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.
Heading reluctantly back toward my car, I spotted someone else who seemed just as thrilled to be on the beach as I was. I assumed that the furry creature frolicking in the sand near the fishing pier was a dog. Missing my two pooches, I couldn’t help approaching. The animal on the end of this leash, though, turned out to be a frisky little ferret named Miss Vette.
For her owner, Coleen Anderson of Ocean City, Md., being able to bring Miss Vette along to the beach is one of the appeals of Kiptopeke. That, and “it’s very peaceful, and it’s very jet-ski friendly.”
Pets and big water toys aren’t the only reasons to visit state parks. 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 I-64 one exit before the road that leads to the main strip. Already, things felt less hectic as I passed a lake, a golf course and an inlet that opens into the Chesapeake Bay on my way to First Landing State Park.
Here, 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. To honor that legacy, officials changed the park’s name from Seashore State Park to First Landing State Park in 1997.
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 replica of a Native American 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.
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.
“This is a very family-friendly area,” said Donna Griffen. I met her and her husband, Mark, doing pretty much the same thing I was, walking head down in the shallow water looking for shells. The Loveland, Ohio, couple had visited First Landing once before, 10 years earlier. Their 14-year-old daughter and her friend weren’t too impressed with the waves this time.
“This was big when you were 4!” Mark recounted telling her.
To get to Kiptopeke, I headed north along the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, an engineering masterpiece that I think would have earned approval from even the steeliest teen critics.
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. 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 largely elementary school-age crowd at First Landing. A good number of the teens were roughhousing in deeper water. There were also more groups without any kids.
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 could see why Anderson and her husband had chosen to camp at the park for a whole week.
I docked for the evening in Cape Charles, a small town about 10 miles north of Kiptopeke. With childish abandon, I skipped dinner, went straight to the new scoop shop, Brown Dog Ice Cream, and ordered a three-flavor cup (cherry chocolate, rum raisin and vanilla, since you asked). The line stretched out the door. Customers lingered on the sidewalk, slurping their dessert as fast as it could melt. Still more vacationers hung around the town pier, fishing and watching the sun set.
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.
This scene resembled the beach trips of my youth: Lifeguards watched the masses, families hauled large amounts of gear, ubiquitous blue rental umbrellas dotted the sand. Still, a relatively short walk in the opposite direction of the crowd took me to a less populated strand, where I started to encounter more seagulls than people.
I indulged myself in some sea-glass hunting (brown, check; green, check, blue, sadly no) before deciding that 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 nature center turned out to be geared pretty much toward children, so I was glad to have my horse-sighting inquiry as a cover for walking in by myself. The man at the desk suggested that 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 rubber-necking halt near three horses grazing at the side of the road. 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.