3 hours, 30 minutes
There’s a lot to love about Chincoteague Island, most notably its untamed ponies, which put this barrier island on the map in 1961 with the movie premiere of Misty of Chincoteague. The unspoiled island brings families back year after year, generation after generation, for the carefree nature of this relaxed summertime beach destination. Laze on the sandy beaches, rent bicycles for exploring the island, and settle in for a brilliantly colored sunset over Chincoteague Bay.
For many, Chincoteague’s primary draw is the nostalgia factor. It’s where many of us vacationed as kids, making it the perfect place to return to for rekindling memories of simpler, pre-COVID times. Here, everything is just the way you remember, like the saltwater taffy and handmade fudge at Pony Tails Candy Company.
There are, however, new shops and amenities from time to time, like the dog park: Pups now have a place to play in Chincoteague. It shares a parking lot with the well-trafficked Island Nature Trail, so you can take your mutt for a strut and then let him mix and mingle with fellow pups at the big enclosed park.
This summer, look for a brand-new candy shop called Candylicious. You’ll be rewarded by all kinds of sweets, like fudge, caramel apples, chocolate-covered strawberries, and even sugar-free treats. Teaguer’s Pub, another recent arrival, boasts a casual menu of favorites like pizza, subs, salads, and sandwiches.
By the beach:
Chincoteague deservedly ranks among the top coastal beach towns—not just in Virginia, but in the United States. Unsullied sandy beaches beckon visitors to cast a line, dig for clams, splash in the waves, or soak in the sun at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Of course, those spotted ponies are a huge draw, too. Chincoteague is the gateway to Assateague Island National Seashore, home to some 300 brown-and-white wild ponies, so it’s not uncommon to see bands of them freely roaming the untamed beaches between Maryland and Virginia.
The ponies can be spotted all across the island, but the best way to see them is to cycle or motor along Beach Road or to stop at the wooden overlook on the Woodland Trail. Also keep your eyes open on easy-breezy beach walks for native wildlife, like sika deer and Delmarva fox squirrels. You may also see a surfer or two. Yes, you’ll find both a white sandy beach and righteous waves that are just right for surfing, boogie boarding, and bodysurfing. Wave riders and surfers-in-training can gear up at Atlantic Shoals Surf Shop.
Once the sun goes down, set up your beach chairs for a good old-fashioned beach bonfire. Designated firepits are dotted all across the sandy beach, so bring some marshmallows. Cap off the day by watching the sun disappear into Chincoteague Bay.
You won’t find a bustling boardwalk or packed beaches in Chincoteague—it’s where you go to slow down and reconnect with nature. Stroll along main drag Maddox Boulevard, indulge in a scoop or two at the Island Creamery, and count all the wild ponies you spot as you explore this windswept island.
See the island on two wheels on an easygoing 10-mile-loop bike ride from Chincoteague Island to Assateague Island. No bike? No problem. Rent a cruiser in town from The Bike Depot. Stop to climb 175 steps to the top of the Instagram-worthy red-and-white-striped Assateague Lighthouse for panoramic views of the surrounding grassy marshes and coastal waterways.
Chincoteague may be about slowing down and reveling in the leisurely pace, but it has thrills, too—like Maui Jack’s, the first water park on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Look for twisty high-speed water slides, as well as a splashy water playground. When you want to chill, there’s a lazy river, too.
For a beach destination that’s about laid-back vibes, there’s a surprising amount to do, like nature cruises, guided history walking tours, and mini-golf. A seasonal Refuge Trek bus tour takes visitors into areas of Assateague Island otherwise only open to foot traffic to see wild ponies, as well as other native wildlife, like white-tailed deer. In town, wander Robert Reed Park, if only to snap a photo of the four supersize Adirondack chairs that spell the word “LOVE.”
Settle in for waterfront dining on Chincoteague Bay at Ropewalk, where you’ll find a sandy beach, a thatched-roof tiki bar, firepits, and a small children’s play area. Another favorite is The Village, a family-owned seafood restaurant. Ask for a table overlooking the scenic marshes on Eel Creek.
The Refuge Inn motor lodge has been the place to stay for years—generations, even. A mainstay since 1973, this charming wooded hotel is steps from island ponies. Wooden picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, and an open green space encourage families to spend time outside.
For a stay that goes beyond a hotel or motel, there is the Chincoteague Island KOA. It’s much more than a campground—you’ll find tent and RV sites, of course, but also candy-colored island bungalows, safari-style canvas glamping tents, even RV rentals.
For those keen to sample the RV lifestyle without having to deal with hookups and emptying water tanks, there are 20 roomy onsite travel trailers with patios, added to the campground in 2019. There’s no set-up required, and all the amenities are in place, including stoves, fridges, sinks, and coffee makers.