In the southern part of the northeastern Atlantic coast, nightlife and neon lights dominate “island time,” which is real, and the daytime speed seems as slow as the 25-mile-per-hour speed limit set throughout Chincoteague Island. There’s no amusement park, no boardwalk. Relaxation takes center stage, and there’s plenty of fun and adventure to be had during a 48-hour stay.
Located between the mainland and Assateague Island National Seashore, this weir island is home to the small Virginia town of Chincoteague, named after the Gingo Teague tribe of Native Americans who hunted nearby. Built on a blue-collar tradition of fishermen and women, Chincoteague is known for its oysters, which thrive in the saltwater bay. But the bivalve shellfish are not the only thing that attracts hundreds of visitors to the island each year.
Many folk tales tell of wild ponies roaming the island of Assateague. Some say they were released by early settlers. The most widely accepted story about the existence of these furry, pot-bellied ponies is that they were survivors of a Spanish galleon wrecked on the coast. Today, 150 of these ponies belong to the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company and their saltwater cowboys. To control the herd, the fire company holds an annual pony auction.
In 1920 and 1924, when fires burned much of Chincoteague, far from the nearest inland towns, the fire companies needed a way to raise money for equipment, and the pony sales met the need. To transport wild ponies from Assateague to Chincoteague’s playground, the Saltwater Cowboys held an annual Pony Swim that drew some 30,000 to 40,000 visitors to the island of 3,000 residents.
The pony swim and auction are an important part of the annual Young Volunteer Fire Company Carnival. “The Young Volunteer Fire Company Carnival runs throughout the month of July and offers horseback riding, games and food (especially seafood) for the whole family. Generous volunteers organize the event so that the children leave with great prizes and memories.
Things to do
Throughout the history of the Chincoteague ponies, Misty is the most famous. She is the author of Marguerite. Henry’s 1947 book, The Mists of Chincoteague, which entrenched a modern portrayal of the island nation. Where she lived, Beebe Ranch (3062 Ridge Road) is still around and attracts eager visitors every day. After a skin peel, Misty still remains on the island and can be visited at the Chincoteague Island Museum (7125 Maddox Blvd.) In 1961, the story gave birth to a movie, “Misty,” which still plays at the Island Theatre (4074 Main St.) circa 1945. Check out the sidewalk in front of the theater to see the hoofprints of the stars.
Protected by the National Wildlife Refuge, these ponies live in a pristine natural habitat and are also popular with human visitors looking for shell-strewn beaches, wind-blown dunes and true nature trails. In Virginia, this beach can only be reached via the Chincoteague Causeway. During the summer months, the beach is open to visitors as early as 5 a.m. EST. During peak tourist season, visitors begin to flock to the beach around noon.
In addition to beachgoers, Assateague also attracts nature lovers who enjoy tidal fishing and seasonal hunting, families who enjoy the Toms Bay Visitor Center (open year-round and offering seasonal park activities), and lighthouse visitors who come to see the 142-foot Assateague Lighthouse lighthouse. Due to the narrow design, it is a struggle to climb the 175 steps to the top of the building, which was completed in 1867 after construction was interrupted due to the American Civil War.
Back in Chincoteague, the beach economy thrives on tourism. Downtown Chincoteague is already blocked by heavy traffic and specialty stores. Maddox Avenue, the main thoroughfare connecting the causeway to the beach, is dotted with stores peddling beach supplies and souvenirs, bicycle and motorcycle rental companies, and major establishments such as banks, pharmacies and gas stations.
Virginia is the place for lovers. So is Chincoteague. The country’s mantra has always been present in this coastal community, and visitors to Robert Reed Beachfront Park have the option of sharing an Instagram moment on one of four oversized beach chairs. The park also offers a relaxing spot to watch the boats come and go from the fishing grounds of Chincoteague Bay.
Dating back to the 1800s, the Captain Timothy Hill House (5122 Main St) is the oldest home on Chincoteague Island. Built at a time when homes were scarce on the island, it managed to avoid the fire phoenixes by hiding beneath new construction. Through the windows, one can see the hand-carved wooden ship motifs on the beams of the first floor. The Captain Timothy Hill House is registered as a Virginia Landmark and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.
While most visitors come for the ocean and ponies, annual events such as the Chincoteague Seafood Festival in early May and the Chincoteague Oyster Festival in October attract visitors in the off-season. The beach is also a happy time during the winter holidays. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the town hangs beach-themed decorations on lampposts and drops a glittering horseshoe.
Where to stay
Camping is allowed at Assateague Island National Seashore, but for less rustic gear, Chincoteague Island has more to offer. Tom’s Cove Park (8128 Beebe Road) is the island’s most well-known campground, closest to the annual pony swim; the event can be seen from several tent sites and the park’s fishing pier.
For short trips to the island, one night at a lodge or hotel will suffice, and there is plenty of island to go around. The Marina Bay Hotel Suites (3801 South Main St) is the newest accommodation on the island and is Chincoteague’s first boutique hotel, boasting luxurious rooms and four-star amenities.
