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Winter Break

By Donna Peremes
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page WE32

I wouldn't have been surprised to see a tumbleweed drift by.

The sand, the scrub, the ponies -- and, especially, the profound quiet -- all added up to a timeless tableau, a sublime stasis. The only thing rushing by was the wind.

Wild ponies at Maryland's Assateague Island National Seashore. (Art Baltrotsky - For The Washington Post)

It was a cutting one, too. The high was 23 degrees.

The tranquility I experienced during a long mid-January walk at Assateague Island National Seashore on Maryland's Eastern Shore is hard to find these days. Even at a wildlife sanctuary near Cape May, N.J., I heard (far-off and faintly, but still . . .) front-loaders replenishing the beach with sand. At a wildlife refuge in Delaware, I walked a trail (admittedly one at the periphery) and detected a whisper of traffic from a nearby interstate.

At Assateague, it was wind, waves, and at one point, the startling neigh of a nearby pony.

"For beachgoers who just like to sun-worship and that sort of thing, of course, summertime's a great time to come," says Robert Fudge, chief of education and interpretation for Assateague Island National Seashore. Conveniently enough, he happened to be at the front desk of the park's Barrier Island Visitor Center when I stopped in to ask about winter's human migrations.

"But if your objective is to get away from things -- like Washington, D.C. -- this is a terrific time of year to come out here, because there aren't a lot of people, first of all, not a lot of traffic, and when you get out of your car and you start walking around, you get clear skies.

"That's one of the nicest things about the fall and the winter, to be able to see long distances," he says.

"You know the horses have a great look at this time of year. They've got that sort of winter coat on. . . . They're hanging out more in the brushy areas." Indeed they are.

On a jaunt through the Assateague; Rehoboth, Del.; and Cape May areas this winter, I found that the beach was my oyster: Off-off-season visits set visitors back very few clams, and, as the man said, the traffic, crowds and biting insects are absent, and there's little chance of a sunburn.

A healthy flush of the cheek, however, is easily attained: Opportunities for breathing the bracing sea air, communing with nature and getting in the new U.S. Dietary Guidelines' recommended 30 to 90 minutes of exercise a day abound, and the peacefulness you find may take your breath away. These places have in common abundant natural attractions, and a sufficient winter tourist base to accommodate visitors.

According to Ed Aurand, a volunteer who has logged more than 1,500 hours at the Assateague visitor center's information desk, "we do get spurts of visitors here if the weather is just so in the wintertime. I have to say, though, January and February tend to be very, very slow periods for us."

Aurand chuckles as he remembers some tourists a few years back. "The snow was blowing sideways, it was one of those days. Four guys came trooping in here. Turned out that they had tee times at the local golf course and they couldn't get in."

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