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The Abiding Charms of Virginia's Eastern Shore

The peninsula holding the Atlantic Ocean from the Chesapeake Bay is mostly Delaware and Maryland territory, but tapering off the end is a 70-mile sliver of Virginia. If your view of Virginia's Eastern Shore extends no farther than the flat farmland and unremarkable roadside stops you can see from the main north­south highway, the Shore won't much care. It is content to remain as it is, an uncomplicated, pastoral place where most towns are marked only by a post office, most 100-year-old Victorian houses aren't considered especially rare, and most people still live by the rhythms of farming or fishing. Take some time to follow the back roads meandering away from the highway, but be warned: you may find yourself hooked on the Shore's bucolic stillness and the splendid isolation from the cities of the mid-Atlantic—only a few hours by car but light-years by state of mind.

chincoteague
An island at the end of a four-mile causeway, Chincoteague is technically not even on the Eastern Shore, which is appropriate because it's certainly not of it. Unapologetically touristy, often tacky, this beach town practically chokes on minivans in summer. There's a reason for its popularity: Chincoteague is one of the best places in the East for a family beach vacation.

What separates it from other similar towns is that the touristy atmosphere doesn't spoil the beach itself. To reach it, you cross a narrow channel of water to CHINCOTEAGUE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE (757/336-6122)—actually located, confusingly enough, on the island of Assateague—leaving the town's clutter behind. A long, thin barrier island, Assateague is entirely national or state parkland, so the sand stretches for miles, boardwalk- and condo-free.

The island teems with wildlife both hoofed and winged. It's a favorite spot of East Coast bird-watchers, and in late summer, even a novice armed with a field guide and good binoculars can see peregrine falcons and plenty of shorebirds. Most famous, though, are the wild ponies, which gained enduring fame in 1947 with Marguerite Henry's children's book Misty of Chincoteague. They aren't shy, and it's common to see a grazing herd of ponies being admired from the roadside by a gazing herd of humans.

If wet weather puts beachgoing or pony-watching off, you can visit the OYSTER & MARITIME MUSEUM (7125 Maddox Blvd.; 757/336-6117) to see the educational "I'm an Oyster" display and be reassured that it is indeed okay to eat oysters during months whose names do not contain the letter r. Or admire the satellite-launching rocketry at the WALLOPS FLIGHT FACILITY of NASA'S GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER (Rte. 175, Wallops Island; 757/824-2298), on the mainland side of the causeway. Most shopping on Chincoteague is of the T-shirts and sunscreen variety, but a handful of stores do carry locally carved decoys.

Thanks to the competition for tourist dollars, there are a number of good restaurants in town. A.J.'S ON THE CREEK (6585 Maddox Blvd.; 757/336-5888; dinner for two $40), of the candlelight and New Age­music school, has uniformly excellent fish and shellfish. Farther off the beaten path is NONNIE'S (3899 Main St.; 757/336-5822; dinner for two $30), where locals go for Italian comfort food. You can take afternoon tea, complete with fresh scones, at the CHANNEL BASS INN (6228 Church St.; 800/221-5620 or 757/336-6148; tea for two $17; doubles from $125, including breakfast and tea). Socializing is enforced by the no-nonsense Scottish hostess.

You can also stay at Channel Bass, whose six big rooms and soundproof walls are good for families. But Misty fanatics will undoubtedly want to lodge at the seven-room MISS MOLLY'S INN (4141 Main St.; 800/221-5620 or 757/336-6686; doubles from $99, including breakfast and tea), where Henry wrote part of the book. Like Miss Molly's, WATSON HOUSE (4240 Main St.; 800/336-6787; doubles from $69, including breakfast) is a B&B housed in a handsome gingerbread Victorian. Though you would not know it from the outside, the even more Victorian-looking house across the street, the INN AT POPLAR CORNER (4248 Main St.; 800/336-6787 or 757/336-1564; doubles from $109, including breakfast), was actually built in 1995. Motels cluster along Main Street and Maddox Boulevard; nicer properties include the ISLAND MOTOR INN (4391 Main St.; 757/336-3141, fax 757/336-1483; doubles from $88) and WATERSIDE MOTOR INN (3761 Main St.; 757/336-3434, fax 757/336-1878; doubles from $95), both on the water.

Driving out of Chincoteague on a Saturday morning, tune your radio to 103.3 FM to catch Swap Shop, the Eastern Shore's radio classifieds. Listening to locals selling floppy-eared bunnies, aluminum stilts, and outboard motors, you can't help but feel, as Chincoteague fades in the distance, that you're entering a more relaxed, more real world.

pony up!
During the annual Pony Penning week (this year, it's July 29-30), the herd that lives on the Virginia end of Assateague is rounded up by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, made to swim across the channel to Chincoteague, and paraded through town (some of the younger ponies are sold at auction). The event is a cruelty-free fund-raiser, population-control measure, and photo op all in one. Be prepared to pay, though: most lodgings impose four- or five-night minimums.

parksley
In the 1880's, when trains first linked the Eastern Shore with cities to the north, several towns sprang up out of the farmland. The largest of these was Parksley. It never grew too big, though, and today it's so close to the idealized American town that its quiet streets, enlivened in the pre-supper dusk by bike-riding children, seem as if they could exist only on a Hollywood back lot. Parksley is real, however, and while it's primarily a nice place to live—the only B&B closed last year—it's still worth a visit.

On weekdays, the freight train rumbles by twice a day. To relive a livelier period of rail travel, check out the EASTERN SHORE RAILWAY MUSEUM (18468 Dunne Ave.; 757/665-7245). The segregated waiting rooms of the restored brick station bear witness that the golden age wasn't golden for everybody. Across the street is PARKSLEY DRUG COMPANY (18497 Dunne Ave.; 757/665-5152), where the Tuesday lunch special of chicken pot pie and fried apples costs $3.75.

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