By Amy Suski
Our family has been visiting Assateague beach for decades, but it was only in the last four years that we discovered the simple pleasures of staying on its neighboring island Chincoteague, Virginia. You may know Chincoteague as the inspiration for Marguerite Henry's classic book Misty of Chincoteague, but it is also one of the best, most affordable places for a family beach vacation on the eastern shore and was rated the #1 Happiest Seaside Town in 2014 by Coastal Living Magazine. To found out why, read on for Top 10 things my family loves about Chincoteague.
1. Wild Ponies: Chincoteague is best known for the wild ponies that are believed to have swum ashore Assateague island after a shipwreck over 400 years ago . A shipwreck off the coast left the survivors on the two islands to survive on native grasses. To thin the ever expanding herd, at the end of every July the Chincoteague Fire Department's "Saltwater Cowboys" round-up about 150 ponies, walk them along the beach, swim them from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island, Parade them to the Fireman's Carnival grounds, and ultimately sell them at a fundraising Auction. Crowds are heavy during this special time on the island, so be sure to read the Pony Swim Guide for tips on the best places to see the ponies. Throughout the year you can also see wild ponies roaming alongside the road and beaches of the Assateague Island National Park. Several local businesses also keep a few ponies in their yards that you can visit and the Chincoteague Pony Centre offers a pony show and pony rides for small children. Finally, if you are lucky enough to be staying at a rental house on the Little Oyster Bay (see picture above) you may see ponies right in the backyard! Remember: the ponies are WILD. For your own safety and the safety of the ponies, do not attempt to pet or feed them.
2. The Beach: The stunning beach on Assateague Island is easily accessible from Chincoteague by crossing a short bridge between the islands. The 37-mile beach is rated one of the best beaches in the country, with long stretches of soft sand, ample surf, national park service lifeguard stations, and convenient facilities for changing and rinsing off. The kids love boogie-boarding, searching for shells, flying kites, and building sand castles. If the surf is too much for your little ones, Toms Cove offers a calm inlet for splashing around. Our kids also really enjoyed a lifeguard demonstration that included water safety tips and a rescue demonstration. In the evening, sunset views are amazing and after the sun goes down you can even build a campfire and enjoy s'mores. (Visit the Toms Cove Visitor Center for a free fire permit.) Insider tip: if you don't have time to make a picnic lunch, its easy to stop at Chincoteague's Subway on the way to the beach to stock-up your cooler with subs, chips, and cookies for lunch.
3. Boating and Fishing: Whether you enjoy a quiet paddle in a kayak in the channel, a head boat deep sea fishing tour out of Ocean City (MD), a nature tour around Chincoteague or a small fishing charter, there are many different ways to get out on the water. We've caught enough flounder for dinner on the Ocean Princess, lots of croaker (below) in Chincoteague Bay, and baby sharks off our dock in Little Oyster Bay. We've also netted crabs in the marshland between Wallops and Chincoteague, caught stingrays while surf fishing on Assateague, and a monstrous 5-ft eel out on the ocean (caught by my 3 1/2 ft daughter). On our ocean-bound voyage this year we were also lucky enough to see dolphins (which are common) AND a humpback whale (which is a special treat). Note: if you are fishing on your own be sure to get any necessary permits in advance; if fishing on a charter you won't need one.
4. Wildlife Refuge
The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is habitat for migratory birds and other wildlife that covers over 14,000 acres. Our favorite way to see the Refuge is a bike ride around the 3 mile Wildlife Loop, a flat paved trail that takes you through marshland and forests. Stop in at the Bateman Center at the start of the Loop for exhibits, videos, and information about the island's wildlife and habitats. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge also offers Ranger Guided Programs for families. Another great way to see wildlife is on one of the island's boat tours. A good one for families is Captain Dan's Tours (the pontoon boats have a canopy and take no more than 6 people at a time).
5. Rockets: Nearby Wallops Flight Facility launches satellites into outer space, conducts scientific balloon projects, and operates an orbital tracking station. Driving by the array of satellite dishes is impressive and you may also see interesting aircraft coming and going. Kids can get up close to the rockets on the grounds of the Visitor Center which also has hands on exhibits and a view of the earth and the solar system at the 3D Science On a Sphere Theatre. After learning about outer space at Wallops, be sure to bring your little ones outside at night to point out the constellations and look for shooting stars. On a clear night, the skies of Chincoteague are filled with stars and you may even be able to pick out a satellite crossing the sky.
