As corny and commercial as the boardwalk resorts can seem, none is more than a few minutes from a nature escape. The entire mid-Atlantic coastline is rich in wildfowl and wildlife, outdoor activities and simple, cicada-free quiet -- a very real treasure in itself. Just be sure to stock up on insect repellent and sun block; sunlight reflects off both water and sand.
On the east side of the drawbridge in Lewes, Del., Fisherman's Wharf offers two-hour dolphin-watching cruises, which are almost guaranteed to turn up some of the audience-friendly bottlenoses, and slightly more problematical three-hour whale watches (302-645-8862).
Fenwick Island State Park and Delaware Seashore State Park are among the most beautiful stretches of the Atlantic seaboard, and thanks to an ongoing $15 million renovation of the Indian River Marina beside the inlet bridge (302-227-3071), ever more accessible. If even these "Quiet Resort" stretches are too populated for you, the Assawoman Wildlife Area, only moments from Fenwick off Route 54 at Camp Barnes Road, is 2,000 acres of marsh and wetlands, fields, scrub forest and unusual plants, and both waterfowl and wildlife. (The Delaware state park has added 12 fully equipped cottages in pastel colors to make Bethany Beach blink; 877-987-2757).
Assateague Island comprises the 680-acre Assateague State Park, a Maryland property (410-641-2120); the much larger Assateague Island National Seashore, a National Park Service property (410-641-1441); and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service park within the state of Virginia (757-336-3696). Chincoteague and Assateague are prime territory for nature lovers, of course, and the various roads and trails through the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge or the Assateague Island National Seashore allow for tours by car, bike or bus, including some for wheelchair users through the wildlife refuge. And this year the 22-foot-long sailing sloop Bay Breeze is available for three-hour cruises that may add sightings of dolphins and sea turtles to the birds, white-tailed and sika deer, and ponies (757-336-5271). The island's most famous residents are, of course, those shaggy, stocky wild ponies believed to be descended from horses that escaped a shipwrecked Spanish galleon; although visitors can no longer swim alongside the ponies when they're herded to Chincoteague Island for sale (July 28-29 this year, 757-336-6161), those days, the last of a month of carnivals, are easily the busiest of the year.
The national seashore is even more of a nature escape. You can sun, swim, surf, crab, canoe or canoodle, but if you have anything more sophisticated in mind, such as a restaurant or curio shop, it's not the place. (There is a seasonal snack bar at the state park entrance.)
The drive down Route 13 through the Delmarva Peninsula toward the Chesapeake Bay Bridge is a pleasant one, with frequent glimpses of starkly pretty shore and a raft of small towns with Indian names. Once into mainland Virginia, the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge (4005 Sandpiper Rd.; 757-721-2412), offers fishing, boating, bicycling, educational programs and walking trails, all situated on an 8,000-acre wildlife refuge. First Landing State Park (2500 Shore Dr.; 757-412-2300) is Virginia's most-visited state park. Bordering the Chesapeake Bay, it boasts nearly 2,900 acres of sand dunes and cypress swamps; hiking, biking, camping and birding are popular activities.