by Cesca Janece Waterfield
At the brink of the Atlantic Ocean just off Virginia’s coast are two treasures of places that manage to be transient and enduring at the same time. Assateague and Chincoteague Islands slope in a unified, gentle arc from the Chesapeake Bay for 60 miles from its northern tip near Ocean City, to its southernmost point near Wallops Island. Wind from the Atlantic molds its beaches into constantly-shifting dunes. The coast here is always in transition and if you let too much time pass between visits, you may not recognize the coast that greets your return. Perhaps it’s the impermanence of the terrain that makes its close-knit community so highly tribute its annual traditions. This year, on July 30 and 31, the small town of Chincoteague will host its 83rd Annual Pony Swim and Auction.
History of the Penning
Everyone loves legends. Separated from the mainland and isolated from all easy distraction, islands seem to provide plenty of them. One well-worn fable of the ponies of Assateague Island is that they are descendents of ponies who swam ashore in the 1600’s, when the Spanish galleon they’d been on wrecked and sank. More likely, the ponies are from domesticated animals brought over by farmers around the same time.
Since 1925, the Chincoteague pony penning has been a much-anticipated event. Each year, ponies plunge into the shallow channel between the two islands. After pulling ashore at Chincoteague, the ponies run down Main Street under the direction of “Saltwater Cowboys,” the men and women on horseback who herd the ponies from the Bay through town. The two-day auction of yearling ponies supports the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. On the final day, the remaining ponies swim back to Assateague. It’s an event with something to captivate anyone. The excitement of the pony penning combined with the usual charms of Chincoteague attract thousands to the area each year.
The Perfect Pillow
Chincoteague offers a variety of lodging options. From hotels designed for vacation indulgence, to campgrounds suited for rustic beachgoers, there’s a perfect pillow for everyone.
Named for its proximity to the wildlife refuge, all rooms at the Refuge Inn are non-smoking. The Inn will please anyone seeking plush serenity. It has its own corral of Chincoteague ponies adjacent its rooms and suites. Its round-up of amenities includes an all-weather pool, WiFi, sundeck, fitness room, refrigerators in every room, and more. The Refuge Inn is aptly named, and offers a serene environment after a busy day. www.RefugeInn.com
A cul-de-sac of Holiday Cottages sits a block from Maddox Blvd. at 6113 Taylor St. The site features a playground and outdoor pool for its patrons. Each two bedroom, single bath cottage is equipped with modern conveniences of home, including kitchen and separate living room, cable TV, A/C, and phones. Hibachis and picnic tables make grilling easy, and there’s ample parking for boats. (757) 336-6256
Eat Your Fill
Focusing only on breakfast, Island Motor Inn Café at 4391 Main St. features the cooking and recipes of Carolyn Jones. Drowsy beachgoers clamor for “Chef’s French Toast” ($8.95). Freshly baked French bread is sliced lengthwise, and dipped in an egg batter sweetened with Grand Marnier, Bailey’s Irish Crème, and Amaretto. It’s then sizzled and drizzled with Vermont Maple Syrup, and accompanied by plump sausage links. Also popular are the 4-egg omelettes, like the Salmon Pate Omelette with Chives and Champagne Sauce ($13.95). Try the Eggs Benedict with Irish Bacon ($10.95) or the Classic American Breakfast ($7.95).
When most people think of the beach, they don’t think “barbecue.” But after a whiff of hickory smoke from Woody’s Beach BBQ, they won’t be able to think of anything else! Traffic literally circles back to grab Woody’s baby back ribs, pulled pork, chicken and more. Okay, the outdoor restaurant is right nest to the traffic circle on Maddox Blvd., but this barbecue is the Real Deal. Named for the owner’s brother, Woody’s creamy cole slaw is grandma’s decades-old recipe using hand sliced cabbage only. The fries are hand-cut, genuine boardwalk fries. Meats are slow cooked using hardwoods, and the BBQ sauce is homemade. There are homemade beans, corn bread, and not much more, but what more do you need? Owner Larry Parsons says they kept the menu simple to ensure each item competes for the best you’ve ever tasted. All seating is outside, and it’s mostly stand-up.
