Legend has it that hundreds of years ago, a Spanish galleon wrecked off the coast of Assateague Island, leaving the ponies onboard as the sole survivors. As a result, the island’s Pony Penning event has been an age-old tradition since the settlers arrived. However, it wasn’t until 1925, when the Volunteer Fire Department launched a fundraising carnival, that the event took hold. In 1947, it caught the attention of the entire nation when Marguerite Henry’s children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague, was published. Now, 91 years later, more than 30,000 visitors flood the tiny island to see the renowned wild ponies swim across the channel. On Wednesday, July 27, you can experience the timeless tradition that made this little town on the Eastern Shore an international icon.
Attend the Pony Swim:
Due to the slack tide, the Pony Swim can start as early as 7 a.m. Since Chincoteague is about a 3-hour car ride for many Novinians, you can either come up the night before or that morning. If you opt for the former, reserve a room in advance at one of the nearby hotels. (Check out a list of your many options at Chincoteague’s website.) If you instead choose to come up that morning, you can park for free at the Chincoteague Combined School and use the complimentary shuttles that will run throughout the day.
The swim will last until approximately 9 a.m. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department will narrow the time frame a few days before the event, and then, the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce will announce the official times on its website and Facebook.
When that time finally arrives, you can find a prime spot to watch the ponies’ ceremonious swim across the channel. Memorial Park and Pony Swim Lane both offer excellent vantage points, however, Pony Swim Lane, though closer to the horses, is usually muddy. You can also obtain front row seats at a reasonable price on a boat ride like Daisey’s Island Cruises.
The first foal to reach land will be named King or Queen Neptune, making them one of the grand prizes for the raffle at the Fireman’s Carnival that night.
Watch the Pony Parade:
After the swim, while the horses take a 45-minute break, make your way to a spot on either Beebe Road or Main Street to watch the Pony Parade. Keep an eye out for the flash of the vivid, yellow mane of a brown stallion named Riptide. He’s the son of the famous Surfer Dude.
Quench Your Growling Stomach:
Sit down for a refreshing Chincoteague-style breakfast at Mr. Paul’s Kitchen. Choose from a wide variety of tasty choices like the applewood bacon and cheddar breakfast panini, apple crepes or the Crab Chincoteague: an English muffin with crab and poached egg smothered in crab sauce.
Ride in the Sunshine:
Rent a bike from the Bike Depot and spend the morning exploring the beautiful scenery and rich history of Assateague. Coast down the Wildlife Refuge’s scenic bike trails and stop by the historic Assateague Lighthouse. Climb up to the top for a breathtaking, panoramic view of the island. Then, bike to Assateague Beach and enjoy the salty spray of the waves or chill out on a beach chair and take in the sea breeze and sun-kissed sand.
Dine and Unwind:
If you’re looking for a laid-back beach experience, swing by Woody’s Beach BBQ for lunch. There, your family can play tetherball or you can rest in a hammock while you wait for your food. Dig into the restaurant’s pulled pork platter topped with Woody’s “Almost Famous” red sauce. Top it all off with the fresh peach lemonade.
If you would rather eat lunch on the beach, grab takeout from the Sea Star Café. Select from gourmet soups, salads and sandwiches or try the heavenly Gazpacho soup.
Take a trip down Main Street and explore Chincoteague’s historic downtown. You can pop into the mermaid-inspired boutique Katherine Kiss, view the whimsical iridescent glass art at the Flying Fish Gallery, see the film adaptation of Misty of Chincoteague in the 1940s-style Island Theater or check out a book from the Chincoteague Island Library and read it on the dock overlooking the glittering Chincoteague Bay.
Just a short walk down the street is Bill’s Seafood Restaurant, a popular dinner choice for both tourists and locals alike. Enjoy the fan favorite crab cakes or order the tender filet mignon. Afterward, cool off with an icy Chincoteague delicacy at Mister Whippy. Try the fat-free, soft-serve ice cream, a Turtle sundae or the Banana Split Cyclone.
Visit the Fireman’s Carnival:
Head to the 91st Volunteer Fireman’s Carnival beginning at 7 p.m. Try your hand at a game of Bingo or other classics like Toss the Ring on the Bottle. Experience the tastes and sounds of Chincoteague by sampling the locally made clam and oyster fritters while listening to the carnival’s live entertainment. There will also be plenty of fun rides and raffles to enter throughout the night.