To many tourists, Maryland's Eastern Shore is nothing more than what lies on either side of a seemingly endless U.S. 50 and the long ride home to Baltimore, Annapolis or Washington after an Ocean City vacation. But meandering onto roads less traveled can make all the difference, as poet Robert Frost advised. It can even make you want to take a vacation from the beach, put the ocean behind you for a day or two and indulge in a leisurely look at the "Land of Pleasant Living."
Start with a walk on the wild side at Assateague Island, just 20 minutes from Ocean City. Traveling on U.S. 50 west from O.C., turn left at Route 611 and follow the brown park signs. Bear left at the fork, cross the Verrazano Bridge, nose straight into the state park or veer right into the national seashore -- and draw in your breath at the primitive beauty of Assateague.
Assateague Island once stretched from Chincoteague Inlet in Virginia to Fenwick, Del., part of the chain of barrier islands that guards the Massachusetts-to-Florida coast. But a 1933 hurricane trapped tons of ocean water between Assateague and the mainland. In a great surge, the water rushed back to the sea, tearing Fenwick and Assateague islands asunder and creating the Ocean City inlet.
Across that narrow inlet is another world. While human beings create most of the wildness in Ocean City, the wildness of Assateague is to "enjoy and preserve," as the park signs encourage. The 37-mile-long barrier island was designated in 1965 by the federal government as Assateague Island National Seashore.
For day trippers, Assateague offers picnic and concession areas, a small restaurant and the fabulous, unspoiled beach for swimming, surfing or daydreaming. Bird watchers will thrill to many varieties of herons, egrets and other wading birds, and may spot the piping plover, an endangered species that nests at Assateague.
National Park Service naturalists will instruct novices in the fine art of surf fishing (no saltwater license required). In addition, the Maryland end of the park features three self-guided walking trails designed to educate hikers on the life of the island's marsh, forest and dunes.
And then there are the ponies. About 150 small but hearty wild horses roam the Maryland portion of the island, descendants of horses that have lived on the island since the late 17th century, when legend says they swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon. Actually, they were probably brought to the island by Eastern Shore planters trying to avoid being taxed for them. In any case, the ponies are thrilling to watch, but be careful: It's illegal and dangerous to feed them, and they have been known to bite and kick visitors.
The National Park Service operates two year-round campgrounds, oceanside and bayside, in the Maryland end of Assateague. The campsites offer chemical toilets, drinking water and cold showers, with facilities for tents or recreational vehicles. From May 15 to Sept. 15, you can reserve a campsite in the national park by calling 641-3030.
In addition, Maryland operates a 680-acre state park near the northern end of Assateague, with 311 improved campsites (hot showers in bathhouses and flush toilets). You can a reserve a week's stay during the summer by calling 641-2120.
After Assateague, ease back into civilization with a layover in the genteel, historic town of Berlin. From U.S. 50, take Route 346 or Route 818 (which becomes Main Street) straight into town. It's about 20 minutes from Ocean City.
You'll know you've arrived in downtown Berlin when you get to the Atlantic Hotel Inn and Restaurant at 2 N. Main St. Established in 1895, the elegant hotel was restored and refurbished in 1988 by a group of local business people.
Each of the 14 guest rooms has a distinctive design, complete with antiques, Victorian-era accessories and claw-foot bathtubs (updated to accommodate our modern affinity for showering). If you can't spend the night, at least make time for lunch, dinner or Sunday brunch in the restaurant, where general manager and chef Stephen Jacques promises fine food served in a "slow, Southern, laid-back style." For information or reservations, call 641-3589.
If you decide you'd like to take home a little of the ambience of Berlin, snoop through Main Street's half dozen or so antique shops. The little stores feature a few treasures for the serious collector plus a trunkful of trinkets for bargain hunters.
When you're ready for lunch, check out Rayne's Reef Luncheonette at 10 N. Main St. One local man says it's "like walking into 'Mayberry R.F.D.' " and he's right -- even though the fountain soda is served in a wax-coated paper cup instead of a frosted glass. But the hearty, down home food, the 1965 prices and the friendly service are pure Andy Griffith. Or is it Twin Peaks?
Work off the meatloaf and mashed potatoes on a walking tour of historic Berlin. The short circuit features about two dozen homes, some dating from the early 19th century. A guide map is available from many Main Street businesses or at the hotel. The town's heritage is preserved and displayed at the Calvin B. Taylor museum, an 1825 house at 208 N. Main St.
About 40 minutes from Ocean City is another charming, historic burg worth any day tripper's time: the Worcester County seat of Snow Hill. Take route 113 south from U.S. 50.
Situated on the banks of the Pocomoke River, Snow Hill was founded in 1642. Despite a huge fire that ravaged much of the town in 1893, more than 100 houses dating from before 1877 still stand there, offering the history lover with a good pair of walking shoes a full day's exploration.
Snow Hill's churches are, well . . . heavenly. The oldest is the All Hallows Episcopal Church, which has been standing at the corner of what are now Market and Church streets since 1756. But even the most modern, the Old School Baptist Church building off Collins Street, is nearly 70 years old and quite interesting.
