Image: Assateague Island
Beth J. Harpaz  /  AP
A wild horse grazes on Assateague Island, a barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia.
updated 3/15/2007 6:58:08 PM ET 2007-03-15T22:58:08

Some 40,000 spectators crowd in here each July to watch the famed Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim. That's when the horses that inhabit part of this barrier island off the coast of Maryland and Virginia are rounded up for a 3-minute swim across the channel.

Beach resorts in the area, including Ocean City, Md., also attract thousands of visitors each summer. Rooms at the best hotels are expensive and can be hard to come by.

But there is an alternative.

Go now, as winter turns to spring. The area is part of the Atlantic flyway for migrating shorebirds, and even amateurs can enjoy the birdwatching. The roads, beaches and hiking trails through the woods and dunes are quiet and uncrowded. And best of all, you might snare a private viewing of the shaggy brown and white horses that make this place so famous.

Start your visit on the southern end of Assateague Island at the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, just across a bridge from the smaller island of Chincoteague, Va. (The northern part of the island belongs to Maryland.) This is where the famous Pony Swim takes place, and where the children's book "Misty of Chincoteague" is set. Some of the rounded-up foals and yearlings are auctioned off to thin out the herd, with proceeds going to support the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department.

Take a slow drive along Beach Road. Blue herons and white egrets are easy to spot fishing and flying by the waterways, along with turtles, swans and other wildlife.

Then hike the 1.6 mile-long Woodland Trail loop, through a forest of loblolly pines to an observation platform overlooking Black Duck Marsh. Here you'll likely find some of the horses placidly munching on tall grasses. Park officials warn against feeding or petting them, as they can bite or kick. But don't be surprised if the animals completely ignore you; most of the horses seem neither afraid of humans nor particularly interested in them.

From there, the beach is a short drive. It's too cold to swim this time of year, but you can run your toes through the sand, dip them in the ocean for a chill-thrill, and look for seashells. If you're there late in the day, the 3-mile Wildlife Loop is open to cars from 3 p.m. to dusk. You'll see more birds here, and also maybe white-tail or Sika deer.

I visited Assateague in late February with my family. We explored the Virginia side of the island our first day, then spent the night in Ocean City and visited the Maryland side the next day. We loved the wildlife, the beach, the muted colors of the landscape and the feeling that we had the place practically to ourselves.

But I have to admit that another highlight was staying at the oceanfront Hilton Suites, in Ocean City. In summertime, rooms there go for more than $450 a night. But in late winter, for less than a third the price of the summer rates, we got a three-room suite including full kitchen and a balcony overlooking the ocean. We had a good dinner with friendly service at BJ's On the Water, and a big breakfast late the next morning at the Breakfast Cafe on Route 50.

Then we headed back to the island, this time to the Maryland end, just over a bridge from Ocean City. While the horses on the Virginia side stay in the Black Duck Marsh, the horses on the Maryland side are free to roam.

They could be standing by the side of the road near the park entrance as you drive by. Or you might have to hike all three of the main trails in the Maryland district of Assateague Island National Seashore - the Life of the Dunes, Life of the Marsh and Life of the Forest trails, each one a half-mile loop - just to get a glimpse.

After thinking we might not find them at all, there they were, so still and silent as we came upon them along the Life of the Forest Trail that I wondered whether perhaps we'd walked right past them elsewhere.

We were the only ones on the trail that day. Knowing that the crowds would descend in just a few months made our private viewing all the more special.

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