The coast outside Washington D.C. is a well-kept secret. After a few fantastic days in the underrated US capital, we head for the sandbanks out by the ocean.
We might as well state it up front: Berlin is far from a big city. Berlin, Maryland, that is–you probably know that Berlin in Germany is quite the metropolis! However, they have more in common than just the name–two other things, in fact: they’re both really cool, and they both have some outstanding local brews. We check in at the Atlantic Hotel, one of the two places where you can stay the night here. The other one is a bed-and-breakfast which is a block away. It looks really nice, too, but we’re staying here, at the historic city hotel with a great front porch that gives you a front-row seat to all the Main Street activity.
The hotel opened at the close of the 19th century to accommodate “drummers”, merchants from the surrounding area who came into town to sell their wares. The owner used to pick them up in a horse-drawn omnibus at the railway station and drive them straight to the hotel, unless they had their own means of transport. Back then, the hotel had a stable at the back where you could keep your horses during your stay. Today, the beutiful Atlantic Hotel has been renovated in a Victorian style that’s very historically accurate, and very charming. I take a Victorian shower in my Victorian bathroom, and change into some fresh clothes. We’ve spent the whole day in the car, so it feels great to lose the trail dust. As I’m exiting the hotel, I notice a group of people having a good time on the porch. Their laughter blends with the clinking of their glasses.
– Hey, cool guy! I turn around, and look quizzically at Lisa Moyer, who smiles back at me.
– Well, I figure if you’re wearing a t-shirt like that, you must be a cool guy. We’ve been to Steamboat for some skiing, too. Did you enjoy it?
– Yeah, it was awesome, I reply.
– Champagne powder! Adam, Lisa’s husband, smiles at me.
My Steamboat logo t-shirt turns out to be quite the icebreaker, so I sit down with this inviting crowd to take an afternoon drink. Yes, this is definitely a great town. –
Well maintained, pretty brownstones downtown, and gorgeous houses everywhere.
– Do you want to tag along to Burley? asks Bryan, who is the town’s brewer.
– We’ll meet you there in an hour or so, I tell him, we have to get something to eat first. As usual, all we brought to eat in the car was beef jerky, and we’re seriously hungry at this point.
–Try Blacksmith, it’s my favorite.
Blacksmith is a block from here–which turns out to be the distance to most places in Berlin. It’s a great restaurant, inviting in that American way, with amazing staff, of course. Tiffany, who is waiting our table, is an all-star waitress. We have a drink at the bar after dinner, and I tell her that Tiffany is a rather unusual name in Sweden.
–Well, you should go home and make babies and name them Tiffany, then!
Her co-worker Heather bursts into laughter, and I laugh too. Quite a comeback! We thank them for everything, and I promise Tiffany to consider her suggestion. We meet up with our new friends at the Burley Café, which is right behind the Atlantic Hotel. It turns out Bryan is actually the owner of the place, and the manager’s name is Ryan. It’s all a bit confusing, but it gets less so once Bryan offers us a drink of his favorite beer: Aboriginal Gangster, a fruity IPA that isn’t too hoppy. The café has a great small-town vibe, and everybody seems to know everybody. Bryan’s mom and dad, Tim and Debbie, are here, and it all feels more like somebody’s living room than a bar. Our friends have work the next day, and unwillingly face the fact that it’s time for them to go home. Since we’re already at work, we decide to stick around to listen to Troy Mawyer, a local troubadour and all-around awesome dude. Troy plays Neil Young’s Helpless, a couple of Tom Petty tunes, and then a song by my favorite Seattle band, The Head and the Heart. The best performance of the evening is when Ryan, the manager, takes the stage to give us a stripped-down rendition of Purple Rain. It’s glorious.
Surfers and Weekend Warriors
The next day, we have breakfast at the Baked Dessert Café, which is (you guessed it!) a block away from the hotel. After breakfast, we head over to Bryan’s brewery Burley Oak Brewing Company, which is in the outskirts of town. We’re going out to the coast later, to check out the ocean.
