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Beaches less traveled Vacation at the ocean, far from the madding crowd but not too far from home


In Sunday's Travel section, the phone number for the Cap Cod National Seashore's Salt Pond Visitor Center was incorrect. The number is (508) 255-3421.

The Sun regrets the errors.

For many folks, summer vacation means escaping to a place that offers equal doses of surf, sun, boardwalk fries, arcades, amusement parks, miniature golf . . . and crowds.

In other words, Ocean City.

But there is another kind of surf-and-sun vacation. Picture wide, empty beaches, long walks, nesting osprey and egret, unhurried time with family and friends.

If such a summer getaway sounds intriguing, you're in luck: the Eastern seaboard between North Carolina and Massachusetts boasts a variety of beaches off the beaten track.

North Carolina's Sunset Beach, for example, "is quiet and family-oriented -- and I can enjoy the environment," says Celeste Korby of Cockeysville. With her husband, Mel, and their four children, Ms. Korby has vacationed on the barrier island for the last four years. And they're going back this summer.

It wasn't easy for the family to make the transition from a crowded resort to an island connected to the mainland by a one-lane pontoon bridge.

"Before we first went, Mel's idea of a beach was Ocean City," Ms. Korby says. "We had trouble getting him to go -- he didn't understand what you do all day. Now Mel loves it. He takes his binoculars and watches birds and shrimp boats at sea."

Regina Clayton of Parkville, who last summer visited Nags Head, N.C., for the first time with her husband, Dave, and two sons, 4 and 6, says, "It's amazing how little money we spend" by going to a secluded beach. "The only drawback is the drive," she adds, "but I think it's worth it."

If a long drive is not appealing, try Assateague Island. This barrier island offers visitors a chance to explore lush marshlands, 37 miles of unspoiled beaches and scenic, uncrowded landscapes. Activities include camping, swimming, hiking, fishing, crabbing, most water sports, and, of course, just plain loafing.

Be sure to pack a pair of binoculars. Wildlife on the island includes 44 species of mammals and 260 species of birds, including snow geese, great blue herons, snowy egrets, peregrine falcons and the endangered piping plover. And there's Assateague's most famous inhabitants, the wild ponies.

Accommodations are limited to 300 campsites in Assateague Island State Park on the north end of the island; reservations are a must during the summer. Ocean City and Berlin are less than 20 miles away.

Looking southward

If you're seeking more comfort in an out-of-the-way beach, look south to Bald Head Island, N.C., near Cape Fear. A private passenger ferry is the only way to reach the island. Old Baldy, North Carolina's oldest lighthouse, is the only high-rise in sight. And transportation on island roads is restricted to bicycles and electric vehicles.

Bald Head Island's 2,000 acres teem with plant and animal life, and feature a maritime forest and 14 miles of unspoiled beaches. Visitors can also play golf and croquet; fish and canoe through a salt marsh; and take advantage of a marina with access to the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. Accommodations include condominiums with ocean, marsh and forest views, as well as individual homes for rent.

Farther north, on North Carolina's Outer Banks, Ocracoke Island is another barrier island that's virtually all beach and reachable // only by ferry. At the southern end of the 14-mile-long island, the village of Ocracoke offers isolation and serenity. Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823, is the oldest lighthouse operating in North Carolina. Visitors looking for lodging can choose between a dozen inns and motels.

And while the island is isolated, it still has a fascinating history. The village was once the home of Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Legend has it he buried a treasure somewhere

on the island, which has yet to be discovered.

Virginia beaches

Virginia boasts two outstanding barrier-island destinations that will delight nature lovers. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park, south of Virginia Beach, are side-by-side on a mile-wide barrier spit between Back Bay and the Atlantic.

Back Bay Refuge's 4,608 acres include beaches, dunes, woodland and marsh. About 20,000 snow geese and a variety of ducks visit Back Bay Refuge each year, as well as loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers, peregrine falcons and bald eagles. It's a birder's paradise.

Other activities in the refuge include hiking, fishing and mountain biking. Leave your swimsuits at home, though -- Back Bay is a wildlife refuge, and swimming, sunbathing and surfing are not permitted.

False Cape State Park is nestled between Back Bay Refuge and the North Carolina state line, and is only accessible by foot or bicycle on a five-mile trail through Back Bay Refuge.

Visitors who make the trek are rewarded with an opportunity to explore an unspoiled coastal environment. Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, beachcombing, fishing, nature photography or wildlife observation inside the park. Primitive camping is allowed by permit only, and all visitors must bring their own drinking water --and lots of insect repellent. The closest accommodations to Back Bay and False Cape are available in Virginia Beach, about 15 miles away.

