Exploring Chincoteague town in Virginia is my post-pandemic escape in May. The island features a historic Main Street, wharf-side restaurants, a wildlife refuge, and a national seashore. Plus it is the home of Misty the Pony! If you are looking for a beach town with high rises and 24/7 activity, Chincoteague will bore you.
Chincoteague is a barrier island in Virginia in a region known as Chesapeake Country. It is a 3-hour drive from Washington DC. But judging by the license plates that I scan in my hotel’s parking lot, it draws guests from up and down the East Coast of the United States. Chincoteague perfectly matches my WANDERLOVE during this pandemic. It feels safe yet FUN.
This is a town where I can purposely dial down the energy and relax. There is an island rhythm that invites you to slow down and notice. Scanning reviews on Roadsideamerica.com, I delight that other visitors purposely choose a backroads-of-America type vacation.
“I loved the book and I love the island. It is not Disney World or Ocean City; it is best for families who have read the book, and like a more nature-type of vacation.”Bethlovestravel
On my recent trip, I create a list of 10 fun things to do in Chincoteague town in a 24-hour visit (but honestly I could double the attractions on this list . . . without any trouble!) Each activity deserves to be on the “must do” list. Here we go!
Chincoteague Town Tour
My #1 recommendation is to start your visit with a 1.5-hour walking tour of Chincoteague. They are offered daily. I see the sign advertising the walking tours in a store window on Main Street. I immediately stop and call. Less than an hour later I get a return call. Despite the fact that I failed to book in advance, I am able to register for the 7 pm Ghost Tour offered by Chincoteague Step Through Time Tours. (Legends and lore, pirates, shipwrecks, ponies and a few ghosts are thrown in.) It is the best $15 that I will spend on the island.
My guide is Cindy Faith. She also leads the week-long Road Scholars trip to Chincoteague. Cindy knows so many stories that paint a picture of Chincoteague’s resilience and fortitude through the centuries—whether she’s talking about the attack by a Confederate warship during the Civil War, the Main Street fires of 1920 and 1924 or the 1962 Ash Wednesday Storm. These islanders are plucky.
Naturally I seek Cindy’s advice on the Top 3 things to do in Chincoteague: “1. Beach and wildlife refuge; 2. Unique food offerings, seafood; 3. Charming downtown, friendly people.”
Historic Main Street
If I only do one thing in Chincoteague town, I will explore its charming Main Street and step back into time. The new preoccupation is “slow travel.” Well, travel can’t get any slower than staying on Chincoteague Island.
Strolling down Main Street feels like I step onto the movie set of Misty. (Its premiere was 1961.) There is the Island Library, Main Street Coffee House, Sundial Books, Miss Molly’s Inn and so much more.
The Historic Main Street Merchants Association promotes all the life and beauty of Chincoteague Island. Due to the pandemic, “Shop the Dock” is rescheduled for 2022.
Depending on when you stay in Chincoteague, you definitely should visit the town library. According to its website, “the Chincoteague Island Library is a privately-supported free library that serves the residents of Chincoteague Island and Northern Accomack County, Virginia, and many seasonal visitors.” It is located on Main Street. Hours of operations vary on weekdays. The library is closed on Saturday and Sunday. Be sure to call ahead.
Strolling down Main Street, I could be a little girl (with long brown pigtails) dressed in dungarees and Ked sneakers. I definitely can imagine myself as Maureen Beebe (Paul’s sister in the Misty of Chincoteague book). Stretching for blocks, Main Street includes small-town businesses, restaurants, stately houses, an “island” theatre, and the two (now inactive) fire stations. The first was built in 1930 from funds raised by the annual Pony Penning days. It is always held on the final Wednesday and Thursday in July. The second fire station was constructed in 1957.
No trip to a beach town is complete without a long and leisurely afternoon spent at a bookstore. The Sundial Book Store features two floors of new, used and collectible books. At the counter, you can ask for book recommendations or where Marguerite Henry’s books can be found.
“Misty of Chincoteague is our best selling book.”Jane Richstein
According to owner Jane Richstein, “we have sold more than 5,200 copies in both hardcover and paperback editions. Sundial Books sells both new and used books in a wide variety of genres but books about Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore of Virginia are especially popular. Many visitors to the Island are interested in learning more about our local history. Sundial Books is now in its 15th year of operation.”
This is a really cozy place to spend a rainy day. I think they need to get a bookstore cat. (HINT: I see an adorable black cat on Main Street that might be looking for a job.)
The marquee for the Island Theatre in Chincoteague town is the first thing that I notice as I start to explore Main Street. This is not your typical multiplex corporate theatre. It looks old-fashioned because it is. In fact, the theater features the 60-year-old hoof print of Misty in the cement block outside its main doors. Chincoteague’s
most famous “star” was led down Main Street to attend the premiere of Misty in 1961.
My walking tour guide tells us an adorable story about this PR stunt. Everyone expected Misty to take several stomps before the hoof prints were firmly stamped in the cement. She did it in one try!
