A different face of Washington

The unconventional traveller

A different face of Washington

Think Washington DC and it’s usually Smithsonian and more Smithsonian. Luckily, our longish stay had allowed a smorgasbord of explorations that surprised even locals.

Beyond Smithsonians

After the gaiety of April’s Cherry Blossom Festival, we had leisurely hiked along partly swampy and luxuriant trails in Theodore Roosevelt Island on Potomac River, gawped at the Rose Window — “The Creation” — at National Cathedral (world’s sixth largest) where Helen Keller lies interred, hiked on rocky Billy Goat Trail that affords awesome views of Potomac flowing alongside, exulted seeing the foamy, gushing waters at Great Falls where kayaking is a popular sport, and savoured the verdant, pastoral scene strolling on the towpath along C&O (Chesapeake & Ohio) Canal. The last is a 184-mile-long waterway on which 74 locks were built to facilitate the movement of cargo.

Topping the charts was Old Town Alexandria, where antique shops jostle with quaint eateries and where a totally immersive experience awaited us along the waterfront at Torpedo Factory Art Centre, a World War I torpedo manufacturing unit where 165 artists now work and exhibit their kaleidoscopic, at times, whimsical creations. Interspersed with tours of Capitol Hill, Library of Congress, Hillview Estate and historic Georgetown, our DC sojourn had, thus far, been exhilarating. What next?

Barrier islands

With my three-month sojourn ending soon, a friend suggested visiting the narrow 37-mile-long Assateague and Chincoteague Islands, just about 175 miles away, where wild horses frolic on unspoilt beaches and woods. These are barrier islands, thin strips of islands that lie parallel to the mainland with little tidal inlets separating them. Did you know that all continents, except Antarctica, have barrier islands? North America’s eastern coast has a chain of barrier islands all through, till Mexico.

Frankly, I had never before given a thought to this geographical term or their fragile ecosystems. Barrier islands often protect the mainland by bearing the brunt of storm fury and constantly evolve and shift due to the impact of erosion caused by stormy winds and ocean currents.

Past Chesapeake Bay to Delmarva

Co-travellers in place, car hire, weather — checked. Hitting the road at 8 am, we cut east across DC onto route US 50, speeding past Annapolis where we traversed the bountiful River Severn. Apparently, Severn is just one of 150 rivers that flow into the 200-mile-long Chesapeake Bay!

Within minutes we swung onto Chesapeake Bay Bridge and excitedly fished out our cameras to capture the iconic 6.9 km-long, dual-span structure. Below us lay the largest estuary in the US that is partly salt water from the Atlantic. Interestingly, the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed region is blessed with over 1,00,000 streams, rivers, creeks and tributaries and more than half of it is under forest cover.

Arriving in Delmarva Peninsula (acronym for three states of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia), we saw flashes of green-gold fields of corn whiz past. An occasional wind farm or a neat church dotted the expansive bucolic countryside beneath the brilliant blue sky.
We swung into Route US 13 — the principal north-south access road in Delmarva — then into Route 175 that heads towards the Atlantic. A NASA signboard, on our left, briefly held our fascination; we were going past Wallops Flight Facility! Could we have managed a tour with advance planning, I wondered, ever willing to squeeze in the maximum possible options into every trip.

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia

Chincoteague Road took us over bridges spanning creeks and bays, past sweeping grassland and marshes until the beautiful waterfront came into view and dainty signages declared, ‘Welcome to Chincoteague Island, The Beautiful Land Across the Water’.

After a hearty meal at Maria’s on Maddox Boulevard, we headed down Beach Access Road towards the Visitor Centre within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, Virginia, located on the lower half of the barrier islands; Assateague — the upper half, is in Maryland. We learned of the vanishing piping plovers — little shorebirds that inhabit barrier beaches, of endangered Delmarva fox squirrels and the famous ‘wild’ horses.

Fanciful lore says these ‘wild’ ponies are descended from those that survived a Spanish galleon’s shipwreck centuries ago, off Virginia’s coast. Another version has it that, back in the 17th century, domesticated horses were brought by mainland owners to the island to avoid taxation. Be that as it may, tantalising accounts of feral ponies alongside beaches, tossing their glistening mane in the bracing sea breeze is what attracts most visitors. We missed this stunning beach sighting, though we stood transfixed coming upon a band of ponies in the woods.

Wildlife loop trail

A brilliant blue sky peered through tall loblolly pine forests that shaded the 3.2-mile circular Wildlife Loop Trail. A startled spotted Sika deer darted away into the shrubs as we made our way toward picture perfect Wild Pony Overlook. On the way, sensing a small movement, I halted and patiently scanned the woods and was rewarded with a sighting of the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel before it scurried away. A signage had informed us that only 150 of them live in Assateague and to count ourselves lucky if we spotted one.

Lucky and offbeat indeed was our visit, we reflected smugly, soaking in the beauty of white sandy beaches at Assateague Islands.

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