After visiting the unofficial, illegal nude beach at Assateague National Seashore on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for four years in a row, 2-3 days at a time, we decided to visit from 30 June through 8 July this year. We were rained out on the final day, but had enjoyed nearly perfect weather up until then.
Lodging and Town
We stayed at the small (19 room) Atlantic Hotel in Berlin, about twelve minutes from the beach, and would do so again despite some Fawlty Towers aspects to our visit. Our reservation was lost, our bed broke, and since the hotel was staging a patriotic, musical comedy revue in honor of Independence Day it was impossible to find parking at the hotel for three nights of our stay. The hotel is a beautifully restored 1890s landmark, furnished with period antiques. An excellent breakfast, served buffet-style downstairs, is included in the price of your room.
Due to the broken bed, a byzantine system for securing ice, and an in-room telephone that would not handle calls to some local numbers or any “888" and “877" toll-free numbers, we found ourselves in contact with the front desk more often than usual. Three of the four front desk people were helpful and pleasant, and I scheduled my requests for ice around the fourth one, who told me that she “couldn’t be getting us ice every day.” The housekeeping staff was efficient and friendly (and thought that anybody who went to the beach at Ocean City instead of Assateague was just nuts.)
Berlin itself is a quiet town, best known today as the filming location for the movie Runaway Bride. Indeed, several of our fellow guests were interested primarily in retracing the steps of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. Apart from the two restaurants in the Atlantic Hotel (note to those with sensitive stomachs: the wait staff sings on Friday and Saturday nights ) and a nearby coffee shop that is open random nights, the downtown area of Berlin–-including the ice cream parlor–-shuts down at 5 p.m. There are several breakfast and lunch places, all of which appear to pride themselves in offering cole slaw. The Blue Water Café at the far north end of Main Street serves wholesome lunches and dinners, local seafood and traditional comfort foods, at reasonable prices. The Mobil gas station across street from the Blue Water doubles as the local wine shop. I know nothing about wine, but visiting this gas station, stocked with aisle upon aisle of wine, and wine connoisseurs, was like being in some surreal episode of Frasier.
While walking through Berlin one evening, admiring the magnolias and crepe myrtles and other things we can’t grow in Ohio, we noticed a resident taking in his American flag. A few moments later, there he was, shaking hands with us and asking what we thought of Berlin. He explained that he had bought his house in 1936, and when he found out that we were from Ohio he told us that he knew someone who had gone to Ohio, once. Friendly locals are always a plus.
Other beach-goers recommended the Holland House bed & breakfast, about a hundred yards east of the Atlantic Hotel in Berlin. Less expensive lodging can be found in Salisbury, about thirty minutes away. And of course there is Ocean City. Throughout the Eastern Shore all lodging is much more expensive on weekends than it is during the week.
Entrance to the clothing-optional section of Assateague National Seashore is via Maryland’s Assateague Island State Park. Proceeding over the causeway from State Route 611, ignore the “National Seashore” signs and proceed all the way to the kiosk at the end of the road, where a friendly gate attendant will collect $2 per person. This gives you access to restroom, changing, and shower facilities, a well-stocked beach store with lunch stand, and a parking lot that never fills. The $2 is worth it for the shower alone. And this took a bit getting used to: returning from the nude beach, I found myself in a shower room filled with men either taking showers with their trunks on, or waiting in line to shower in the private room designated for handicapped use. (My wife informs me that all of the women’s showers are private.)
The state park is open from 9 a.m. to dusk daily. You will be locked into the parking lot after dusk. In our eagerness to get to the beach our first day, we left one car window down with my wallet, wife’s purse, and other valuables in the car. Returning to the car seven hours later, everything was untouched.
To reach the clothing-optional beach, face the Atlantic Ocean, turn left and start walking. After a short while you will be past the crowds of people at the life-guarded state park and arrive at the beginning of the national seashore, which is marked by a tiny “Nudity Prohibited” sign up near the dunes. This sign serves no useful purpose beyond its role as a prop in countless photographs. Continue walking for another half an hour or until you reach the beginning of the piping plover area, which is marked by a large plaque near the dunes explaining the history and plight of these small shore birds. Here you will also see the cement slab/copper wire ruins of one of the ticky tacky houses built when what is now Assateague Island National Seashore was being developed as the community of Ocean Beach in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A fortuitous Noreaster destroyed all of this, and led to the beautiful, wild beach we can enjoy today.
