Chincoteague Island Paradise

Text by Camille Miller

Chincoteague Island is small, only a mile and half wide and seven miles long. It barely rises above the seawater on Virginia’s coastline. And if it weren’t for a series of children’s books about the famous pony “Misty of Chincoteague”, I may never have stepped foot on it. But thanks to my horse-crazed daughter, I found myself on a mild Friday afternoon in mid-October sitting in the island grasses, waiting for a peek of the famous feral Chincoteague Ponies. We were fortunate to be visiting during the bi-annual Pony Roundup, when the ponies get health checkups and new foals are selected to be put up for auction. The fun was about to start any minute, and the crowd was eager and excited.

As we waited, every available inch of the fence around the ponies’ pen was claimed and climbed as the crowd of three to four hundred “Pony Pals’ and admirers pressed closer. A multi-generational family nearby had wisely thought to bring camp chairs and snacks, and as they waited, the grandparents lovingly recited their favorite ponies’ histories and ancestry to the young ones, passing on the

knowledge and affection they had been taught as youngsters themselves. A group of friends, all middle-aged women, stood in a semi-circle and fanned themselves while catching up with each other after a year away from the island in their various home states. A group of children claimed my daughter as a playmate and they weaved among the spectators, running and laughing and playing as if they had known each other all their lives.

It suddenly occurred to me that, in a way, I had stepped back in time. The Chincoteague Ponies had been bringing these people together to have these same conversations, reforge these same connections, and make these same memories, for nearly a hundred years. For them, the Roundup wasn’t just a random event they were taking in as tourists, even though nearly all of them had traveled a significant distance to be there. This was a tradition. Chincoteague Island was a part of who they were as individuals, as families, and as friends. Eventually the crowd began to stir. My daughter came

running back to me and pointed toward the entrance of the corral. “They’re coming!” she said with barely controlled glee. Pushing our way back to the fence, we saw the first few ponies and heard the cries go up, “It’s Riptide! Look! Isn’t he gorgeous!” “Mom! I see Honey Bee!” “Is that Lady Hook? She’s the one with the white ‘hook’ shape on her side. It is! It’s her!” It was a frenzy of hooves and hollers and everyone had a camera or pair of binoculars out to capture the antics of the ponies as they shuffled around each other and gazed curiously at the crowd.

It was only one afternoon, but I’ll never forget it. As I gradually dropped my guard over the next few days and sank into the Island’s laidback lifestyle, that sense of community and tradition only deepened. People might come to Chincoteague Island to see the ponies… but they stay for each other.

For example, after we had checked into our condo on the marina, aptly named “Another Day In Paradise”, we walked out onto the docks to gaze at the sunset over the water, and in less than five minutes, found ourselves invited to go crabbing. Another multigenerational family had rented the condo above ours (as they do every year), and were eagerly tossing chicken necks into the marina secured by simple lines. We spent hours together gently tugging on lines to test the catch, learning how to hold the blue crabs, determine their gender, and measure them to be sure they were big enough to keep. By the time the light was gone, we had made plans to join them on their boat for a cruise around the harbor. I think it may be the fastest I’ve ever made sincere friends in my entire life.

We made more and more friends everywhere we went: at the beach, in the museums, even while we were paddling through the reeds in a two-man kayak. When the weather turned a bit rainy and windy, it didn’t stop anyone from gathering at the end of the day at the Island Creamery, a lighthouse-inspired building where “The Best Ice Cream In Virginia” is made. (Tip: If you visit, don’t eat dinner first or you won’t have room.)

Every day, and in every direction, we saw families and friends enjoying the island together, and we got generous advice on what to see, do, and eat on Chincoteague Island. According to these experts:

Chicoteague’s best foodie spots are…

• Wine, Cheese, & More: for a gourmet selection of wine, coffee, tea, and fudge.

• Novelle’s Seafood or Bill’s Prime Seafood & Steaks: for local delicacies pulled straight from the sea.

• Cinco Taqueria: for handmade tacos worth standing in line for.

• Favorite island activities include…

• Biking the causeway to Assateague Island, and riding to the Lighthouse or doing the Wildlife Loop to see ponies, herons, and other beautiful creatures.(Don’t forget the camera!)

• Spending the day in the water at Little Tom’s Cove, which is shallow enough to be warmed to bathtub temperatures. In the evening you’ll see locals gathering around container fires to roast marshmallows together on the beach.

• Watching the NASA Rocket Launches at nearby Wallops Island (If you go: check the schedule before your trip to confirm, since launches can be delayed by weather).

It’s no accident that so many people feel at home here. Chincoteague Island has gone to great lengths to preserve the “small town community” feeling, by denying permits to chain restaurants, box stores, and major land developers. In fact the only chain offerings on the island are a McDonalds and a Subway. Everything else is locally owned and lovingly managed, so visitors are spared the gentrified prices or overdeveloped crowding of places like nearby Virginia Beach and Ocean City.

When I asked our condo owner, Annie, why she chose to own property in Chincoteague, she described that this passion for tradition and community is what drew her and her family back again and again until she decided to become a part of it. They started visiting in 2002, and after falling in love with the ponies (her daughter faithfully follows Lorna Doone), and the laid-back community, they decided to buy first one and then another condo in Sunset Bay.

By 2013 Annie was on the condo board as president, and they were visiting several times a month. Says Annie, “Part of the draw is the national seashore. You can see the sunrise on one side of the island and the sunset on the other. We often just bike everywhere, we don’t even drive. Coming from DC, we have the chance to unplug and relax here, which is so opposite from our regular lives. The other part of it is the small-town feel. You get to know people. It is easy to be invested in the community. I know my neighbors. So it has everything our family wants: the beaches, the biking, the small-town feel for the kids, the horses, and events like the Christmas Parade, that we’ve gone to for years and years.”

The condos themselves she has beautifully furnished and decorated to suit the groups that come to enjoy Chincoteague Island. Annie has a lot of repeat visitors who appreciate unique touches, like the murals on the walls, and the breathtaking elements, like the view of the marina in the early morning light. As President on the condo board from 2013-2016, she was able to oversee updates and make sure that everything from the pool to the docks are being well-cared for. “We also give back to the community,” Annie says. “We put our condos on the ‘Homes for the Holidays Tour’ in 2012 and 2013.

We give the condos beachy Christmas decor, really deck them out, and then sell tickets to the tour to benefit charity.” It’s easy to develop an attachment to this generous and welcoming community, (and perhaps one or two favorite ponies). Chincoteague Island is the truly the kind of place you can relax into and fall in love with, and it will love you right back.

To Do:

Wildlife Loop
Wild Horse Watching
Ice Cream Parlor
Rocket Launching
Bike Rentals

For more information click here

Camille Miller

Camille Miller has been writing since 2011 on a variety of topics. She especially loves introducing people to their next memorable vacation spot and has a knack for picking out the unique homes and luxurious locations you want to return to again and again. She often writes about her travels with her husband and three crazy kids, who are chiefly responsible for keeping things lively.

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