Southeastern Virginia's Accomack County was incorrectly identified in a graphic on yesterday's Escapes page. (Published 12/02/1999)

My wife and I take an annual mid-Atlantic trip. We usually go between late March and early June, although fall and early winter are also good times to miss the flies and mosquitoes, and most tourist hordes. In the past, we have gone to Assateague Island or to lesser-known parks on the Virginia and North Carolina coasts.

This year I couldn't decide whether to explore a few new spots to the south or go to Assateague, a longtime favorite. Thus the evening before we planned to leave, I was bent over the regional map I'd spread out across the kitchen table. In three days, it did not seem possible, without rushing madly, to visit Assateague and anywhere much to the south. Then I looked at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, its red line stretched thin across the wide mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. I stepped back from the map. How had I not thought of this earlier?

I called my wife into the kitchen. The trip, I told her, was planned. Not one to show much interest in planning vacations, she didn't seem to understand what was so exciting about the Bridge-Tunnel. As long as we were still going, she was happy. I, on the other hand, was very excited about my discovery. We would use the bridge to drive a circle through the lower Chesapeake Bay, seeing more in three days than I had thought possible. Here's what we did . . .

1. From Washington, we went counter-clockwise. In Petersburg, Va., we left I-95 for U.S. 460. The two-lane road cuts southeast through the rural counties below the James River -- not the New South of Atlanta or Raleigh, but an older South of sprawling farms and clusters of ailing houses with collapsing porches. U.S. 460 passes through peanut growing country. For more than a century, the growers of Virginia's Southampton and Isle of Wight counties have produced a large share of the world's peanuts. In the towns of Wakefield and Waverly, one sign after another invites you into an outlet shop of a different peanut company. You might be tempted to pass the outlets so as not to be taken for another tourist willing to buy anything, but don't. We almost did but pulled into a shop run by the Wakefield Peanut Co. (757-899-5481). The peanuts we sampled were something rare -- larger, tastier and much fresher than what you'd find at any supermarket.

2. The small city of Suffolk, built on peanuts, is still a town of silos and packing houses, but among the well-maintained storefronts downtown we passed several restaurants that looked capable of satisfying sophisticated appetites. We settled for a humbler lunch at the Nansemond Pharmacy counter: fries, hamburgers, milkshakes. The locals eating nearby had much to say about world affairs, and, for once, two Washingtonians kept quiet and listened. Suffolk is the gateway to the Great Dismal Swamp (757-986-3705), a 107,000-acre national wildlife refuge of wooded wetland, swamp, Southern flying squirrels, bobcats, a multitude of birds and an estimated 350 black bears. The entrance nearest Suffolk is probably the best for those who, like us, only have time for a quick look. A boardwalk near the parking lot loops through a half-mile of wooded swamp, passing patches of bald cypress and red maples, the latter having become dominant due to the longtime ecological disturbance of logging in the swamp. Also nearby is the Washington Ditch, a four-mile logging canal to Lake Drummond, in the middle of the refuge. The mastermind behind the canal, now a bike and walking path, was the same man behind the C&O Canal -- George Washington.

3. We arrived at Virginia's First Landing/Seashore State Park (757-481-2131) before sundown. Five miles north of Virginia Beach, the park sits right at the mouth of the bay. We were one of five parties of campers in the park's bayside campground, which lies in a grove of live oaks behind the dunes. We spent the following morning hiking about the park. Besides its beaches, the park has terrific tracts of cypress swamp, its water stained dark by tannic acid. The cypress knees are draped in grayish-green Spanish moss making one of its northernmost appearances. We felt as if we'd strayed into the Everglades.

4. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is only five miles from Seashore State Park. Its $10 fee is probably one of the highest tolls you'll ever pay, but not bad as an admission price. Driving the 17 miles of the world's largest bridge-tunnel complex, you may ask yourself if it will ever end -- but after the first five miles there's a windy place, right in the middle of the bay, to pull over. There's a snack bar and a popular fishing pier. Signs at the rest stop illustrate the Newport News-bound Navy ships you might see navigating the two channels where the bridge becomes a tunnel. As we approached the second tunnel, a large Navy vessel approached the channel; it looked as if we were bound to torpedo the ship, but we ducked into the tunnel just in time.

5. Accokeek and Northampton counties, north of the bridge-tunnel, are isolated from the rest of Virginia, connected by land only to Maryland to form the southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula. It is in many ways the forgotten tip, its economy still largely dependent on agriculture and fishing. Tourism, on an upswing, is not what it is farther north. On the positive side, the isolation has resulted in a Chesapeake culture as untarnished as any in the region. The main road here passes through farmland and fish stands, and in the small towns along U.S. 13 are many places serving up barbecue chicken and seafood. We were tempted to stop for some local fare, but we pulled into an atypical place in Eastville. With its colorful roadside flags and hip Dupont Circle-esque interior, Arpinos (757-678-5678, closed Monday-Wednesday and during January) serves seafood with a cosmopolitan bent. The menu includes dishes dear to the hearts of the proprietors (one is Jewish, one is Italian), including fresh fish accompanied by pasta, shrimp lasagna and, most surprisingly, crab matzo ball soup. Other items include oysters and clams farm-raised by the owners.

We split a dozen steamed clams, fried calamari and one of Arpinos's Chesapeake-Italian specialties, shrimp eggplant Parmesan. Our waitress doted over my wife and me like a Jewish grandmother, making us both feel not that far from home after all. But the bill -- $20 for two, including two beers -- told us we'd traveled quite a distance from Dupont Circle.

6. Well-fed, we crossed into Maryland and headed for Assateague Island. Both Assateague State Park (410-641-2120) and Assateague Island National Seashore (410-641-3030) are among my favorite places to camp either before or after the mosquitoes, black flies and Winnebagos of summer. The ocean side was too windy, so we camped in the national park on the bay side, where only about 10 of the 60 sites were occupied. With so few people in the park, the island's wild ponies were easy to observe. Groups, or clans, drank from puddles of fresh water left by spring rains, while others grazed near the bay, undisturbed by the small number of people on the park's boardwalk. (The walk is one of the three trails in the park, each through one of the barrier island's major ecosystems: dune, forest and marsh.)

We followed U.S. 50 back to Washington, crossing the Bay Bridge a little more than two days after we'd left Thursday morning. Next time, I might take longer than a weekend to complete the loop, whose sidetrips and possibilities seem to grow each time I spread the map out again on the kitchen table.

(This graphic was not available)