A well-known Main Street meeting place since 1960, Bill’s Seafood Restaurant at 4040 Main Street is one of the first places you’ll see cresting the small bridge into Chincoteague. A few years back, Bill’s re-vamped its interior and menu, expanding its wine and cocktail offerings, and generally shifting to a slightly more upscale focus. Call it maturity or marketability, Bill’s is very good at what they do. Service is efficient and friendly. Crab Cakes are jumbo lump, topped with hollandaise. Oysters are from Chincoteague’s own waters, lightly breaded, and perfectly fried. Hand-cut steaks, chops, and pastas round out the menu. Expect to pay between $18 and $33 for dinner entrees. Desserts are luscious, famous, and homemade, thanks to Bill’s association with Sugarbaker’s Bakery & Café just down the street. www.BillsSeafoodRestaurant.com
For lower priced and delicious seafood (takeout only), consider Captain Zack’s Seafood Takeouts, 4422 Deep Hole Rd.
There’s a lot to see in Chincoteague and Assateague Island. While the Island and its parks are pedestrian-friendly, bikes, scooters, and surreys can help you see the sights. They’re conveniently available for rent, sale, and service. The town also offers a Free Trolley with well-marked stops along a loop around the Island.
Everywhere you look this season, you’ll see Chincoteague tourists of all ages riding “Scoot Coupes.” Less than two dollars gases one up, and you can rent “Scoupes,” bikes, and more, at The Wheel House (757) 336-5665 and Jus’ Bikes (757) 336-6700, both in the 6400 block of Maddox Blvd.
Fun & Sightseeing
Ensure the whole family can marvel at the Island’s beauty by touring with the Chincoteague Natural History Association, whose vehicles are equipped with wheelchair lifts. The Association can gain access to areas not easily accessed by the general public. Buy tickets at the Refuge Center, or call (757) 336-3696.
When chartering a boat for off shore fishing, scenic cruises, or sailing, make sure your provider is part of the Chincoteague Island Charterboat Association, and you’ll be treated to a professional and safe time on the beautiful waters of the Island. Captain Charlie Burch of Chincoteague Cruises will show you scenic and natural sights of the Island (757) 336-5731. Captain Fred Gilman of Reel Time Charters (757) 336-2236 offers guided off shore fishing. For in-season waterfowl hunting, call Captain Jimmy Whealton of Little Duck Charters (757) 336-3254.
Putt-putt golf and arcades are available on Maddox Blvd. and a quaint, historic movie theatre on Main St. shows current movies, centering on the blockbusters. Shops and gift shops are plentiful.
Did you miss the Uffizi on your trip to Florence this year? Get your museum fix here. There are numerous galleries on the Island, and museums include the Refuge Waterfowl Museum on Maddox Blvd. (757) 336-5800
It’s well-worth an afternoon drive to Salisbury, Maryland for the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. Supported by Salisbury State University, the Ward features a world-class collection of wildfowl carvings. From decoys used by watermen for generations, to fine art sculpture and carving, the craft and beauty of the Ward’s holdings may surprise you. 909 Schumaker Dr., Salisbury, MD 410.742.4988 www.WardMuseum.org
Pony Penning Schedule of Events
Wednesday, July 30
Pony Swim Day
Ponies plunge into the Assateague Channel between 7 am and 1 pm, and swim to Veteran’s Memorial Park on the east side of Chincoteague Island. You’ll have to be patient to see this beautiful spectacle. It begins when the currents, tide – and the ponies – are good and ready. After resting, they’re herded to Carnival grounds on Main St.
The colt to most swiftly swim the channel and first come dripping ashore is named King or Queen Neptune. The “royal” is then honored by being given away at the Carnival, which begins at 7:30 pm.
During Pony Penning Weekend, traffic is heavy, especially just after the swim. Chincoteague does a remarkable job of transporting thousands of tourists with shuttles. Consider walking the half-mile from the swim site to the Carnival, which is old-fashioned fun, complete with regional treats, like Oyster Fritters, funnel cakes, and clam sandwiches. A long line forms after the arrival of the ponies, but if you wait, you’ll get a close-up view of the guests of honor.
Thursday, July 31
Pony Auction Day
8 to noon – On Carnival Grounds, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co. auctions ponies, yearlings and younger. The Carnival opens at 7:30
Friday, August 1
Ponies return to Assateague – Time TBA
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (757) 336-6122
Chincoteague Island Chamber of Commerce 6733 Maddox Blvd. (757) 336-6161
During the third weekend of July, Chincoteague celebrates what’s blue. This year marks the 21st year of the Annual Chincoteague Island Blueberry Festival.