Chincoteague is one of the Happiest Seaside Towns in America for 2014, according to Coastal Living magazine.   So when a friend invited me to his vacation home on Chincoteague Island for a weekend this summer, I decided to pack my bags and head south to see what all the hype was about.  What I found was a small quaint seaside town that reminded me of days gone by; it was definitely one of the happiest places I’ve been to in a quite awhile.

historic downtown ChincoteagueIf you plan to visit this small barrier island located off the north eastern coast of Virginia for your next vacation, you should know that this is not your average beach town that you typically find along the east coast.  You are not going to find a plethora of restaurants, boutiques, spas and high rise hotels.  You are not going to find a boardwalk filled with tacky souvenir shops and arcades either.

Early morning surf fishing on the beach

Early morning surf fishing on the beach

Instead, you’ll find a serene town that makes you feel as if you have stepped back to a time when life was much simpler, and a beach with no real estate development.  Actually, if you visit Chincoteague, you should do yourself a favor and leave the laptop and smart phone at home.  Just enjoy the simple way of life for a change; Chincoteague makes it very easy to do so.

The Main Sights & Things To Do

So what is there to do in this seaside town?  There are plenty of ways to have some old-fashioned fun when visiting Chincoteague whether you spend the day out on the National Wildlife Refuge or decide to just hang around town.

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

The National Wildlife Refuge is a 14,000 acre refuge established in 1943 on Assateague Island which lies directly east of Chincoteague Island.  It is where you’ll find the pristine beach, the wild ponies, the lighthouse, and nature trails for biking and hiking.  You can access the National Wildlife Refuge by foot, bike or car.

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There is a fee to drive on the Refuge, and you can either buy a daily or weekly pass to gain access with your car.  If you decide to ride your bike, there are bike paths around the Refuge, and it’s quite an easy ride as the island is completely flat.

Travel Warning:  Don’t forget the bug spray. Although they do spray for bugs on Chincoteague Island, they do not spray on the Refuge.  The insects are brutal, especially the large horse flies (“greenheads”).

The Beach

chincoteague beach

Going to the beach is probably the most popular thing to do when visiting Chincoteague.  Typically, on a nice day, the town will be empty as everyone is on the beach.   Some weekends, you could wait in single lane traffic for an hour just to get to the beach parking lots (typically holiday or special event weekends).

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This part of the beach can only be reached by foot or bike. It’s quieter and less crowded.

The beach is very popular for a good reason.  Because it’s part of the Refuge, it is in pristine condition with no commercial development in sight.  If you decide to ride your bike to the beach, you can access a very quiet beach that cars can’t get to, too. chincoteague

Travel Tip – To get to the quieter beach:  Once you pass the gates and enter the refuge, follow the bike path to the Wildlife Loop instead of staying on Beach Access Road.  The Wildlife Loop is closed to traffic during the day until 3:00PM.  Take the Loop until you see the sign for the beach access trail.  At the end, you’ll find bike parking and a clean desolate beach. 

The Wild Ponies

The wild ponies are often seen in the distance off of Beach Access Road throughout the day.

The wild ponies are often seen in the distance off of Beach Access Road throughout the day.

Chincoteague is also famous for the wild ponies that have lived in the area for hundreds of years. Don’t expect to see them just wondering around the beach or walking along the side of the road.  Instead, you’ll probably just get a glance of them out in the salt marsh grasses on the right side of Beach Access Road on your way to the beach past the lighthouse parking lot.

chincoteague wild ponies

If you want to get closer to the wild ponies, you may be better off booking one of the many boat tours available around the island.  These tours will take you around the inlets allowing you to do some pony watching from a boat with experienced tour operators who know where the wild ponies hang out.

(credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd. Class Mark Jones)

(credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo/Petty Officer 3rd. Class Mark Jones)

Every year on the last Wednesday in July, Chincoteague hosts the annual Pony Swim.   Chincoteague’s “Saltwater Cowboys” round up the herd of wild ponies on Assateague Island where they then swim across the Assateague Channel to Chincoteague Island.  On Thursday, the wild ponies are taken to the carnival grounds where the foals are auctioned off.  Finally, on Friday, the adult ponies make a return swim back to the Refuge.  This is a big event for Chincoteague, and it attracts huge crowds to this small island.  So, if you want to see the pony swim, plan well in advance.

