By Jill Mulford
Looking for a laid back day at the beach with salt marshes and maritime forest as a backdrop? Welcome to Chincoteague Island, Virginia. In just two and half hours, you can be sinking your feet in the sand or meandering your way through the habitat of a national preserve. Actually, you can do both while feeling like you’ve stepped back in time.
Chincoteague is an island in Virginia to the south of Assateague Island, which is located in both Maryland and Virginia. There is a channel between the two islands. 300 feral horses live on Assateague Island. The Assateague Horses live on the Maryland side and the Chincoteague Ponies live on the Virginia side. These are the same kind of horse, called one thing in one state and another in the other state. The horses on the Maryland side are managed by the National Wildlife Service and on the Virginia side the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department takes care of the herd. Once a year at low tide, surplus ponies swim the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island and are auctioned off. The event, called Pony Penning, started in 1835, and continues today, unchanged, on the third Wednesday and Thursday of July. It attracts a crowd of 50,000 people on an island with a year round population of 2200. The proceeds of the auction go to support the Volunteer Fire Department. This is the only time there are huge numbers of people in Chincoteague. The rest of the year, it’s a peaceful beach retreat, the only island resort on the Eastern shore of the Virginia peninsula.
The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, on Assateague Island, is primarily in Virginia, though 3% is actually in Maryland. The Refuge is open to the public and has marked trails, for viewing the wildlife, and a beautiful beach. You’ll see salt marshes, freshwater ponds, a maritime forest, and acres of sand. Visitors come on foot, by car, and by bicycle. You can rent a bike right before the bridge that crosses to the refuge for $3.00 an hour and if you forgot your chair or umbrella, they rent those too. Admission to the refuge is free to cyclists and those on foot. If you want to come by car and go to the beach, there’s a $20.00 a week charge unless you a have a National Park and Recreational Lands Pass. In that case, it’s free for life. You will be astounded at the amount of parking right next to the beach. You pull right up, grab your chairs, walk over a low dune, and you are on the beautiful sandy beach 50 feet from your car! The beach itself is glorious with gentle waves and a gradually sloping shoreline. You can walk past the breakers for quite a distance and still only be up to your waist! The main beach is guarded and we were treated to a lifeguard demonstration and training at 9:30 AM before the shift began. You may use your boogie boards, surfboards, and floats just outside the general swimming area marked by flags. There are no trash cans or food concessions so bring everything you want to eat or drink and remember to carry your trash out with you of course. There are bathrooms and a changing area: most of the conveniences of home, keeping the environment in mind. When you go, don’t forget
to stop in the Visitor’s Center to learn about the flora and fauna and the history of the ponies. After visiting the Refuge, you may wonder what there is to do in town. There’s an old fashioned movie theater on Main Street, called the Island Roxy. One movie in one theater, imagine that! There is also a hugely popular ice cream shop, named Island Creamery, which makes small batches of homemade ice cream daily. Expect a line. Lest you think you can’t park there, just look across the street and you’ll find another whole parking lot which makes it perfect for browsing the various shops and restaurants in town.
The town of Chincoteague has two museums focused on the habitat of the area. One museum features an actual stuffed, YES, taxidermied Misty of Chincoteague. Never heard of Misty? A Chincoteague pony, Misty is the focus of a series
of novels written by Marguerite Henry in 1947. Her original story, Misty of Chincoteague, later became a movie. Her books made the area and the running of the ponies famous.
As your day ends, you can arrange to stay at one of the hotels or inns along Chincoteague Bay. There you will have the pleasure of seeing a stunning sunset over the wide expanses of shallow water between the island and the mainland. The blending of yellow, pink, and gold on the smooth water is as beautiful as you have seen anywhere. It’s almost as gorgeous as our sunrises here on the Chester River. Imagine all this nature, beach and fun less than 3 hours from home! Better still, don’t imagine it, GO!