Ponies, BBQ and Beach: A Day in Chincoteague, Virginia

Chincoteague Virginia

Last year the editorial team for a new magazine launched by the rental car company Enterprise contacted me to work on a new project. The goal was to share some special destinations that are easy to reach, but off of the main Interstate roads. Living in the DC area I am spoiled for choice when it comes to day or long weekend trips, but as a Virginia native one place immediately came to mind – Chincoteague. Even though it’s an easy drive from the DC metro region, I had never before visited and was excited to finally see this famous coastal area for myself. I was hired by Enterprise to write the article for their magazine but since it hasn’t published yet, they said it was fine for me to share a version of my experience here on LandLopers as well. Be sure though to check out Enterprise.com for more travel stories.

In 1947, Marguerite Henry wrote a book that wouldn’t just change her life, but the lives of millions of others around the world, “Misty of Chincoteague.” This simple book about the love for a pony has instilled in generations of kids a fierce desire not just to own a horse, but to visit this small island community along the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Visiting Chincoteague though doesn’t have to be a dream, the drive to the island is easy and is as much a part of the adventure as first seeing those famous ponies. While the town does tend to revolve around their most famous residents, over the course of a day I discovered that there’s a lot more to see and do and by the time the sun set and I returned home, I understood why so many love this unique and undeniably beautiful region of Virginia.

Finding Chincoteague

Even though I’ve lived in the Washington, DC area for more than 15 years, I had never before visited Chincoteague because I imagined it was far away and hard to reach. Almost immediately while researching my trip to this island along the Eastern Shore of Virginia, I realized how very wrong I’d been. Whether you’re coming from DC or New York from the north or Virginia Beach or North Carolina from the south, the drive along U.S. Route 13 will be as important a part of your off the beaten path experience in Chincoteague as those famous ponies. An old highway, U.S. Route 13 is one of the most scenic in the country, crossing the coastal plains of the Mid-Atlantic and the Delmarva Peninsula itself. Before highways and bridges connected the Eastern Shore of Virginia to the rest of the world though, this was an isolated area and for generations families lived simple lives, depending on their farms and the sea to provide everything they needed.

One of the earliest settlements in the future colony of Virginia, Chincoteague was first settled by the English in the 17th century, starting what has become a unique culture and tradition of doing things that is unlike anything else you’ll find in the country. Shifting barrier islands, oyster catches and a salty breeze all define this part of the state and while it’s all undeniably Southern, there is an otherness to the counties along the coastline, but it’s that laid-back attitude that has been attracting visitors for decades.

Chincoteague Virginia

National Refuge And The Ponies

Tens of thousands of people make the trek to Chincoteague every year to see the famous pony roundup, but that’s not the only way you can experience nature and the horses. Originally, the Chincoteague ponies arrived with the early English settlers and over the course of time, became free and wild horses. To raise money, the Volunteer Fire Department every year rounds up the ponies to check their health and to auction off the younger ones to the highest bidders. The auction is important not just to raise money for the fire department, but to also make sure that the herds don’t become too large. Several hundred horses roam along the Eastern Shore, descendants of the original herd that have unwittingly become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.

The first stop for most visitors, whether or not they want to see the ponies or not, is the massive Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Made up of more than 14,000 acres of beach, dunes, marsh and maritime forest, these federally protected lands are one of the most visually stunning places you’ll ever see. One of the most visited refuges in the country thanks to how close Chincoteague is to many of the East Coast’s major cities, people come here to hike, bike, hang out on the beach, go bird watching and of course hope to espy a pony or two. That’s actually where I first saw the Southern herd of the Chincoteague ponies. Stopping at a scenic lookout I gazed across the marshlands and there, in the distance, I saw the unmistakable mottling of the horses – handsome and dignified even from a distance. But the refuge is about much more than the horses, and the virgin coastline attracts many as a family-friendly escape thanks to the lack of a boardwalk or any businesses. If you just want a great beach to spend the day on sunbathing and playing in the surf, then this is one of the best you’ll find anywhere along the East Coast. For history buffs, a stop by the Assateague Lighthouse located within the reserve is also a must. Built in 1867, the lighthouse is a great classic lighthouse and after an easy climb of 175 stairs you’ll enjoy a one-of-a kind bird’s eye view of the refuge and the community of Chincoteague.

What To Do In Chincoteague Other Than Watch Ponies

Thanks to that 1947 book and subsequent movie, most people know Chincoteague for the ponies, but there’s a lot more to the island and nearby communities than just those dappled horses. Time and again, magazines and surveys all name Chincoteague as one of the best small coastal towns in the country and I was curious to find out why.