Nature Walks

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If you are interested in going on a nature walk or a bike ride on the Refuge, try the Wildlife Loop.  It is 3.2 mile loop that gives you the opportunity to take in the scenery as well as see some pretty unique looking birds.  It is open to walkers and bikers only during the day up until 3:00PM.  From 3:00PM til dusk, cars are permitted on the Loop.  I’d recommend a walk or bike ride in the morning before it’s too hot (there’s no shade on the Loop) and so you don’t have to share the Loop with cars. [important] Travel Tip:  If you are looking for ponies, you won’t find them on the Wildlife Loop.   Instead, try the Woodland Trail which is a 1.6 mile trail in an area on the Refuge where the ponies are kept.  There’s an overlook on the trail for pony watching, too.[/important]

The Assateague Lighthouse

Assateague Lighthouse Chincoteague Refuge

The Assateague Lighthouse on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

The Assateague Lighthouse, built in 1867, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It’s an operating lighthouse, so you’ll see its bright light blaring through the sky each night.  During the day, however, you can get up close and personal and can even climb to the top from April to November (for a $5 fee).  To get to the lighthouse, simply park in the small lot off of Beach Access Road (you’ll see the signs), and walk about 5 minutes along a shaded path through the woods.

Assateague Lighthouse Chincoteague Refuge

The climb to the top isn’t too bad.  At the top of each flight of stairs, there’s a landing area to stop and catch your breath.   It can feel claustrophobic inside when you are going up as it’s not very wide, and there’s not much airflow either.

Assateague Lighthouse Chincoteague Refuge

View, looking east towards the beach, from the top of the Assateague Lighthouse

I’d recommend climbing it first thing in the morning when there is no one else there.  It’s an easier climb up and down if you are not pausing for others who are also on the narrow spiral staircase with you.  Plus, it’s nice to be at the top to enjoy the views without crowds since there’s not much room up there.

The Assateague Lighthouse Chincoteague

The Assateague Lighthouse

Alternatively, if you are simply looking to get a photograph of the lighthouse with no interest in climbing to the top, your best view is going to be from the McDonald’s parking lot which is close to the bridge to Assateague Island on Maddox Boulevard.

Around Town

Chincoteague Pony Centre
6417 Carriage Drive (right off of Chicken City Road)

chincoIf you don’t get a chance to see the wild ponies on the Refuge, head over to the Pony Centre where you’ll get the opportunity to interact with them.  The Pony Centre is all things ponies, and it’s where you’ll be able to ride the ponies and take riding lessons, see pony shows, feed them, as well as shop for pony-related souvenirs in the large gift shop.  There is even a Chincoteague pony museum on the property.

Chincoteague’s Walk of Fame (The Island Theatre)
4074 Main Street

Visit the historic downtown area where you can do some shopping, but while there, don’t forget to mosey on over to the Island Theatre.  In front, you’ll find Chincoteague’s most famous resident’s “hoof prints” in cement.

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If you don’t already know this, Chincoteague Island gained national fame in 1961 when Twentieth Century Fox released the movie “Misty of Chincoteague.”  The movie was based on the award-winning children’s book about a real Chincoteague pony named Misty.  It was written by Marguerite Henry in 1947 while staying at Miss Molly’s Inn on the island.

Carnival
3648 Main Street

How more old-fashioned can you get than having a carnival in the center of town?  During the month of July, on weekends you can enjoy the simple pleasure of a carnival located just on the outskirts of the historic district (within walking distance) on Main Street. chinco

Offering games of chance like the ring toss, you can try your luck at winning a prize.  Who wouldn’t want a cute stuffed pony as a reminder of their vacation on Chincoteague Island.  (We named this fella Wendell).  Enjoy an oyster fritter or a candy apple or take a ride on the ferris wheel or Scrambler.  There’s plenty of fun to be had at the town carnival.

Cruising

Although the island is small, you still can’t really get around to too many places on foot.  Instead, you’ll see most vacationers getting from point A to point B on a bike, moped or a souped up golf cart.  I have to admit, it adds a certain charm to the place when you see everyone riding bikes or cruising around in open air mini vehicles. chinco

There are plenty of places on the island to rent your wheels.  However, if you really have your heart set on renting a mini Escalade, you should definitely make a reservation in advance as they are a very popular rental.

Shopping

Don’t expect to find malls or chain stores on the island.  Instead, you’ll find some boutique shops specializing in island wear, beach décor, and seashore jewelry.  There’s a small shopping district in the historic downtown area along Main Street, and the rest of the shops you’ll find along the main drag that heads out to the beach, Maddox Boulevard.

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Most of the shops carry the same general items, e.g., souvenirs, beach themed home décor and beach clothing, but you will find different items in almost all of the shops.

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Some of my favorite shops include the Brant on Maddox Boulevard (beach themed home décor and a great selection of Chincoteague Christmas Tree ornaments), Island Butterfly in the historic downtown area (seashore themed jewelry),  and the shop at the Pony Center on Chicken City Road (Chincoteague wild pony themed home décor and souvenirs).

