Chincoteague, Virginia is one of the most beautiful beach towns in the United States. It is located on the eastern edge of Virginia’s Eastern Shore region, a low-lying peninsula in the northern part of the state that is surrounded on one side by the Atlantic Ocean and the other by the Chesapeake Bay.
Chincoteague Island lies off the coast of Virginia’s Eastern Shore mainland and is sheltered from the open ocean by Assateague Island, on which you’ll find the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The two islands are connected by a bridge that crosses a channel lined with gorgeous salt marshes full of waving grasses. Unspoiled and old-fashioned are the words that immediately come to mind when you drive through the town of Chincoteague to the bridge that crosses over to Assateague.
The far side of Assateague Island is rightly famous for its gorgeous beach, which, thanks to the refuge, is not spoiled by any human development. The beach is so famous in fact that in 2010 Chincoteague was named America’s Number One Beach Town by AOL Travel News. It’s obvious that it would be delightful to spend a summer holiday in the charming low-key town of Chincoteague, with that sandy beach an easy bike ride away.
We visited Chincoteague during the first weekend of October and probably could have swum in the warm ocean water during our first couple of days there, when the air temperature was over 80 degrees. We had a wonderful time on our visit, but do you want to know how much time we spent on the beach? The photo below illustrates the totality of it:
Please click on photos to see full-size versions.
The fact is that we arrived in Chincoteague on a glorious, golden Friday afternoon and spent the rest of Friday and all of Saturday exploring it in a variety of ways that did not involve the beach. By the time we made it over there on Sunday, the weather had changed for the worse.
Happily this just means I have a different story to tell about our time on Chincoteague, one that immersed us fully in the town and the landscape. So what are my top picks for things to do in Chincoteague with kids – other than the beach?
Get close to some ponies. If you’ve ever read the classic children’s book Misty of Chincoteague (or seen the movie, which was filmed there) than you know that Assteague Island is famous for its wild ponies, which are rounded up and auctioned off by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department every summer. You can see the ponies simply by biking through the refuge, but it may only be from a distance. A more guaranteed way to get a good view of them is by taking a bus tour with the Chincoteague National History Association. These tours visit parts of the refuge that are not open to the general public including some of the areas where the ponies tend to hang out – right next to the road.
Explore the bays and salt marsh in a boat. It would be easy to spend days poking around this fascinating place in a variety of watercraft. During our time in Chincoteague we were lucky enough to circumnavigate the island on a pontoon boat with Daisey’s Dockside Nature Cruises, a trip which afforded us not only a chance to see a good portion of both the Chincoteague and Assateague shorelines, but to sample a Chincoteague salt oyster fresh from the water and get up close and personal with one of the wild ponies on Assateague. We also checked out the marsh grass at eye level in kayaks on a guided trip with SouthEast Expeditions that gave us yet another perspective of this diverse ecosystem. Then it was back over to the other side of the island, where we landed on some of the sand bars and small islands in between Chincoteague and the mainland to collect shells and meet the fiddler crabs on one of Captain Barry’s Back Bay Cruises. Three boat rides in two days may sound like a lot, but I think the boys would have happily spent a third day cruising around if the weather had permitted it.
Catch your dinner. Thanks to the boys’ new best friend Captain Barry, we learned how to find edible seaweed, grab some mussels, dig for clams, and pull in blue crabs from a trap. The water around Chincoteague is a veritable natural grocery store and my kids loved learning how to take advantage of it – especially since it involved getting unbelievably filthy.
Dive into an ice cream. The Island Creamery serves some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted (and regular readers of my blog know those are fightin’ words for me) including “Marsh Mud” – a thick, rich chocolate that (thankfully) resembles is namesake only in color and not in taste or smell.
Watch some birds. You don’t need to be a so-called “bird nerd” or birding expert to enjoy the wildlife in Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. From egrets to herons to osprey to bald eagles to cormorants in the fall the birds are plentiful enough to see with your naked eye. There are numerous spots in the refuge where you can stop and watch as the birds feed and sun themselves. If you want more information about just what you’re looking at, check out the refuge’s main visitor center, where various exhibits will show you what birds live or visit the refuge as part of their annual migrations.
This post merely scratches the surface of the stories from our fall weekend in Chincoteague, so I hope you’ll be back to learn more about this beautiful place.
Many thanks to the Eastern Shore of Virginia Tourism Commission for sponsoring my family’s trip to Chincoteague, and for paying for the boat and bus tours I mention above. My opinions are of course my own.