The first reason becomes obvious even before you reach the bridge that takes all visitors to Chincoteague. Driving along I suddenly noticed a massive fenced off area with satellite dishes the size of houses. When I saw some of the aircraft on the runway I knew I had found my first stop, and the first stop for many like me, NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. During WWII Wallops was originally a rocket test site, and while it’s still a launch site today, its mission has evolved over time. One of the most advanced launch facilities in the world, Wallops sends thousands of rockets into the skies to support not only manned space missions, but also to further scientific research from experts in every corner of the world. The base is off limits to visitors, naturally, but there is an excellent visitor’s center across the street and along the road to Chincoteague that provides an in-depth look at the work conducted at Wallops as well as at other facilities around the world. Free to enter, the NASA Wallops Visitor Center is a great way to learn more about aeronautics today and if you plan ahead, you can even see a rocket launch from their special viewing stands.

Chincoteague Virginia

The drive into Chincoteague itself was one of the most beautiful I’ve experienced and I found a certain calm as I crossed over miles of marshy wetlands and wild reserves. It’s also the perfect introduction to the natural side of the island which really is what draws visitors there in the first place. Life on the water is at the core of the community on Chincoteague, not just for the people who call it home but also for the thousands of tourists who visit every year. With that in mind, I decided that I needed to get out on the water; luckily that’s pretty easy to manage. There are plenty of options if you want to explore by water. The Eastern Shore Seaside Water Trail is perfect for kayakers and canoe enthusiasts, but motorboats are big here too. There are plenty of tour companies that offer short cruises around the water, or you can hire a private guide. No matter how you do it, seeing Chincoteague from the water is crucial as you’ll experience the area not only in a completely different way, but the way in which I think it’s meant to be seen.

Food & Culture

Of course, Chincoteague hasn’t been called one of the best small towns in the US many times over just because of the amazing outdoor activities. Driving through town I couldn’t help but notice the small coffee shops, galleries, boutiques and restaurants that line not only the historic Main Street, but the entire town. Main Street Chincoteague recently went through a massive refurbishment and now you can walk down brick sidewalks and window shop at the small stores that give this town so much of its character. For many visitors though, the food is another major reason to visit.

If you love seafood, there are few better places along the Eastern Shore to pull up a seat than Chincoteague. Naturally, the island has long had a tie to the sea and oyster farming in particular has been a major industry for generations. For a cultural as well as foodie experience, be sure to visit either during the Chincoteague Seafood Festival in May or the Chincoteague Oyster Festival in October when you’ll get to feast on native wild and locally raised seafood served in any number of ways from fresh and tasty to steamed and of course deep fried. My top pick though is to delve deeper into the Southern culture and visit the best BBQ place in town – Woody’s Beach BBQ. As soon as you pull up it’s obvious this isn’t your average restaurant, with Hawaiian shirts hanging on clotheslines and an eclectic collection of Americana strewn about the property. While it may be centrally located in the middle of town, it feels like a beach shack and guests are invited to order some of the delicious Memphis or Carolina-style BBQ, sit at one of their picnic tables and just enjoy the afternoon.

Time near the water wouldn’t be complete without ice cream, at least for me it wouldn’t, and Chincoteague is also home to one of the top ranked ice cream parlors in the country – the Island Creamery. Serving the community for more than 40 years, Island Creamery specializes in handmade, small batch ice creams using an all-natural butterfat mix made from Lancaster County cows. The result is a rich and creamy dessert that lives up to its reputation as one of the best in the country. They have all of the flavors you’d expect, along with some local favorites including what I ordered, the Pony Tracks made from vanilla ice cream, peanut butter cups and fudge for good measure.

There are few things I enjoy more than a great road trip and from my own experience, the best ones are usually to places I had never considered visiting before. Even though Chincoteague is an easy 3-hour drive from my house, this was my first visit but thanks to the fun activities, warm hospitality and beautiful scenery, I know it won’t be my last time visiting what I consider to be one of the best small towns in the U.S.

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

4 thoughts on “Ponies, BBQ and Beach: A Day in Chincoteague, Virginia”

  1. I love Chincoteague Island so very much. Last year they lost the most famous stallion by the name of Surfer Dude. He was 23 and his son Riptide who will be 7 on May 3 is the stallion man on the south herd. There are so many things to do there and I come there 4 times a year. The Seafood Festival in May, Pony Penning is the 4th Wednesday of July and the auction is on Thursday. In October is the Oyster Festival and in December is the Christmas Parade. There are other things to do there and believe me there is no way to get bored. Great food, entertainment, festivals, a carnival in July and first of August , the beach and most famously those wonderful and beautiful ponies.

  2. I enjoyed your article, and I lived the time I spent on Chincoteague. I did, however, want to point out that the horses there are not dappled but pintos as a technically correct term. Dapples are within the coat color and don’t mean white markings. What those ponies have are pinto spots. I don’t say this to correct you, but to give you the correct terminology. I suggest looking up the specifics because others can explain better than I. :). Great writing.

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