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As you make your way around town, you’ll also see large displays of seashells for sale in front of people’s homes.  There’s usually a tin can on the display asking you to drop a $1.00 in for each shell that you take.  So if it’s pretty seashells that you want, keep your eye out for these displays as you bike around town.

Eating

You’ll find plenty of eating establishments on the Island, but none are going to require you to get dressed up for your dining experience.  This island is super casual, and that includes going out for dinner.  There are few eateries you should definitely check out for lunch or dinner while visiting the island.

Steamers
6251 Maddox Boulevard

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Steamers is the place to go for the all-you-can-eat seafood platters.  Our first night in town, we got our fill of steamed shrimp and snow crab legs. Once you finish your first tray, they’ll happily return with a second round if you still have room for it!  They have a lively Happy Hour in the bar area too, with a $5.00 special for freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit crushes.

Woody’s BBQ
6700 Maddox Boulevard

Woody's BBQ Chincoteague

Woody’s BBQ

You can’t miss Woody’s, as it’s on the way to the beach, and it’s a super colorful and eclectic outdoor restaurant. This is where you go for pulled barbecue sandwiches, but be warned, they are huge and messy!   I found the sandwiches to be very filling and tasty with the meat being very tender, but I am a bit of a pulled pork snob so I found the overall flavor to be slightly lacking.chinco

However, don’t let that stop you from visiting Woody’s as the sandwiches are still good and with the overall eclectic décor, this outdoor barbecue restaurant is definitely worth a pit stop.   I also ordered the corn fritters which were very good but the accompanying yum yum sauce was not as yummy as I had hoped it would be.  Overall, nice experience and pretty cool place to stop for some barbecue, but not the best barbecue you’ll ever have.

Little Bay Seafood Market
4340 Chicken City Road

Chincoteague oysters are very popular and are a must-try when visiting the island.  You’ll see quite a few places selling the “salt oysters” around town, so you will have plenty of opportunities to try them.  If you want to bring some oysters back to your vacation home or rental, make sure you go early as they sometimes sell out by the afternoon hours. Chincoteague Oysters Little Bay Seafood Market

This market will shuck the oysters for you, too; simply ask.  However, we find it quite enjoyable to shuck our own while sitting out in the yard enjoying the beautiful Chincoteague summer weather.   While there, you might as well pick up some clams.  They were buttery and delicious.

Chincoteague Oysters Little Bay Seafood Market

The ladies chatting with Troyster

On our recent visit to this shop for clams and oysters, we met one of the guys who works there (or it’s quite possible he owns the market).  His name is Troy (or as we like to call him, Troyster), and he’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.  Be sure to stop in and say Hi to Troyster the next time you are in the mood for some oysters while in town.

Island Creamery
6243 Maddox Boulevard

island creamery chincoteague

Make sure you stop at Island Creamery for some delicious homemade ice cream while in town.  This ice cream shop is famous for its homemade waffle cones and its creamy homemade ice cream.   The cones themselves are huge, and if you order a waffle cone, you can’t get anything smaller than a two dip cone.  They do offer kiddie cones, but they restrict these to children under a certain age.  Island Creamery is a very popular ice cream shop, so expect a line when you arrive.

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There are many flavors to choose from, maybe too many!  My favorite flavor was the Bourbon Caramel Crunch.  Even if you aren’t a bourbon drinker (I’m not), this flavor was the best out of the four that I tried over the weekend.  The black raspberry was also good, tasting just like the chocolate covered raspberry jellies you can pick up in a candy store.  The cherries jubilee also had great flavor with large fresh cherries mixed in.  And finally, their very popular pony tracks was good, except I thought the chunks of chocolate mixed into the ice cream were too big; you’ll be doing more chewing than licking if you get the pony tracks.  Friends also recommend the Salted Caramel and Pineapple ice cream flavors but say to skip the Iced Coffee as it barely had any coffee flavor at all.

Howl-Naturale
4091 Main Street 

pet bakery howl-naturale chincoteague

Your furry friends can eat well on Chincoteague Island, too.  Stop in and visit the pet bakery to pick up some goodies for your household pet whether it’s a dog, cat or horse!  Howl Naturale focuses on wholesome, 100% natural pet products and foods.  All of their products are hand-prepared, and they never use preservatives, coloring, salt or other artificial additives.

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If you are looking for an old-fashioned family vacation, I think you cannot go wrong with planning a trip to Chincoteague Island.  I hope you enjoy your visit to Chincoteague Island.  I know I’m looking forward to my next one.

Have you been to Chincoteague?  What are your favorites spots to eat and grab a drink? Share your experiences in the comments below!