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The state of Virginia is indeed for lovers—specifically, lovers of beach towns. Just about as far east as you can travel within the state, the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague showcase their own traditional yet unique take on beach-town culture. Here are five reasons why Chincoteague Island and neighboring Assateague should be on your bucket list, in no particular order.

The Wildlife

The wild horses
On Chincoteague Island, you’ll find a charming beach town, filled with mom n’ pop motels and ocean-themed restaurants. Assateague Island, on the other hand, is an impeccably kept nature preserve and its most famous wild residents can be seen galloping through its natural marshes. It’s one of the few places left in America where you can still see herds of wild horses roaming in their natural habitat.

Year round, the herds can be seen grazing from the road that leads to Assateague’s beach, or while on boat or kayaking tours that take off from Chincoteague—and these boat tours offer the chance to see even more native wildlife, like dolphins and bald eagles. The island also features hiking trails and a beach. If you plan on driving to the island, parking passes are $8 per day.

Protip: If you decide to take a boat tour, ask a local about their favorite and go for a smaller boat. Smaller boats can get closer to the ponies in the marsh.

By Bonnie U. Gruenberg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Bonnie U. Gruenberg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Pony Penning Carnival
Now, if you are looking for an even closer look at the ponies, and for a way to be a part of local tradition, try attending the yearly Pony Penning carnival. This annual “holiday” takes place in July, as this is when the wild ponies are wrangled and swum from Assateague to Chincoteague. Then, they are then paraded down Main Street and into corrals where vets check each pony’s health. The youngest of the ponies are auctioned off to raise money for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, a fundraiser that began in 1925 and has been going strong ever since.

Protip: The historic carnival is free and open to the public, which means a crowd is inevitable. To avoid getting stuck at the back, where you can’t even see the ponies make their swim, arrive early in the morning and come prepared to wait.

Picture side of 1941-postmarked postcard depicting the Chincoteague ponies. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Picture side of 1941-postmarked postcard depicting the Chincoteague ponies. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hiking and Camping

The camping
Chincoteague Island is covered in campgrounds, and Assateague Island is full of hiking trails that are perfect for those looking to explore the natural landscape more intimately. Campgrounds on Chincoteague each offer their own benefits and features. Be sure to check out Inlet View campground and Tom’s Cove campground for the best views of the water, as they both offer waterfront campsites.

Campsite rates at Inlet view range from $27 to $35 per day. Campsite rates at Tom’s Cove $35 to $51 per day.

A view of the marshes. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

A view of the marshes. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

The hiking
There is plenty of hiking to be done at Assateague Island, and, as mentioned before, if you plan on driving there you’ll need to pay for parking. Once on the island, you can find hiking trails of all lengths and difficulty levels.

One of the shortest trails leads you to the historic and iconic Assateague lighthouse. The hike is totally worthwhile, since not only can you see the candy-cane-painted lighthouse from the outside, but also from the inside. Once you do finally reach the top, you’ll catch a breathtaking view of both Assateague and Chincoteague. Admission to the lighthouse is free. However, donations are accepted.

Protip: Although the hike itself is not difficult, climbing the many steps up to the top can be. Pace yourself to avoid getting lightheaded at the lighthouse.

At the base of the Assateague lighthouse. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

At the base of the Assateague lighthouse. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

The Beach

Assateague’s beach can be considered a ‘typical’ beach, meaning it’s clean and fun for the whole family. And yet, it’s unique in its location. Once again, you’ll have to cross the bridge from Chincoteague to access the waterfront.

Protip: Since there is only one road leading to the beach, the traffic can get pretty gnarly during “beach rush hour.” Locals will tell you to start making your way back to Chincoteague before four o’clock.

Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

Locals and tourists intermingle on the beach. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

Local Food

Chincoteague has been thriving in the oyster harvesting market for many years, and the delicacies can be found at countless eateries on the island… Are oysters not your thing? Well, you can also find ice cream, BBQ and homemade doughnuts without looking very far.

The Island Creamery is a local favorite and has been perfecting its small-batch ice cream, made with milk from local dairies, since 1975. They have a lot of different ice cream flavors but the most popular are of course named after the islands’ most well-remembered aspects, “Marsh Mud” and “Pony Tracks.”

Protip: The line is never too long… Even if the lineto be served at the creamery is out the door, locals swear that it’ll never take longer than 20 minutes to be served.

The Island Creamery, taking inspiration from the Assateague lighthouse. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

The Island Creamery, taking inspiration from the Assateague lighthouse. Photo credit: Alexandra Olsen

Right before hitting the bridge to Assateague you’ll notice an oasis of quirky, quick-service restaurants. This oasis comes complete with hammocks and yard games. It is there that you will find Woody’s Beach BBQ serving a large variety of smoked meats. The sandwich creations at Woody’s are sure to keep your hunger at bay throughout a full day of pony watching, beach going and lighthouse climbing. Prices for sandwiches are between $8 and $9.

Looking for breakfast? Or maybe a lil’ bit of a sweet treat? Then look for the Sandy Pony Donuts truck on Maddox Boulevard. These cleverly-named delights are small yet mighty, with monikers such as “Strawberry Stallion,” “Surfer Dude” and “Jingle Shells.” Made hot and fresh to order, they’re only $1.65 each, $8.80 for a half dozen and $14.80 for a full.

The Culture and History

Both Assateague and Chincoteague are steeped in history, tradition and a unique culture. People who live on Chincoteague, and who’s ancestors lived on Assateague, have a deep connection to both islands, taking pride in knowing the history of their beloved home. Vacationers, too, often feel themselves drawn back—it is not hard to find someone who has been coming since they were young, and who now bring their own family to the same spot, keeping that tradition alive.

Even if you’re visiting the islands for the first time, the community has a way of making you feel at home. It’s as if a connection is formed as soon as you set foot on the island. Just by interacting with locals, you are sure to learn much about Chincoteague and Assateague’s history. But if you’d like to learn even more about why this is such a closely-knit community, you can visit the Museum of Chincoteague Island, which is located mere steps from the bridge to Assateague. It’s a small museum, but it includes exhibits highlighting the oyster market, the hurricanes and the fires of Chincoteague, as well as the well-known equine celebrity, Misty of Chincoteague.

Her story goes something like this: In 1947, author Marguerite Henry met a pony on the island by the named Misty, and her owners the Beebes. Misty went on to inspire her popular children’s novel, and later a movie, which was filmed on the island. The story, although fictional, introduced Chincoteague and its pony culture to the world. This story is a great source of pride for the community of Chincoteague. In fact, Misty herself can be found at the museum… stuffing and all.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The famous Misty of Chincoteague (left) with one of her foals. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

According to those who know the island, the final thing that you must do before leaving is visit the grave of Captain Chandler, as this will ensure your return to the island. There is no address for the site, but ask any local and they will know how to get there. And if you want to know any more about this local legend, you’ll just have to visit Chincoteague Island.

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Tagged: Beach, Family, Seasonal

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