For Kids

Now for Something a Little Bit Different

By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 16, 2008

As much as kids know that the 3 R's define the school year, they also know that summer is all about the 4 S's. That's right: Sun, surf, sea and sand are about all kids need for a memory-making family vacation.

Of course, a week at the beach also means arcades, thrill rides, water parks and Thrasher's fries. But if you find that, by day four or five, you're looking for something a little different, something a little special that might mean new memories, you're probably not alone. Here are a few favorite excursions. Some take a full day, others just a few hours, but regardless of where you're staying, they're worth the effort.

Assateague Island National Seashore

It's amazing how many regular visitors to Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach never make it to this sandy gem. Granted, it's about as different from the hustle and hubbub of the boardwalk as you can get, but it's not without its thrills -- many of them natural instead of man-made.

From the southern end of the Ocean City boardwalk, you can see the island in the distance. What you can't see from there is that the island is home to about 300 wild ponies and just as many species of birds that find its beaches, pine forests and salt marshes the perfect oasis.

The ponies were made famous in Marguerite Henry's 1947 book "Misty of Chincoteague" and the annual pony penning, during which horses swim from Assateague to Virginia's Chincoteague Island the last Wednesday of July. But the Maryland side of Assateague (the state line runs through the middle of the island) is wonderful to discover any day of the summer.

The visitors center is always a great place to start. (Some kids, and adults, love to collect the National Park Service brochures.) It has aquariums and exhibits on marine life, and it's a great place to pick up tips on biking, shell collecting and seeing the ponies.

And let there be no doubt, you will see ponies -- very possibly close up, perhaps even more close up than you want. They cross in front of your car, wander on the side of the road grazing and walk in herds up and down the beach. The horses are no doubt more accustomed to people than the people are to them. Seeing the horses so near will delight many kids, but these are not like ponies they may have ridden at birthday parties. These are wild animals, but with very little fear of humans, and have been known to bite and kick. They have also been known to eat picnic lunches spread out on the beach!

But what a wonderful opportunity to show kids animals in their own environment and remind them to behave as they would as guests at someone's house. The National Park Service describes the animals as "beautiful, tough and wild" and says feeding or petting them is "detrimental to both visitors and horses."

If your kids insist on something more than a "look, don't touch" outing, Assateague has much to offer. Visitors can leave with as much as a gallon jug of shells. (Unoccupied ones, please!) Family-friendly hiking trails lead through various habitats. And of course, there's the beach -- but it's a beach that feels more than a world away from Ocean City.

GETTING THERE By car, the island is about an hour's drive from Ocean City and a little less than two hours from Rehoboth.

HOURS The Maryland side of Assateague never closes, and camping is allowed. For information on camping, visithttp://www.recreation.govor call 877-444-6777.

FEES There's a $15 fee per car that allows you to go in and out for seven days. There's no fee for walking or biking onto the island.

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