The nationwide relaxing of COVID-19 restrictions has just about everybody antsy to take a real vacation this summer. But there is still understandable reluctance to going someplace teeming with potentially unvaccinated people or traversing crowded airports to get there. Combine that with sky-high ticket prices and positively astronomical rental car rates, and there’s a real incentive to find someplace interesting with an abundance of outdoor activities that you can easily drive to.
If so, look (and drive) no farther than the Delmarva Peninsula, so named because it consists of the entire state of Delaware (Del), and the Eastern Shores of both Maryland ("mar") and Virginia (Va.). Nearly four times the size of Long Island, but with only a fifth of the population, Delmarva offers an abundance of inherently safe-distanced, outdoor activities and spectacular scenery on both its eastern (Atlantic Ocean) and western (Chesapeake Bay) sides. Throw in a laid-back attitude and the best fresh seafood on the East Coast, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more ideal — as well as idyllic — late-Covid destination. Here are the Delmarva Peninsula’s most compelling destinations to visit this season.
The Beach Resorts of Delaware and Maryland
The most popular part of the entire peninsula — by far — is the 40-mile stretch of white-sand, barrier island beach that begins at Cape Henlopen in Lewes (pronounced "Loo-iss"), Delaware, and continues south through the classic resort destinations of Rehoboth, Dewey, and Bethany Beaches to Ocean City, Maryland. During the summer, both beaches and towns, with all their standard attractions and activities, are jam-packed, primarily with sun worshippers from metropolitan Baltimore and Washington, DC. And while the beaches are great, they are no better than those on Long Island and the Jersey Shore, and arguably less aesthetic because of the proximity of high-rise condos and hotels. Long Islanders, therefore, would be well advised to spend most of their time exploring what else Delmarva has to offer.
Maryland’s Eastern Shore
Before completion of the Bay Bridge from Annapolis in 1952, Maryland’s deeply indented Eastern Shore (of the Chesapeake Bay) was the isolated domain of hardworking, small-town farmers, chicken ranchers, and commercial watermen. Today, it, and especially the communities closest to the bridge, is just as dependent on tourists and recreational activities, especially boating, sailing and fishing.
Glimpses of the way it used to be can still be caught in charming, colonial-era Chestertown to the north and Easton to the south, both consistent "best small town: award winners. Twenty miles below Easton is the still active commercial fishing center of Cambridge, gateway to both the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park (free) and 28,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge ($3 per vehicle).
Southwest of the Eastern Shore "metropolis" of Salisbury, headquarters of Perdue Farms, is Crisfield, once the "crab capital of the world," from which you can catch the passenger ferry to still-sleepy Smith and Tangier Islands. On the way to Ocean City is Victorian Berlin, another "best small town" honoree.
Assateague and Chincoteague
If people know only one thing about the Delmarva Peninsula, it is most likely the wild ponies of Chincoteague and their annual summer roundup and swim to the mainland, done to reduce the ecological strain on their 35-mile-long — but only half a mile wide — barrier island refuge. That island, however, is actually named Assateague and mostly in Maryland, where the feral equines are called "horses." The whole island is a national seashore, though it is administered by two separate entities, Assateague State Park in Maryland (entrance: $5 per person), and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in Virginia (entrance $10 per vehicle). Except for roundup, which has already been canceled this year, you are sure to see dozens of these diminutive ponies/horses at either. But you can also enjoy the concession-free-beach and see lots of other wildlife, most notably shore birds, which is best done on rented or brought bikes. Camping is allowed in both facilities, but most overnight visitors stay in either Ocean City, Maryland, or Chincoteague, Virginia.
An added attraction for those going to Chincoteague is the Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, a NASA-run space launching compound. The visitor center remains closed until further notice, but the rockets are still going up and are naturally visible from anywhere nearby.
Virginia’s Eastern Shore
Virginia’s portion of the Delmarva extends 70 miles from the Maryland border to Cape Charles, but averages only about 10 miles in width, meaning easy access to both coasts from U.S. Route 13, the central artery. Until the completion of the spectacular 17-mile-long Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 1964, this was the most isolated part of the state. Today, the lack of direct ocean access, precluded by a series of marshy offshore islands, makes Virginia’s Eastern Shore (ESVA for short) with its decidedly Southern flavor, the least crowded part of the peninsula. That, arguably, makes it the best place to dawdle and enjoy what all nature has to offer such as swimming, kayaking, fishing, and watching the sun set over Chesapeake Bay. Among the highlights: the bayside beach community of Cape Charles, the oceanside fishing community of Wachapreague, Kiptopeke State Park with its bizarre lines of concrete ships, and the thoroughly unmodern town of Onancock.
Basically, take any combination of roads or highways down to Wilmington, Delaware, and turn left (south) on either U.S. Route 13 or State Route 1. For much better scenery and considerably less stress, however, take the Garden State Parkway down to Cape May and the ferry across Delaware Bay to Lewes. (Summer fares: vehicle $35 one way/$65 RT; adult passengers $10 one way/$18 RT; child passengers (ages 6-13) $6 one way/$9 RT.)