Chincoteague Island KOA Resort (6742 Maddox Avenue) added a water park in 2018. Meanwhile, the Comfort Suites (4195 Main Street) was remodeled in 2020 to include guest rooms, a lobby, and an indoor pool.
The most enjoyable way to spend more time on the island is to rent a home, and Chincoteague Resort Vacations (6426 Maddox Avenue) and other rental companies on the island offer a variety of places for boaters, beachgoers, or those who just want to relax.
Luxury is key at Heron Creek (7139 Silver Sails Landing), located in a quiet neighborhood within walking distance of the playground and downtown. This rental home offers paddle boat and kayak fun, indoor modern amenities, an outdoor pool, and it’s dog friendly!
Where to eat
Wake up early to visit Sandy Pony Donuts (6300 Maddox Avenue), which offers extravagant fried treats that can’t be ordered until noon. 24 donut menu specialties include Porky Pony (honey sauce, cinnamon sugar and bacon), Yabba Dabba Doo-Nut (topped with fruit pebble cereal) and chocolate Crunchy Donuts.
Beach life is brought to a casual restaurant at Ropewalk (6262 Marlin st.), where picnic tables on the beach overlook the channel with beautiful sunset views. pico Taqueria (6560 Maddox Ave.) started as a humble kitchen, but its popularity helped them grow into a brick-and-mortar restaurant offering indoor and outdoor seating to enjoy delicious tacos.
Outdoor dining is so popular in Chincoteague that several places have become their specialties, such as Woody’s Serious Food (6700 Maddox Avenue), a hippie-themed restaurant focused on traditional Southern barbecue, along with family games and artistic treasures dotted throughout.
The cuisine on the island is highlighted by Bill’s Serious Seafood and Steak (4040 Main St.). In business since 1960, Bill’s, of course, specializes in fresh, local seafood and hand-cut steaks. Meals can start with a back in the day tropical shrimp salad, including the perennial favorite halibut, herb-grilled beef short ribs, or a grilled seafood feast. Cocktails at Bill’s Bar are made with quality craftsmanship, and the wine list features four pages of red and white wines and sparkling wines from local and around the world.
Much of the allure that draws visitors to the area focuses on the largely unspoiled natural environment. Whether it’s wild ponies, bird watching, fishing, and more, nature lovers will find Chincoteague to be a gateway to earth-friendly vacations. Here are some ways to get started.
Go hiking. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge has six hiking trails. The largest trail is 3.25 miles of paved and wheelchair-accessible wildlife loops. There are waterfowl in the winter and wading birds in the summer. The trails are open to pedestrians and bicyclists all day. One of the most visited nature hikes is the Island Nature Trail (Hallie Whealton Smith Dr), a 1.4-mile paved loop on Chincoteague Island with roads often heavily traveled by horse-drawn carriages and through streets an unpaved route. The Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce offers a walking and biking tour for visitors to www.chincoteaguechamber.com.
Go for a ride. Seeing the island from the water gives us a whole new perspective. The captains of tour companies like Daisey’s Island Cruises (4103 Main St) work together to provide the ultimate experience for viewing marine life and ponies. Most captains are knowledgeable about the history of the island and its surrounding waters and are eager to answer any questions. For the do-it-yourselfers, the island has five public boats. Kayakers have access to the Virginia Waterfront Waterway in many places on and around the island.
Enjoy stellar views. chincoteague Island’s proximity to NASA’s Wallops flight institute space station gives visitors the opportunity to watch rocket launches. wallops provides cargo refueling command services for the international space station and regularly launches unmanned rockets into space. To get to Chincoteague, visitors can go directly past the NASA Wallops Flight Institute Visitor Center (Building J20 route, 175 Chincoteague Rd, Wallops Island).
A trip to any seaside destination is never complete without ice cream. In Chincoteague, frozen desserts are mainly served by two entities within walking distance of each other and always with a patient line of customers.
Mr. Whidbey’s (6201 Maddox Avenue) is the place for soft serve, and only soft serve. The legend of Mr. Whidbey’s began in the 1950s when an ice cream cone slipped for a nickel and business grew from a backyard endeavor to the full-fledged attraction it is today. In addition to omelets and milkshakes, Mr. Whippy’s makes incredible specialty sundaes and candy/ice cream mixes called Swirl Ice Cream.
All of Island Creamery’s (6243 Maddox Blvd.) hard-sided ice cream is made in-store, and some flavors are seasonally delicious. But perhaps the biggest draw here are the fresh, crispy, hand-made waffle cones – they’re such popular crumbled “seconds” packets that sell for just a few dollars. Island Cream’s flavors are often quirky and super decadent. For example, the popular Java Shake is a powerful coffee ice cream with brownie chunks and chocolate covered espresso beans. Cherry Jubilee is a brandy-flavored ice cream with cherries dipped in brandy. The most popular flavor in the spring is cantaloupe.