All the Pretty Horses
Chincoteague Island offers small-town charm, miles of pristine coastline and something other beaches do not: wild ponies.
To fully appreciate the remoter aspects of Chincoteague, it’s worth learning about the natural history of the 7-mile-long island. The interactive exhibits at the Herbert H. Bateman Educational and Administrative Center, a sustainably built nature center on Assateague, tell the story with oversize photographic displays and dioramas. I’m still working on the difference between a sanderling and a plover, but I’ve come to learn about (and better appreciate) the essential role the salt marsh plays in the ecosystem here, and to understand how the tides and storms shape the island, carving a narrow winter shoreline, a wider beach in summer and a general shift as the sands drift westward.
Toms Cove Visitor Center, a smaller facility just yards from the beach, offers one of my favorite views of the marsh, a grand sweep of waving grass punctuated with wading birds feasting on the rich underworld of fish. Inside the center, you can touch the armor-like shell of a live horseshoe crab, holding in two hands this plate-size relic of prehistoric sea history.
But it’s the Museum of Chincoteague Island that offers up Chincoteague’s real secrets. Like, whoever heard of a “sneak box” boat? (A small, floating plywood box of a boat, it allows a hunter to sneak up on ducks and geese.) You also can get a close look at the decoys once used for hunting and now coveted by collectors; learn about those accordion-shaped, papery discards at the tide line (whelk egg cases); and find out about “buy back” ponies (which people purchase with the promise that the ponies will be kept with the herd).
The oyster industry that influenced the island’s development is chronicled here, as well, from its days of abundance to the more modest aquaculture of today. And you’ll learn about the storms that villagers have endured. (A thriving chicken industry was wiped out along Chicken City Road by the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962.)
Chincoteague is all about the water, of course, and one of the best ways to experience it is by kayak. So one morning, I head to Snug Harbor, one of a handful of rental outfits, and wait under a tiki hut for the guide to finish bailing beached boats that were swamped with rainwater the night before.
After declining a quick paddle lesson, three of us finally slide our kayaks into the water behind the guide and paddle across the open channel, past where the ponies swim, and into a maze of thick marsh grass just yards from Assateague Island. I stop paddling and listen to the spit-and-click of crabs feeding on the thickly matted grass and to the faint rush of ocean waves on the far side of Assateague.
There are no ponies out today, but Skippy, our 21-year-old guide, points out an eagle’s nest high in a pine. He identifies marsh hens, the vernacular for a bird also known as the clapper rail, and catches one of the dime-size crabs that swarm in and out of the water around the marsh grass, reaching over the kayak to show me how to hold it so I don’t get pinched.
After an hour or so of contemplative paddling, we pick up the pace and head back to the dock. Skippy challenges me to a race, which he wins handily.
Early another morning, I set out by bike on the 3.2-mile paved “Wildlife Loop” in Assateague’s wildlife refuge. Though I don’t see ponies or deer, there are plenty of egrets, herons and geese. Down a side path, I discover a remote beach that’s accessible only by walking or biking, and I’m tempted to peel off my T-shirt and shorts to go for a swim. Clearly, others have had similar notions. A sign reads: “Public nudity prohibited.”
The back roads of Chincoteague Island are a different sort of remote: just oyster-shell lanes and hand-drawn signs indicating where you can fish for crabs. I pedal into the city marina parking lot on the south end of the island and cruise past a jumble of charter fishing boats, commercial trawlers, houseboats, pontoon tour boats, and even a research vessel.
This end of the island, known as “Down the Marsh,” is also home to an abandoned go-kart track, a serve-yourself produce shack (honor system), and a sign printed with the Ten Commandments planted in someone’s yard, a reminder in case you’re feeling less than honor-bound.
Afterward, I pedal back along Ridge Road, with its views of Assateague to the east, past Veteran’s Memorial Park, where local kids wheel around the skateboard park, and then head back into town for dinner.
Chincoteague is known for its locally caught flounder and scallops, and the clam chowder is the real deal, with tomatoes and potatoes and broth that tastes like a swim in the ocean. Crabs are popular here, too—I like buying a bushel already steamed with Old Bay, and passing around the crab mallets, a summer tradition that’s as much about socializing as it is about eating.
Many of the restaurants offer seafood fried, sauced and/or stuffed. Maybe when you grow up around abundant fish, you need to dress it up in order to appreciate it. But since I like my seafood lightly prepared, I tend to buy it from the shrimp and scallop lady or from one of the fish shops on the island and cook it in the kitchen of my rental house.
I also keep an eye out for the occasional farmer parked roadside with a load of locally grown watermelons or cantaloupes, and I visit the Saturday farmers market on Main Street for Eastern Shore produce. During the week, there’s also Church Street Produce, set up in a shed not far from the center of town. Even if you don’t cook, it’s worth a visit for drip-down-your-arm juicy peaches and for the tomato pie, a buttery concoction so rich you’d never guess you were eating something from the garden. Jerry Alms, who runs the stand with his wife, Paula, learned to bake from his mother, though he says it took him a dozen pies to get the recipe right.
On the second Saturday of each month from April through November, tourists and locals come together for the 2nd Saturday Art Stroll, moseying through a dozen galleries and shops for demonstrations, exhibits, book readings, wine tastings and live music. There’s a thriving arts community here: The Chincoteague Island Theatre Company specializes in short plays and readings, as well as the occasional full-length production; and a coffeehouse concert series features local musicians year-round.
In the summer, outdoor concerts in a waterside park range from small brass bands to Cajun music and the blues. A film series in the same park includes popular and vintage selections on an outdoor screen.
If you go to one of these free events, chances are you’ll find yourself chatting with the woman who sold you sunscreen at the drugstore or the guy who parked his bike beside yours at the beach.
You may share your sweet tea with them and trade stories about the storm that passed through the night before. Small talk, in a small town.
Feels like home to me.