By Victoria Gaffney
A well-known image often comes to mind when one thinks of Chincoteague: wild ponies splashing through the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Every July saltwater cowboys round up the wild horses on Assateague Island and have them swim across the water to Chincoteague Island. The event is highly anticipated and draws people from around the world. While the pony swim is unique and visually arresting, however, some of the lesser-known aspects of the island are often overlooked. Visitors might be surprised to find that in addition to its natural splendor, Chincoteague has a rich history and a flourishing local arts scene.
Step into history
Some believe that the name Chincoteague is derived from a Native American word meaning “the beautiful land across the water.” At the Museum of Chincoteague Island, visitors can catch a glimpse of this land’s history through various preserved relics, such as the first order Fresnel lens from the Assateague Island Lighthouse.
The unassuming Captain Timothy Hill House sits along Main Street. The full historical significance of the building wasn’t uncovered until December 2009. Studying the house revealed that it was built using logs around 1800 in a typical architectural style originally brought over by Europeans in the 17th century. The house is the only remaining structure built in the 17th century style.
In addition to documented history, Chincoteague Island has a strong sense of tradition and myth. The Chincoteague Island Ghost Adventures tours offer travelers an exciting opportunity to interact with the supernatural legends of the island. By walking around historic downtown, adventurers will learn about the paranormal tales linked to Chincoteague.
Venture into nature
Travelers to the island’s tranquil environment will encounter a space teeming with wildlife from waterfowl to sika deer. The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge located on Assateague Island provides an opportunity to learn more about the flora and fauna of the island. The refuge comprises over 14,000 acres of beach, forest, marsh and dunes, and there is a wide range of activities such as fishing, hunting, bird watching and educational opportunities. Hiking along the Island Nature Trail or taking a bus tour through Chincoteague Wildlife Tours are both great options for seeing wildlife firsthand.
The region’s most obvious environmental treasure is, of course, the peaceful beach on Assateague Island. On this undeveloped swath of sand and sea, the Assateague beach is one of the most scenic spots along the coast and is consistently ranked among the best beaches in the U.S.
Dive into art
For those who like to revel in coastal imagery, the Assateague Lighthouse is a must-visit. Much of the artwork from this region features horses and lighthouses. From local painters and artisans to national festivals held right on the island, Chincoteague is alive with art.
Chincoteague has a number of art galleries, including Island Arts and the Osprey Nest Art Gallery.There are often opportunities to see artists at work in their shops, and on the second Saturday of each month some galleries participate in special events for Second Saturday Art Stroll, ranging from arts and crafts to art exhibits and book signings. Also on the second Saturday, the Chincoteague Cultural Alliance offers children art classes with local artists, and holds an Artful Flea where arts and crafts and other finds are for sale.
Other summertime artsy events include shows at the Chincoteague Island Theater Company—which has 3rd Thursday Theater—movies at Summer Cinema in the Park—a film series beginning on June 25 held in Robert Reed Park—live music at Island Coffeehouse and free public concerts at Robert Reed Park for Music @ the Dock. Some upcoming festivals are worth the trip as well, such as the Blueberry Festival, which is the largest arts and crafts festival on the eastern shore of Virginia,from July 24-26 and the Plein-Air Art Event in September, which involves the exhibition and auctioning of paintings completed by local artists over the course of one day.
Where to Stay
Chincoteague Island boasts a number of options for a relaxing stay, depending on the atmosphere the traveler seeks. Positioned near the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore, Refuge Inn is serene while also being close to the sightseeing marvels of the island. The hotel is comfortable and has a number of amenities, such as an indoor and outdoor pool, a sauna and their own Chincoteague ponies, that make for a luxurious stay.
For a more historic experience, the 1848 Island Manor House is a terrific option. Capturing comfort and tradition, this bed and breakfast has modern amenities and is located on historic Main Street.
To get even closer to nature, try camping at the Maddox Family Campground, which is near the Assateague Beach and National Wildlife Refuge. The grounds also feature a pool, grocery store and recreation hall in addition to bath houses. For an even more immersive experience, pitch a tent at the Oceanside Walk-in at the Assateague Island National Seashore Campgrounds.
Where to Eat
Chincoteague has a number of places to grab lunch.Woody’s Beach and BBQ Eatery offers an eclectic mix of food, including sandwiches, seafood and, of course, barbecue. For a healthy option, head to Sea Star Cafe, a quaint blue building with vegetarian and vegan options. The Channel Bass Inn Tea Room is a lovely stop for a traditional English tea. Whet your palate with a series of tasty treats, beginning with something savory and moving onto something sweeter, perhaps a chocolate trifle.
For dinner, AJ’s on the Creek and Bill’s Seafood Restaurant both have great seafood fare, a must for a Chincoteague Island vacation. For those who don’t like seafood, don’t despair: Bill’s Seafood Restaurant also has mouthwatering steaks. There are plenty of dessert options, such as the popular Island Creamery for ice cream and Build your Own Cookie, where you can pick your toppings.
Chincoteague Island is suffused in natural beauty that has inspired artists for years. From wildlife and history to the simple pleasure of listening to the waves crash on a nearly empty patch of sand and smelling the saltwater, this island beckons travelers of all sorts. While a journey to see the wild ponies swim across the waters of the Atlantic is surely worth a trip, the understated natural wonders, rich history and burgeoning local art scene provide other compelling reasons to make the trek to this “land across the water.”