The Virginia and Maryland shores

A salt-water cowboy waits for wild ponies to

A salt-water cowboy waits for wild ponies to swim across the channel from Assateague Island to Chincoteague, Va. (July 25, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Squinting 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 tree-topped dunes. Rows of seaweed 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.

Rebounding from a 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.

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, I jumped off I-64 one exit before the road that leads to the main strip.

First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach

Here, parking required no complicated strategy, as it would have at Virginia Beach's main city beach. I paid the $4 admission and pulled into the wide-open lot. 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. A replica of an American Indian dwelling sat along the trail, and cypress swamps lent a primeval feeling to the lush green atmosphere. I encountered some other cyclists and a number of joggers, but mostly, only the crunching of my bike on the gravel and the guitar-like croaking of the frogs punctuated the silence.

In need of a breeze and a refreshing splash of water, I could avoid the beach no longer. I braced myself for crowds -- but found none. Plenty of empty sand separated the candy-colored beach umbrellas. On this bay side of Virginia Beach, waves as warm and gentle as a wading pool slowly lapped the shore.

Kiptopeke State Park, Cape Charles, Va.

To get to Kiptopeke, I headed north along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. 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. On the horizon, a series of sunken barges sat bow to stern, giving the park a cozy, contained feeling.

The families here had children older than the elementary-school-age crowd at First Landing. A good number of the teens were roughhousing in deeper water.

A meticulously constructed sand lighthouse, about a foot and a half tall, stood guard over the beach between the grass-covered dunes and the water. I walked along the shore to the park boundary, where a sign warned potential trespassers away from the adjacent private beach.

Seeking respite from the sun, I set off on one of the park's wooded trails. It led me to a boardwalk -- no funnel cake or Whac-A-Mole here -- 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.

Assateague State Park, Assateague Island, Md.

Maryland's Assateague State Park, famous for its wild ponies, 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. Still, a relatively short walk in the opposite direction took me to a less populated strand, where I started to encounter more seagulls than people.

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 desk in the nature center suggested I try driving along the road that paralleled the campground. Clearly, I wasn't the only one who'd gotten this tip. The rest of the pony paparazzi slowed to a rubbernecking halt near three horses grazing at the side of the road. I pulled onto the shoulder to take a few pictures.

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.

If you go

FIRST LANDING STATE PARK 2500 Shore Dr., Virginia Beach, Va.

INFO Daily sunrise to sunset (day passes expire at 10 p.m.); weekdays, $4 a car; $5 weekends; 757-412-2300, dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/fir.shtml

KIPTOPEKE STATE PARK 3540 Kiptopeke Dr. Cape Charles, Va.

INFO Daily 8 a.m. to dusk; weekdays, $3 a car; $4 weekends; 757-331-2267, dcr.virginia.gov/state_parks/kip.shtml

ASSATEAGUE STATE PARK 6915 Stephen Decatur Hwy., Berlin, Md.

INFO Daily 9 a.m.-sunset; $6 nonresidents; 410-641-2918, dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/eastern/assateague.asp

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