83 miles N of Virginia Beach and Norfolk; 185 miles SE of Washington, D.C.

Winding waterways, abundant wildlife, and down-home cooking and hospitality will welcome you to Virginia's Eastern Shore. The Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay border the state's 70-mile-long end of the Delmarva Peninsula -- so-called because it's shared by Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. A map of the Peninsula may lead you to think that innumerable beaches wait to be explored on the string of barrier islands. Yes, there are beaches out there, but most of them are privately owned or preserved in their natural state by the government, the Nature Conservancy, and other organizations, which keep them off-limits to members of the general public like us.

But we can visit two of Virginia's jewels: Chincoteague and Assateague islands. Back when I had a regular job, I used to spend my summer weekends relaxing at these two relatively remote islands, which are unlike anything else in Virginia.

Wonderful Assateague is home to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore, which together prevent any development and thus protect hordes of wildlife and 37 miles of pristine beach. In addition to Assateague's famed herds of wild ponies, it is on the main Atlantic Flyway, and its population of both migratory and resident birds is simply astounding. Indeed, it's one of the top places in Virginia to see wildlife. What you will not see is a single hotel or condo as you laze away your days on Assateague's remarkably undisturbed beach.

Protected from the ocean by Assateague, Chincoteague Island is surrounded by bays full of flounder, oyster beds, and clam shoals. Settled by the English in the late 1600s, it is famous as the setting of Marguerite Henry's children's book, Misty of Chincoteague. Later made into a film, the book aroused wide interest in the annual pony penning and swim on the last Wednesday in July, when pony-size wild horses are rounded up on Assateague, forced to swim across to Chincoteague, and sold to benefit the local fire department.

While Chincoteague is beginning to come out of its self-induced doze and experience a modern building boom (condos have replaced some of my favorite waterside bars), it retains much of its scruffy fishing-village charm. Rickety old piers still jut out into the water next to modern motels, and except for busy summer weekends, watermen in work boats still outnumber tourists on jet skis.