From the piping plover area northward, naked people will not be hassled by rangers so long as they cover up whenever the ranger or any unknown clothed person approaches. Covering up can include putting on a bathing suit, tossing a towel over yourself, retreating into your pod (we did not have a pod, but these small tents appeared very popular this year), or being in the water. We were in the water a lot, and could have been “busted” by rangers any number of times. But we waved, and all they did was wave back. The beach sees a lot of National Park Service traffic, including biologists, maintenance people, and enforcement rangers. They all realize that you are naked when they are not there, and they are almost all friendly. Any of these NPS personnel will become upset if you enter the dunes. Please stay out of the dunes!
Looking north you can see the high-rise condos and ferris wheel of Ocean City. But you might as well be a million miles away from all that, as you can choose your own spot on the beach, fifty feet or so from your nearest neighbor (this appears to be the etiquette) or off completely by yourself. The further north you walk, the more alone you will be. Obviously, if swimming it is safer to be in an area with some other people. During our visit the ocean was usually rolling enough to be interesting but not rough enough to be dangerous. Water temperatures in early July varied with the wind from 73 - 77 degrees F.
The atmosphere at the beach is dramatically better now, compared to 1999 when undercover rangers dressed in beach garb walked up the beach to ticket naturists who did not cover up. (We were there then too, and because we did cover up, never got a ticket. Tickets, written under a joint jurisdiction agreement with the state of Maryland, are $100. If paid, all record of the ticket disappears. If you challenge it in court and lose, it will appear on your permanent record . We talked to one beach-goer, a teacher, who challenged her ticket in court, and won.) Many regular beach-goers are still extremely suspicious of anyone who lingers without removing their clothes. In fact, there was no evidence of undercover agents during our eight-day stay, and almost no sign of any gawkers. Perhaps because of the long walk, one encounters very few people who stroll up the beach because they are interested in seeing naked people. Many nudists bring binoculars, and when you see them scanning the horizon they are probably looking for rangers and not looking at you.
Some dedicated nudists will not like the charade aspects of all of the covering up, but until there is more appropriate signage it appears to be the only way to reduce conflicts between the naked and the easily shocked. We did witness several such incidents this visit. This year there are new restrictions on 4WD traffic on the beach south of the state park. This means that beach walkers from the campgrounds in that area may be able to enjoy a nice stroll closer to home, and not feel the need to wander up to the piping plover area at all.
A new distraction this year are the EcoTours being launched from Ocean City. Groups of 12-20 people are deposited onto Assateague Island via an amphibious landing craft. This usually occurred well north of the piping plover area, but on one day they did trek down that far. Most seemed too preoccupied with all of the pseudo-scientific equipment they were lugging about to notice naked people.
Most of the naturists on the beach were in their 40s or 50s, with some younger couples and single men. The proportion of women was much higher this year than it has been in the past four years, and on one day, on our part of the beach, there were more women than men. We also saw family groups, including one with a in a beach-modified stroller who did not at all like the idea of having to go home. Smart baby.
Wild ponies will frequently appear on the beach, usually in groups of 3 or 4. There are also many birds, including aggressive seagulls looking for snacks. Once, while out in the water, we looked back to see a group of gulls poking around in our beach bag. “Thank God we brought Pringles,” we thought, as they would have easily opened any bag of potato chips, and left us unfortified for the long walk back. Whatever you bring with you, please pack it out. Assateague is the cleanest beach I have ever seen, and by helping to keep it that way, naturists can help preserve their own future there.
Because of the 40+ minute walk involved to get to the piping plover area, Assateague National Seashore may not be appropriate for naturists who are physically challenged, or who are not used to walking. For everyone else, it can be a great experience on a nearly pristine, wild beach.