In the middle of the 18th century, around 1750, a Spanish galleon transporting small horses commissioned for work in the mines of Peru shipwrecked on the coast of Virginia, on the shores of a small island inhabited by local Indian tribes. Several years latter, in 1802, another ship found its end in the same place. This story would have been forgotten by history, like many others, if not for the horses, the main cargo, which swam to safety to the shore, their descendents still roaming free the islands of Chincoteague and Assateague.
The islands, located about 6 hours drive from New York, are definitely a hidden treasure.
I got to this place not by the marketing campaign of the Chamber of Commerce but by the novel “ Misty of Chincoteague” that was chosen as a project in school by our son, that determined us to look on the map and try this place. As a matter of fact we drove twice in the last 10 years from Virginia Beach to New York through the Delaware Peninsula, and we did not get any hint that Chincoteague & Assateague islands would be a good place to visit.
After spending several periods in Cape Cod, a comparison is mandated. But beside the beauty of the ocean coast there are two worlds apart.
Chincoteague is a family oriented place, where commercialism was somehow infiltrated like a foreign intrusion. Warm locals that would spend a lot of time with you telling you about the place replace the sometime snotty atmosphere of Cape Cod.
Chincoteague and Assateague are islands connected by a bridge. Chincoteague is the place of business, full of hotels, inns, cottages, restaurants, cafes and the place where locals live. Accommodations in the island are various but you’ll be surprised to see few brand name hotels and restaurants. Everything looks and is local, families living there for generations. We stayed in one of the very pleasant “Holiday Cottages”, a very clean and well-maintained place.
Assateague is part of a large sand bar in the ocean that go all the way from Chincoteague Island, VA to Ocean Beach, MD. Assateague is also a National Seashore and wildlife sanctuary being under the jurisdiction of the US Park Services and as a result there are no hotels and services on the island except the visitor centers, two in Virginia and one in Maryland.
There is not road inside Assateague that connects both sides of the park so you have to get back on the mainland and drive about one hour between the two entrances of the park. However the ticket is the same and is way cheaper if you buy it in Virginia ($15/week).
The main attraction in the park is the ponies that roam freely and everybody coming here talks about them. They are in a way the symbol of the islands.
The horses from Assateague, VA are fenced in two areas, one in the southern part of the park and one in the far northern part of the park close to MD. It is easier to see the ones in the Southern side of the park that occasionally come close to the road. In order to see the horses close to Maryland, the Park Service organizes bus tours that bring you close to where the horses are and you may have to walk another half an hour to the fence that separate the two states. In the Maryland side of the park the horses roam freely and is common to see them in the parking place, on the beach for a swim or on the road.
The highlight of the season for Chincoteague is the horses swim. The last Wednesday on July the horses swim over the channel from Assateague to Chincoteague where they are sold on Thursday to various buyers. On Friday the horses that were not sold swim back to Assateague. If the purchased horse is too young he will be send back to Assateague being taken by his owner after the next year swim. The horses are managed and sold by the Chincoteague Fire Department. The event was for years a major crowd magnet and is the worst time to visit the island with roads marred by traffic jams and full hotels and restaurants.
Mosquitoes are a nuisance in the park. Because Assateague is a wildlife and bird sanctuary no treatment against mosquitoes is done and if you hike inside the forest they may eat you alive if you don’t use some kind of protection. In Chincoteague the treatment is done daily by plane and trucks so the town is kind of mosquito free.
Besides horse watching there are lots of activities in the park on both sides of the border. There are paved bike trails that bring you around marshes full of wild life and birds, inside the forest and towards the beach.
Kayaks can be rented from various places in Chincoteague and a tour is mandated on the shallow water of the canals surrounded by reeds. We decided for a kayak tour on the Maryland side of the park with SuperFun Eco Tours that is offering Discovery tours, 2.5 hours on the water and land, that starts at 1:00 pm at the old ferry landing ($45/adult, $30/kids). Besides, on the Maryland side, there are kayaks to rent, slightly cheaper on the Bayside road parking place, the ideal location for sunset in the park, but you may have to peddle longer if you want to go into the marshes.
Hike trail abound but mosquitoes may be a deterrent in approaching them. Use a lot of bug spray.
I found the nicest time spent in Assateague, VA to be the sunset on the beach. Tom’s Cove is a large body of water right behind the ocean beach, that makes one of the few places where you could relax on the ocean beach facing East and see the sunset over the water from your reclining chair. It is fantastic and you’ll see many people hanging out on the beach till late in the night.
A visit to the Assateague Lighthouse is a rewarding experience conferring great views over the islands.
Outside of the bridge and causeway that connects Chincoteague Island to the mainland is NASA’s Wallop Area, the place from where some of the space missions are started. It is the oldest space mission launch area in the world being founded in 1945. A visitor center with programs for kids is right in front of the huge dishes listening to space.
Birds are everywhere. From the marshes that are between Wallop and Chincoteague, in the Assateague channel and further in Tom’s cove you discover an entire collection of birds.
In one rainy day offered to us by a hurricane that was hovering not so far, we took a short trip in the Delaware Peninsula and visited the town of Onancock, a charming small town with impressive villas, an old store in the harbor that was a major commerce hub during the Civil War and a nice and spiffy center that has in the middle Ker Place, a fully renovated colonial house of a large plantation owner, John Ker. A couple of other small towns around make a great day trip destinations, Parksley and Accomac.
We left Chincoteague and Assateague with the idea to return and we drove for the last night in the mayhem of Ocean Beach, MD, a board-walked beach aligned with hotels and restaurants, crowded with people who are strolling its promenade till late into the night.