Cindy told us about a child on her walking tour who asked if Misty also signed her signature.
“I told her that Misty didn’t know how to write in cursive so Marguerite Henry had to do it for her.”Cindy Faith (Tour Guide)
Wildlife Refuge & Beach
Honestly, I could camp for a week on Chincoteague Island and spend every day visiting the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and Assateague Island National Seashore. The National Park Service (NPS) entrance is located two miles east of Chincoteague via Maddox Blvd. There is a $20 vehicle charge. If you visiting for multiple days, you should buy a NPS pass. (Check out the discount rate for a Lifetime Pass!)
Established in 1943, the refuge is operated within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The lands and water are set aside to conserve America’s fish, wildlife, and plants.
During nesting seasons, visitors are urged to avoid areas which are closed or roped off. Typically, areas west of the recreational beach near Toms Cove Hook and Assawoman Island are off limits. According to the FWS, “all of these areas close seasonally (March 15-September 15) to help coastal birds like piping plovers, least terns and American oystercatchers raise their young.”
During my visit, I watch dozens of bicyclists ride through the park entrance and then detour left or right to follow woodland trails. You can even rent bicycles less than a mile from the park entrance. The Bike Depot on Maddox Avenue rents bikes on a first come, first-served basis. No reservations are accepted.
I also recommend exploring the 142-foot Assateague Lighthouse (which is located on the Virginia side of the island). Built in 1833, the structure has twin floating lights. Sailors can see the flashing lights from 19 miles in the sea. Bike or hike out to take a photo of this stately red-and-white striped lighthouse.
And don’t forget to pack your swimsuit, suntan lotion and beach towel, because you will definitely want to swim at the beach. There are miles of uncrowded shoreline to bask in the sun.
You might spy wild horses that live on Assateague Island during your visit. But I can’t locate even one pony despite walking two miles down the beach as well as hiking the 1.9 mile Woodland Trail on Sunday afternoon. (But I did get to see the mares and foals at a paddock area when I return to the refuge at 8 am on Monday morning. They prance and chase each other. All the wild horses receive veterinary care.)
On the Virginia side, the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company owns the herd of wild horses, known as “Chincoteague ponies.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife issued the special permit. There are only 150 “adult” horses permitted on the Virginia side. They are allowed to graze at the wildlife refuge. Their foals are rounded up and sold each summer at Pony Penning Days.
Due to the pandemic, “the 2021 Foal Auction will be held online by Sport Horse Auction,” according to CVFC. Pony Penning Days will hopefully return in July 2022.
The Museum of Chincoteague Island is currently open Tuesday-Saturday (11 am – 5 pm) but check their website before visiting. Admission costs $5 per person. According to its website, “the mission of the Museum of Chincoteague is to collect and preserve the material culture that reflects the historical progression of the life on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.”
The Museum features the stuffed Misty and Stormy ponies, the 1st Order Fresnel Lens from the Assateague Island Lighthouse, models of historic ship vessels, a decoy carver’s workshop, historical documents, and oral histories.
Captain Timothy Hill House
Honestly, I would not known about the oldest intact house on Chincoteague Island if I didn’t take the walking tour. Built in the 1800s, Captain Timothy Hill House is a private residence-turned-museum.
It was built in a Scandinavian style of architecture (circa 1600s) featuring log planks with full dovetail joints at the corners.
“It is also only one of two known buildings still standing in Virginia that was built to have a wooden chimney.”Captain Timothy Hill House
Since 2011, the museum is listed on The Virginia Landmarks Register and The National Register of Historic Places.
I love roaming the front gardens which feature flowers and herbs. A 100-year-old tree is nestled in the side yard. And I can slip around the back to see the bright blue cabin door that opens up onto Chincoteague Bay.
You absolutely cannot miss the giant recliners on Main Street. I don’t know how long the LOVE furniture has reposed on the Chincoteague town village greens, but it a favorite location for a photograph. Whether single, married, family or friends, this is utterly Instagrammable!
Ice Cream Treat
Now I don’t know whether there are more seafood restaurants or ice cream stores per capita on Chincoteague. But I can attest the purveyors of ice had the longest lines on the island. There are multiple shops which sell homemade ice cream in cones, sundaes, and floats. Expect a long wait on a weekend. It is worth it. And while you wait, expect to be charmed by the Americana signage.
Naturally, you can spend more time on eating a triple scoop ice cream and less time vigorously walking the beach at the wildlife refuge or vice versa. Whatever floats your boat!
Chincoteague Island Life
Truly, there is a range of fun things to do in a small town. But I think Chincoteague’s personality as an island makes it such a “back-to-the-past” escape for the traveler.
To quote Margaret Wise Brown who wrote in The Little Island (a favorite childhood picture book):
“And it was good to be a little Island,
A part of the world,
And a world of its own
All surrounded by the bright blue sea.”
There is something special about standing apart. Go fling yourself into Chincoteague’s bright island world.