Squinting off into the distance, my feet sinking into the sand, I couldn’t have felt more at peace had I parachuted onto the beach of a desert island.
To my left, the shore stretched into a curve fringed with eroded, tree-topped dunes. Rows of seaweed neatly discarded by the waves striped the sand. Only if I turned to my right could I see a few people near the pier. They were far enough away to be easily forgotten.
After a day on the move, I’d found my quiet place at Kiptopeke State Park on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a spot enchanting enough to entice me, a terrible beach bum, to sit still. The water ebbed and flowed hypnotically, each wave tossing bits of shell and rock onto the sand. It sounded like a wind chime, and suddenly I remembered the chime that I’d constantly collected shells for as a kid. But never put together, alas.
After a recent week of Skee-Ball and outlet shopping in Rehoboth Beach, Del., I wanted to leave all that hubbub behind for a quieter, more natural experience on the Virginia and Maryland coasts. If the crowds were smaller, too, so much the better.
I didn’t think I’d find that quiet scene at Virginia Beach, my first stop. So instead of heading for the resort city with the long boardwalk lined by hotels and restaurants, I jumped off Interstate 64 one exit before the road that leads to the main strip.
At First Landing State Park, parking required no complicated strategy, as it would have at the main city beach. I paid my $4 admission and pulled into the wide-open lot. Rather than rush to the beach, I spent some time with the history exhibits in the visitor center. Settlers from the Virginia Company first came ashore in 1607 on the spot where the park now sits.
In the colonists’ spirit of exploration, I rented a rusty red bike from the park’s camp store. The park boasts a trail system of about 20 miles (although only one of the 10 trails is accessible to bikes).
As I entered the woods, the beach couldn’t have felt more distant. The forest enveloped me. A reproduction of a Native American dwelling sat along the trail, and cypress swamps lent a primeval feeling to the lush green atmosphere.
I lasted about an hour on two wheels. In need of a breeze and a refreshing splash of water, I could avoid the beach no longer. I braced myself for crowds — and found none. Plenty of empty sand separated the candy-colored beach umbrellas.
The crowd here skewed young. On this bay side of Virginia Beach, waves as warm and gentle as a wading pool slowly lapped the shore a generous three-Mississippi count apart. Children could walk and swim out farther than I was ever allowed or wanted to at the ocean beach a few miles away.
Kiptopeke didn’t have to work hard to win me over. It was love, as four giant Adirondack chairs erected by Virginia tourism officials spelled out. When I walked onto the sand in the late afternoon, slanting rays of sun glinted off the rapid yet diminutive waves.
Seeking respite from the sun, I set off on one of the park’s wooded trails. It led me to a boardwalk across the dunes and down to the beach on the other side of the fishing pier.
I docked for the evening in Cape Charles, a small town about 10 miles north of Kiptopeke.
When the sun came back up the next morning, I made haste for Maryland’s Assateague State Park. I’d never seen the area’s famed ponies, and I was excited about the prospect.
Assateague proved to be something of a reality check after the Virginia parks. The parking lot was fuller and the beach busier, particularly in front of the campground.
I indulged myself in some sea-glass hunting on the beach (brown, check; green, check, blue, sadly no) before deciding that numerous birds and sunbathers didn’t qualify as the kind of wildlife I’d hoped to encounter. For horse-viewing advice, I left the beach to walk to the nature center, but even before I got there, I spied my target: A trio of horses had begun to raid a nearby campsite.
The man at the nature center desk suggested that I try driving along the road that paralleled the campground.
During my quest, I pulled onto the shoulder to take a few pictures. The horses appeared to be oblivious to their admirers, even as the people drew ever closer. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve won the horse-racing arcade game at Funland in Rehoboth. At Assateague, it was impossible to lose.