Bryan shows us around the brewery. The bar is full of what he refers to as Weekend Warriors, and business seems to be good. Most of their sales are local, he explains, but they also export to Japan and Denmark.
– What do you do when you’re not making beer? I ask him.
– The same thing everyone else around here does: I go surfing.
Bryan shows us his office, which is full of surfboards. I’m beginning to feel jealousy take hold of my heart. Brewing beer and surfing sounds like a pretty good way to live. To top it off, they have a live stage in the back yard (and a secret bar). Living the dream, basically! We set off for Assateague Island National Seashore and Assateague State Park, a long shoal that reaches all the way to Virginia. Bryan gave us directions, and while it sounded simple when he told us how to get there, we somehow end up in Ocean City instead. We make a sharp u turn. Ocean City is the opposite of what we’re looking for. It’s probably great if you want to gamble, drink, and party, but we’re in the mood to chill on the beach with a beer, check out the surfers, swat mosquitos, and do our best Hemingway impressions as we gaze out over the sea under the setting sun.
When we get there, we have to turn back again. There’s nowhere to get food, water and beer. It also turns out there’s nowhere to stay, but no matter; we have the car! We head back to a store we passed half a mile back, stock up on Wonder Bread, sardines, some other items that could pass as food, a few beers, and a bottle of water. With all that stuff, we shouldn’t have too much trouble getting through the night in the car.
It’s all About the Wither Height
Assateague Island is pretty much just a long sandbar, with fascinating birds and wild horses, or ponies really. Legend has it they are the descendants of horses that survived a Spanish shipwreck in these parts a long time ago, but more probably, they stem from horses that have run away from settlers in the area over the years. An interesting fact is that while they are referred to as ponies on the Maryland side, they are considered horses in Virginia. Apparently, the wither height of a horse has to be at least 4 foot 10 inches. In any case, they’re very cute. Not too shy, but it’s best not to pet them–people who have tried have ended up regretting it!
We settle in at our camp site, which has a grill and a picnic table, and then head down to the beach. It’s just as mind-blowingly beautiful as we hoped it would be. Further on down the beach, people are driving their off-road trucks around, fishing, and barbecuing. We check out some cool surfers, and talk a little with David Yurko and Caz Rubacky, two surfers who are just about to head out on the waves. We have more questions, but Caz is too eager to get into the water.
– Surfs up, dude! The beach breaks here are good–big, smooth, and calm. But don’t write that! You see, there’s hardly anybody here, they’re all up at Ocean City, even though the surfing is much better here, he tells us before hurling himself into the ocean.
We lie there, jealously eyeing the surfers, but in the end, we decide that we’re having a pretty great time, too. The sun sets behind us, and I uncork the wine bottle and feel just like Hemingway. We build a fire of driftwood, and soon, we’re enjoying a meal of Wonder Bread, sardines, and beef jerky.
I’m stiff as a plank when I head for the shower the next morning. Sleeping in the car is exciting and all, but it’s not exactly comfortable. Suddenly, I run into Adam Moyer, the guy from the hotel veranda. He’s wearing a wetsuit and carrying a surfboard under his arm.
– Hi! You made it here, then, he says.
– Yeah, piece of cake, I tell him.
– We’ll have to talk later. I have to get in now, the tide is about to go out.
I think to myself that life here seems to be pretty great. Middle-aged surfers, just chilling and enjoying life in a place where time seems to move a little slower.
Chincoteague: No Stress
Chincoteague is even more relaxed than Berlin, if possible, even though pronouncing it is much harder work. We roll into the small, coastal village in the late afternoon. The sun is low in the sky. It’s the end of the season, so there are plenty of vacancies in the motels and bed and breakfasts. We drive around the community aimlessly–in part because we want to have a look around, but also because we want to find a nice place to stay–we’re done sleeping in the car! When we find a motel that looks particularly pleasant in the warm glow of the afternoon, we stop. We check into Seashell Motel for two nights. It’s a quiet, charming motel, just off the main road, which has great rates for what they offer.