Farther up the Virginia coast in Hampton, you can explore the Grandview Beach and Nature Preserve. This 578-acre point of land features dunes, two and a half miles of pristine Chesapeake Bay beaches, salt marshes, tidal pools, freshwater ponds and maritime forests.

Grandview is an undiscovered gem featuring a mix of habitats that provide breeding, nesting and foraging areas for a variety of wildlife, including unusual birds such as least bitterns, northern harriers, yellow rails and sharp-tailed sparrows.

Beachcombers can search for fossils formed nearly 500 million years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west. Grandview is open to visitors from dusk to dawn; camping and motels are nearby.

Jersey shores

Don't think all the unspoiled beaches are to the south. At the southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May offers a range of natural areas where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. The Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, for example, is one of the premier birding spots on the East Coast.

At Cape May Point State Park, visitors can swim in the ocean, visit a working lighthouse, observe wildlife or hike a 3-mile trail through woods and marsh. Other nearby sights include the wreck of the "Atlantus," the 250-foot-long, concrete- hulled ship that went aground in a storm in 1926.

Or you could take a whale-watching voyage aboard the "Holiday." Three trips leave daily from the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center to view whales, dolphins, rare and endangered birds and other marine life.

Moving northward

Farther up the coast on New York's Long Island are the Hamptons, East Hampton, Southampton and Westhampton. While these beaches have a trendy reputation and draw crowds of sophisticates, visitors can escape the throngs at many stretches of pristine beach located far from access roads. Lodging is plentiful on Long Island, where visitors can choose between hotel, motel, bed and breakfast, and resort accommodations.

In Massachusetts, the 27,000-acre Cape Cod National Seashore offers visitors 50 miles of beaches, bicycle and nature trails, marshes, woodlands and stunning, desert-like sand dunes.

The federally protected preserve offers a variety of beaches along the rugged New England coastline. An added plus: The cape is famous for its free "air-conditioning" -- the wind blowing off the cool ocean waters. Even in August it's a good idea to wear a light jacket for a night stroll along the beach.

Look for seemingly endless expanses of sand and surf at Nauset Light Beach in Eastham, and Marconi Beach in South Wellfleet. (Nearby is the site where the first wireless transmissions were sent across the Atlantic.)

Off the beach, visitors can view a graceful old windmill in Eastham, built in 1793, and stop at the Salt Pond Visitor Center, featuring an exhibit on Cape Cod's history. Hotels and inns, motels and cottages, bed and breakfasts, guest houses and camping are plentiful on Cape Cod.

Joe Surkiewicz is author of "The Mountain Biker's Guide to Central Appalachia."

IF YOU GO . . .

Beach lovers looking for a sand-and-surf vacation off the beaten track can call and write for a variety of free information. Here's a list of addresses and phone numbers that will help you plan your trip.

* Maryland: Assateague State Park offers a campground featuring bathhouses with hot showers and flush toilets; a camp store and restaurant are open during the summer. Summer reservations for up to one week are available; call (410) 641-2120. For information on Assateague Island National Seashore, write or call Assateague Island National Seashore, Route 611, 7206 Seashore Lane, Berlin 21811; (410) 641-3030.

* North Carolina: For the latest on North Carolina beach %o destinations, call (800) 847-4862 to receive a free travel guide, highway map and calendar of events. For a visitor's guide to Sunset Beach and the South Brunswick Islands, call (800) 426-6644. For a guide to Bald Head Island, call (800) 234-1666. Visitors planning a trip to the Outer Banks can call (800) 446-6262 to receive a free vacation guide. For ferry information on the free 40-minute passage to Ocracoke, call (919) 986-2353.

* Virginia: To receive a free travel guide, call (800) VISIT VA. For information on Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, write: Refuge Manager, Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 6286, Virginia Beach, Va. 23456-0286; (804) 721-2412. For False Cape State Park visitor information, write: False Cape State park, 4001 Sandpiper Road, Virginia Beach, Va. 23451; (804) 426-7128. For information on Grandview Beach and Nature Preserve, call the Hampton Department of Parks and Recreation at (804) 727-6347.

* New Jersey: For a free travel guide, call (800) JERSEY 7. For information on beaches and attractions around Cape May, call the Cape May Chamber of Commerce at (609) 884-5508.

* New York: Information on Long Island beach destinations is available by calling (800) 441-4601. For a free travel guide and New York highway map, call (800) CALLNYS.

* Massachusetts: For a free Massachusetts vacation kit, call (800) 447-MASS. Call (508) 362-3698 for Cape Cod information. For more information on the Cape Cod National Seashore, call the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham at (508) 255-4321.

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