Are you looking for a laid back, small town destination with beaches, wild ponies and one of the 10 best ice cream shops in America? Then head to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, the town where in 1947 Marguerite Henry wrote the popular book Misty of Chincoteague. This small town on Virginia’s Eastern Shore offers plenty to keep families entertained, with easy access to the Virginia portion of Assateague Island. We have only visited during the spring, but one of the items on my USA bucket list is to make it back for the annual Pony Swim (currently in its 92nd year!). It’s a little over 3 hours from the DC area, so perfect for a long weekend. Here’s a few things to know to help plan your trip.
Staying on the Island
The island offers several options for families, including camping, hotels and vacation rentals. The Refuge Inn offers easy bike access to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. We stayed there during our visit, and loved having access to the bike rental shop adjacent to the hotel. It’s on the quieter end of the island, and one of the closest hotels to beach access. In addition to bike rentals, the shop also provides rentals of beach umbrellas, chairs and boogie boards. As a bonus, the Refuge Inn has their own wild ponies so you can get up close and personal just outside your door. On the other side of the island, another highly recommended place to stay in town is the Hampton Inn & Suites Chincoteague – Waterfront, with its beautiful sunset views. Centrally located on Main Street near shops and restaurants, it has won numerous awards as one of the top Hampton Inns in the country.
Another popular option on Chincoteague Island is camping. There are a few campgrounds to choose from, including Tom’s Cove Park and the Chincoteague Island KOA. Keep in mind that you are camping near wetlands and the oceans, and almost everyone who has camped on the island will talk about the mosquitos during the summer so be prepared.
If you want to venture over to the Maryland side of nearby Assateague Island, campers highly recommend the Assateague Island National Seashore Campground, with wild ponies frequently visiting the campgrounds. Be advised that you have to enter the island from Maryland in order to reach the campground.
Seeing the Wild Ponies and other Activities
One of the main reasons people visit Chincoteague and Assateague Islands are to see the wild ponies. Keep in mind that the key word here is WILD. The Virginia herd of ponies on Assateague Island typically number around 150, and there are several options for viewing them. Your best bet for seeing the ponies is through a guided tour, or camping on Assateague island. Daisey’s Island Cruises and Captain Dan’s Around the Island Tours both come in tops on Trip Advisor, and offer both small and large boat cruises several times throughout the day. Kayaking is another way to get up close with the famous ponies. When we visited, we decided to rent bicycles and spent a few hours riding through the peaceful Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is located on the Virginia side of Assateague Island, and offers several beaches, including both a recreational and wild beach, along with miles of trails. When we went, the beaches were not crowded, but during the summer, expect to share the beach. It’s also a bird lovers paradise, providing habitat for a number of waterfowl and shorebirds.We enjoyed biking on the Wildlife Loop, which is closed to vehicle traffic for most of the day, so it makes it for a peaceful bike ride. We saw a few ponies grazing across the fields while we were bike riding, but on my next visit, I’ll definitely take some type of tour for a more up close view. Learn more about the fascinating history of these wild ponies.
Be sure to visit the Assateague Lighthouse, which is on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. The original lighthouse was built in 1833, and a taller, brighter lighthouse was completed in 1867. It’s 142 feet high, and visitors who climb to the top are treated to a beautiful view of the surrounding area. Check the website for current hours of operation.
Eating Your Way Around Chincoteague
During the warmer months, Chincoteague Island has plenty of options for outside dining. At Woody’s Beach BBQ and Eatery, sit outside in colorful adirondack chairs while enjoying BBQ and playing cornhole. Or check out the Pico Taqueria, a casual outdoor food truck which is only open seasonally. Rumor has it that the tacos are amazing. When you are ready for dinner, head to Bill’s Seafood Restaurant, which has been around since 1960 and offers a variety of local seafood. It’s a great place to try the famous Chincoteague oysters, either on the half shell or lightly breaded and deep fried, which is my favorite way to eat oysters.
No matter where you eat, be sure to head to the Island Creamery for homemade ice cream. It was chosen in 2015 as one of the top ten ice cream places in the USA. With flavors like Snickers Cheesecake and Iced Nirvana, need I say more? Expect a crowd in the summer. It’s the perfect stop after a round of mini golf at Surfside Golf.
For more information about the island, check out the official Visitor’s Guide. And when you leave, allow a little extra time to stop by the NASA Wallops Flight Facility Visitor Center, which is about 5 miles west of Chincoteague. Admission is free, and if you check ahead of time, you may be able to witness a rocket launch.