national seashore -- and draw in your breath at the primitive beauty of Assateague.
Assateague Island once stretched from Chincoteague Inlet in Virginia to Fenwick, Del., part of the chain of barrier islands that guards the Massachusetts-to-Florida coast. But a 1933 hurricane trapped tons of ocean water between Assateague and the mainland. In a great surge, the water rushed back to the sea, tearing Fenwick and Assateague islands asunder and creating the Ocean City inlet.
Across that narrow inlet is another world. While human beings create most of the wildness in Ocean City, the wildness of Assateague is to "enjoy and preserve," as the park signs encourage. The 37-mile-long barrier island was designated in 1965 by the federal government as Assateague Island National Seashore.
For day trippers, Assateague offers picnic and concession areas, a small restaurant and the fabulous, unspoiled beach for swimming, surfing or daydreaming. Bird watchers will thrill to many varieties of herons, egrets and other wading birds, and may spot the piping plover, an endangered species that nests at Assateague.
National Park Service naturalists will instruct novices in the fine art of surf fishing (no saltwater license required). In addition, the Maryland end of the park features three self-guided walking trails designed to educate hikers on the life of the island's marsh, forest and dunes.
And then there are the ponies. About 150 small but hearty wild horses roam the Maryland portion of the island, descendants of horses that have lived on the island since the late 17th century, when legend says they swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. Actually, they were probably brought to the island by Eastern Shore planters trying to avoid being taxed for them. In any case, the ponies are thrilling to watch, but be careful: It's illegal and dangerous to feed them, and they have been known to bite and kick visitors.
The National Park Service operates two year-round campgrounds, oceanside and bayside, in the Maryland end of Assateague. The campsites offer chemical toilets, drinking water and cold showers, with facilities for tents or recreational vehicles. From May 15 to Sept. 15, you can reserve a campsite in the national park by calling 641-3030.
In addition, Maryland operates a 680-acre state park near the northern end of Assateague, with 311 improved campsites (hot showers in bathhouses and flush toilets). You can a reserve a week's stay during the summer by calling 641-2120.
After Assateague, ease back into civilization with a layover in the genteel, historic town of Berlin. From U.S. 50, take Route 346 or Route 818 (which becomes Main Street) straight into town. It's about 20 minutes from Ocean City.
You'll know you've arrived in downtown Berlin when you get to the Atlantic Hotel Inn and Restaurant at 2 N. Main St. Established in 1895, the elegant hotel was restored and refurbished in 1988 by a group of local business people.
Each of the 14 guest rooms has a distinctive design, complete with antiques, Victorian-era accessories and claw-foot bathtubs (updated to accommodate our modern affinity for showering). If you can't spend the night, at least make time for lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch in the restaurant, where general manager and chef Stephen Jacques promises fine food served in a "slow, Southern, laid-back style." For information or reservations, call 641-3589.
If you decide you'd like to take home a little of the ambience of Berlin, snoop through Main Street's half dozen or so antique shops. The little stores feature a few treasures for the serious collector plus a trunkful of trinkets for bargain hunters.
When you're ready for lunch, check out Rayne's Reef Luncheonette at 10 N. Main St. One local man says it's "like walking into 'Mayberry R.F.D.' " and he's right -- even though the fountain soda is served in a wax-coated paper cup instead of a frosted glass. But the hearty, down home food, the 1965 prices and the friendly service are pure Andy Griffith. Or is it Twin Peaks?