6. Lighthouse Climb: Either on the way coming or going from the beach, be sure to take a detour down the Lighthouse Trail to see the historic Assateague Lighthouse. Tours are offered seasonally on select days. Entry fees are $2-$4. Although quite a climb, the views from the top of the 142-ft lighthouse are amazing. At night, the lighthouse flashes a pattern of two flashes every five seconds that can be seen from miles away.
7. Crabs, Fried Chicken & BBQ: Although not as numerous as in Ocean City, there are several places on Chincoteague to eat crabs, get fabulous fried chicken, and smoky BBQ. Steamers has long tables covered in brown paper -- great for drawing with crayons but also for eating massive piles of all-you-can-eat seafood (including crabs) and awesome fried chicken (we like to order extra chicken and bring it to the beach the next day). If all-you-can-eat is too much, there are plenty of other options, including a good kids menu. Steamers also gave our kids frisbees to take to the beach, which was a nice touch. The inside of the Crab Shack is a lot like a local bar that serves crabs, but we were happy to eat with the kids on the outdoor deck. Both the Village and Bill's Prime are good all-around restaurants. Woody's Beach Barbecue resembles a caribbean beach party and is a family favorite for BBQ ribs. The kids don't even mind waiting for it because of all the fun outdoor things to do there: ring-toss, volleyball, sand pits, hammocks, and other games keep them happy. For other great dining options in Chincoteague see the 2014 Trip Advisor's Traveler's Choice Winners.
8. Ice cream: IF you have any room after lunch and dinner, you have to visit the iconic ice-cream establishments of Chincoteague. Everyone has their favorite, but my family always enjoys these three: Mister Whippy (known for low-fat soft-serve and creative toppings), Island Creamery (rated #1 by Trip Advisor travelers for their homemade ice-cream and fudge), and Muller's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlour (I wait all year long to savor a fresh peach waffle sundae). Although the kids love Mister Whippy the best (blue-dipped soft serve is always popular with them) and the crowds love Island Creamery (lines are usually out the door), my sentimental favorite is Muller's. Sitting in their old-timey rooms decorated with dolls and memorabilia makes me happy. My recommendation is to hit them all…multiple times and decide for yourself ; )
9. Go-Karts, Mini-Golf, Movies, Bungees and Other Amusements: Inevitably there will be a time when you tear yourself away from the beach for some alternative amusement. Although you can get to the Ocean City boardwalk and carnival rides in about an hour, I recommend forgoing the traffic, drunk college students, and tattoo parlors and enjoying the simpler fun on Chincoteague. Families can rent bikes, buggies, play mini-golf, or get a 2-hour pass at Funland (below) for go-carts, a rockwall, bungee jump, golf, and bumper boats. For rainy days, the historic Island Roxy Theatre features family-friendly films.
10. Camping: Although my air-conditioning-addicted family has not yet tried it, camping is one of the most popular ways to experience Chincoteague. You can apply for a permit to camp on the Maryland side of the beach or stay at one of the campgrounds on Chincoteague. The closest campground to the Refuge is the Maddox Family Campground.
A few final words: what really distinguishes Chincoteague is its uncomplicated, relaxed character. There's nothing fancy about the island and prices are lower than in Ocean City and the Delaware beaches, which takes a lot of the vacation spending angst away. Families predominate, so you can feel at ease with the kids wherever you go. Sounds perfect, right? Well, almost. The one not very well-kept secret is that at times the mosquitos are INSANE. Come prepared with bugspray and long sleeved clothing for the evenings. That said, the skeeters are not nearly bad enough to keep us away. We've been back year after year and consider it the highlight of our summers. But you don't need to wait until next summer for a quick get-away -- September is also a beautiful, uncrowded month to visit the shore.
Getting Around: There are two main roads that contain most of the shops and restaurants: Maddox Boulevard and Main Street. A trolley called "The Pony Express" has stops covering the island. The fare is 25 cents. Many families also get around by ditching their cars and happily riding bikes, scooters, or buggies. There are several bike/scooter/buggy rental places along Maddox Boulevard. The beach is an easy ride from most points on Chincoteague.
The opinions expressed are entirely my own and do not reflect those of the businesses and organizations mentioned. We did not receive any special discounts or benefits on this trip. With the exception of the NASA picture and the lighthouse, all photographs were taken by me and all rights are reserved by KidTrips © 2014.
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