Pony Time (Chincoteague and Assateague Islands)

RVA Traveler | Spring / Summer 2020

Ah, Chincoteague… on my bucket list since my youthful, horse-crazy days of reading Marguerite Henry’s “Misty of Chincoteague” series. The 7-mile-long resort island of Chincoteague falls between Virginia’s coastline and Assateague Island, where beaches and wild ponies are an international tourist draw. The Chincoteague experience is one of oyster beds and weathered fisherman, of gorgeous seashore and bird-filled marshes - all flavored by the unique heritage of the island’s colorful locals.

The 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1943 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as an avian habitat. It now houses a multitude of other plants and wildlife (including the endangered piping plover and the chubby Delmarva fox squirrel), in addition to its famed ponies. The “Chincoteague ponies” actually reside on Assateague Island, which belongs in part to Maryland and stretches almost to Ocean City, but they are named as a result of their proximity to the closest post office. The ponies on the Virginia side of the island are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which manages the yearly “Pony Swim” each July. The foals are auctioned off to keep numbers on the island limited. While on the refuge, I was lucky to meet seasoned pony-watcher Richard Sherwin and his daughter, Darcy Cole of DSC Photography, who publishes an annual guide listing every pony on the island with their age, parents, and markings.

While on the refuge, visit the Herbert H. Bateman Educational Center for a variety of family-friendly exhibits and informative displays. The refuge is also home to the towering red-and-white-striped Assateague Light, a 142-foot tall lighthouse that actively serves as a navigation aid and is maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Finally, drive over to the recreational beach area on the Atlantic coast for swimming, fishing, boating, and over-sand vehicle use.

Conveniently tucked next to the refuge’s entrance is the tranquil Refuge Inn. Its owner, Don Leonard, has had a lifelong passion for ponies, and he has a small herd at the inn for guests to enjoy. Grab a bicycle (and other beach items) in their on-site rental shop for convenient bike access to the refuge, whose paved roads and multiple trails are perfect for cyclists.

The Museum of Chincoteague Island houses the preserved bodies of famed ponies Misty and Stormy, shown to me by Billy King Beebe, cousin of Paul and Maureen Beebe, of “Misty of Chincoteague” fame. Also, visit Island Creamery and try a delicious affogato – espresso poured over ice cream. Drive just west of the island to NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center, which features an observation deck for rocket launches, a gift shop, and an array of NASA exhibits depicting aeronautics, scientific balloons, and more.

A highlight of my trip was meeting lifelong resident Tommy Clark, whose tour of Tom’s Cove Aqua Farms allowed me to see his hatchery. Afterward, I checked out his eatery, Don’s Seafood Market and Restaurant. Though I’ve never before been convinced to try a raw oyster, I ate the whole dozen!

Chincoteague is a sip of cold saltwater. It’s a peaceful, birdsong-tinged hideaway. It’s an essential return to nature – one I can’t wait to make again.

SAVE THE DATE: July 29 - 30: The 95th annual Chincoteague Pony Swim. The ponies swim across the channel from Assateague Island to Pony Swim Lane on Chincoteague Island on July 29. Watch it at Veterans Memorial Park on Chincoteague. [editor's note: 2020 Pony Swim canceled due to pandemic and social distancing requirements]