The next day, we rent a couple of bikes and head out to explore. The air is lukewarm, the sun is shining, and there aren’t many people about this time of year. We head for the ocean, following lovely bike paths that wind their way through the bird reserve, and even see a pony or two–but since we’re in Virginia now, I guess they’re really horses… It’s very windy when we arrive at the ocean. We ask the lifeguard Mark if the currents are dangerous.
– Do you see where the water is completely flat? It’s deep there, and that’s where the water that the waves push in goes back out. There’s a strong current there, so be careful, he says. Mark turns out to be a homecomer; after 25 years working as a cop in Hawaii, he returned to his hometown and found work as a lifeguard instead.
– I had enough of all the violence and misery I saw every day, so I decided to go back home. This job is a lot better; people come to the beach for a good time, not to cause trouble.
We take a dutiful swim and then get back on our bikes to do some more exploring. Mark told us about the lighthouse that we’ve seen jutting up over the horizon like Sauron’s tower in the Lord of the Rings movies. It’s a classic American lighthouse, with red and white stripes. It’s just closed for the day when we arrive, but we get some good pictures at least.
The Best Taco in the World
When we get close to the town again, we stop off at Pico, a taco joint that we spotted on our way out. It looks incredible–a metal shack with big bright letters on the roof promising… tacos! We’re certainly not disappointed; I’ve never had tacos anywhere near as good as these. We spend the rest of the day doing what this place lends itself best to: relaxing. We bike around a bit, and it’s all very charming. After a beer each in the motel garden, we nap in our sun chairs. Once the heat dies down a little, and that magical light finds its way down between the little houses, we get back on our bikes. We cycle along the canal that separates the island from the mainland and watch the sun set in the lagoon. Afterwards, we find our way back to the tiki bar we popped into briefly last night, ChincoTiki. Everybody welcomes us as though we were regulars. Chincoteauge isn’t a big place, and it seems that everybody in town was here last night, and they all remember the Scandinavians with the big camera. It’s last night all over again: Chelsea, the bartender, is charming the socks off all the guys, and people are playing board games and enjoying a drink in the big, sandy outdoor seating area. Everybody is very friendly. We spend some time talking to Michael Fritz and Beth Larson, who are the ones who explain the whole deal about horses vs. ponies to us, but when a rather inebriated gentleman decides that I’m in need of salvation, we hit the road. He could be right, for all I know, but I tell him I’ll have to think about it.
We’ve had a long day, and we’re on our way home when we run into Joe Scullion outside the American Legion, which is the local veteran’s association. Joe is a lanky, zany guy; a former coast guard who cuts lawns for a living these days.
– Come on in, guys, we’re having a pool tournament, he tells us.
We give each other a look. How often do you get to hang out with war veterans and play pool? Inside, we don’t just meet war veterans, we also meet long-time residents of Chincoteague. Paul and Rebecca Tatem insist on buying us a drink and telling us about the locals.
–There are three kinds of people in Chincoteague, Rebecca says, and peers into my eyes.
– You have Transplants, Wannabees, and Married intos. You see, Paul is a Transplant, and I’m a Married into. Paul was born here, which is as good as it gets. Wannabees are people who move here and want to be Transplants. And then there’s the people who marry a Transplant. She keeps staring intently at me until she cracks up and starts laughing. I’m just messing with you, we love everybody here, she says.
– We’ve lived here for more than 30 years, but we’ve only been evacuated 3 times, Paul tells me. We get some pretty intense storms from time to time.
We sit there, listening to one tall tale after another, some of them quite unbelievable to be honest, but it’s a great crowd, and when Boyd Sheets, a gentleman who bears quite the resemblance to Santa Claus, takes home the pool trophy, we decide it’s time we headed back to our room. Rebecca sums up our whole visit with a single sentence: Isn’t this good living? Welcome to Virginia!
Words by Jonas Larsson
Photos by Anders Bergersen