The Julia A. Purnell Museum on Market Street houses the history of Worcester County from the American Indians through the Victorian era. The museum is open weekdays 10 a.m to 4 p.m. and weekends 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. from April through October. Admission is $1 for adults and 50 cents for those under 18. For more information, call 632-0515.
The Pocomoke River has been Snow Hill's sustenance for 300 years, and it still provides one of the town's best attractions. The scenic river glides by sites noteworthy for both historical and environmental significance. Canoes for navigating the cypress-lined waterway can be rented at the Pocomoke River Canoe Co. in Snow Hill, 632-3971. Day trippers also can hop aboard Tillie the Tug, a 22-passenger tour boat that offers a 70-minute narrated cruise of the Pocomoke. Tillie operates daily in the summer and on spring and fall weekends. For information, call 632-2240.
Off Route 12 about 4 miles north of Snow Hill is Furnace Town, where an early 19th century entrepreneur built the Nassawango iron furnace to harvest the bog iron ore from the Nassawango Swamp on the Pocomoke River. The furnace brought workers who built the tiny town of Nescongo, which thrived until about 1850, when the iron it produced was bested by several rivals and the community went belly-up.
Today, school groups and tourists flock to Furnace Town, where buildings that have survived since the early 1800s have been grouped into a re-created Nescongo village around the long-cold iron furnace. Seasonal visitors can glimpse a period blacksmith or broom-making shop and see craft demonstrations.
As a tourist attraction, Furnace Town is refreshingly low-key and peaceful. The same glowing swamp that once yielded bog iron ore for the furnace now provides more than a mile of nature trails, jointly operated by the Furnace Town Foundation and the Nature Conservancy. It will hit the spot "if you just want to get someplace where it's quiet, where you can hear the wind blow, hear the birds sing, sit on a bench and be quiet," says Kathy Fisher, executive director of Furnace Town. For more information, call 632-2032.
U.S. 50 cuts through the heart of Salisbury, one of the Eastern Shore's biggest cities and home to Salisbury State University. Take Route 13 south from the main drag and you'll see the university on your right. Make a right on College Avenue and turn left at the first light onto the campus. There you'll find Holloway Hall, which currently houses the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. Named for Lem and Steve Ward, brothers from Crisfield who were pioneers in the art of decorative wildfowl carving, the museum houses one of the country's most extension collections of antique wooden decoys and other wildfowl art.
The displays are arranged in chronological order, giving visitors a history lesson in the development of the intricate art of re-creating nature from wood blocks. Many of the modern nTC specimens are so lifelike, you'll expect the birds to flap their wings and fly.
Appreciation for wildfowl carving is really taking wing. The art form, which began with workmen carving decoys for hunters, has become a favorite during the environment-minded '90s, and many parents enjoy giving their children a bird's-eye view of specimens too fleeting to glimpse in nature. So the Ward Foundation is constructing a 35,000-square-foot museum and education facility adjacent to the Salisbury Zoo. When completed next spring, the new museum will include nature trails along the marsh and woodlands that are home to many of the birds represented in the museum's collection.
The current facility is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Adults pay $2 admission ($1 for senior citizens) and children under 12 get in free. For more information, call 742-4988.
To reach the Salisbury Zoo -- the future home of the Ward Museum and a fine day trip destination in its own right -- go south on Beaglin Park Drive from U.S. 50. At South Park Drive, turn right. The drive winds through the town park and lands you right at the zoo.
The Salisbury Zoo is relatively small, with about 400 mammals, birds and reptiles in residence. But its charming green setting and the peaceful park make it a great place to take the kids. With free admission, the zoo's spring hours are Mondays to Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and weekends from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. After Memorial Day, the zoo will be open from 8 a.m. to 7
p.m. seven days a week. For more information, call 548-3188.
Kids and airplane aficionados will love the Dorchester Heritage Museum, housed in a giant hangar on the former Frank Dupont estate, now the University of Maryland's Horn Point property, just outside Cambridge. The museum is open 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., weekends only, from April 20 to Oct. 30. Heading west on U.S. 50 from Ocean City, pass the Woods Road traffic signal and look for the Route 343 cutoff on your left. Follow 343, also called Washington Street, about three miles past downtown Cambridge to the hangar.
Inspired by a mini-museum created 20 years ago by students at what was then South Dorchester High School in Golden Hill, the museum houses county artifacts, Indian relics and exhibits related to the history of aviation. It is operated as a labor of love by volunteers, several of whom are retired from restoration jobs at Washington's Smithsonian Institution.
The Heritage Museum and the Potomac Antique Aero Squadron will host an antique airplane fly-in at the museum on May 18 and 19. More than 250 fully restored and operational aircraft will be exhibited by the devoted hobbyists who own them.
Dale Price, a retired restoration contractor who worked on many of the vehicles in the Smithsonian's transportation display, is the president of the Heritage Museum. He'll arrange to open it during the week for interested tourists. Call him at 228-1899.
Finally, if your vacation schedule is too hectic to squeeze in a day trip but you'd like a diversion on the trip back home, consider a detour past the Spocott Windmill, an operating replica of an 1850 windmill. The mill is just six miles west of Cambridge on Route 343.