No matter where you live in USA, you might think you know your city, state and the nearby area very well. In fact, you don’t.
I’ve recently spent a few days on the co-joint islands in Maryland, which I’ve just discovered after living three years in Washington, DC. Moreover, many of my friends and acquaintances didn’t know about them as well, so I figured – I’d write about them.
Everyone knows about Ocean City, MD – the beach destination for all the kids, teenagers, young adults and families, but just 40 min away from it there are two wild islands – Assateague and Chincoteague Islands that almost look like one.
These islands are all about wildlife, oysters, biking and, of course – the beach. They are also famous for the wild ponies that come out to the public when they want. But not a single person can say that they haven’t see it on the islands, because while they might be an “urban legend” in other areas of North/South Carolina and Maryland, on these islands – they actually do exist and are seen by people.
Assateague and Chincoteague Islands are just about 3.5 hours away from Washington, DC, the ride that is rather comfortable and pleasurable as one passes some of the nice-on-the-eye places like Bay Bridge, Annapolis – the marina seaport of Maryland, and many, many farm markets full of local produce, and inexpensive.
Even though the islands are considered “wild”, they are far from the “wild” in terms of accommodations. The beach is equipped with very clean bathroom and shower stands, there are lifeguards on site at all times, there are parking and biking paths through the islands with bike stands, parking and rentals on every corner of the main streets of the island, including bed & breakfast places and hotels. As a matter of fact – I’d strongly suggest exploring the islands by bike because many of the places cannot be accessed by a car, and by foot – it could be a long walk. Bike rentals range from $5 to $7 an hour – my dad and I paid less than $30 for 4 hours of biking for both of us.
Being originally an oyster village, Chincoteque is famous for its oysters and oyster farms, – in all kinds of its preparations: raw, fried, grilled, broiled… One can even “catch” oysters themselves – no license needed – including all other seafood. There are plenty of decks and areas where locals and visitors can fish and crab. My dad actually wanted to explore it and went to see how other people fished, he came back with a few oysters that he picked up on the bottom of the bays (gulfs) that spread around the islands and are habitats for the wild birds. We saw bald eagles most every day, not to say herons. Other birds that live on the island are: osprey, black skimmers, oyster catchers, peregrine falcons, terns, pelicans, godwits, curlews, plovers, dunlins and more.
As a matter of fact, each hotel offers tours to watch wild birds, ponies, fish for crabs and go into the ocean for more of sea life sightseeing, like whales, dolphins and seals. And if you choose to rent bikes – just as we did – and explore the islands by bikes, like us, you’d see amazingly beautiful large butterflies, baby deers (or “bambies”, like I call them) – , birds, ponies and more – including the wild life flora, not to mention that you’d be able to smell the very many different natural scents of the islands.
You can also go on sunset and kayak tours. The islands, all in all, offer more than just beach and seafood – Chincoteque Island even has an entertainment park with attractions. It also has parks for barbeques and homemade ice-cream parlors that, judging by the long lines at night, are rather popular with the locals. It even has a small movie theatre and a few shops with the local handmade souvenirs. The island even has an Internet cafe complete with cappuccino, and as I’ve discovered at the end of the trip – it has McDonalds, which, believe me, could come in handy, when you need that extra berry smoothie push after hours of biking around the island or McCafe drink in the morning (you can omit the rest of the menu).
I’ve also noticed that it’s rather popular with the locals to collect big seashells and then display them in the front yards of their houses on wood tables for everyone who is interested to buy them. No one is watching them, and the price tag, that modestly lies by the shells, says $0.50 per shell. The locals, as it seems, just don’t want you to leave the islands without the local treasures.
As you explore the islands, you’ll notice – and get used to – the regulations and signs that say “Don’t feed the wildlife” or “Don’t cross” to protect the habitat of the wild life. Such notice was hanging along the beach area to protect the nesting of the local wild birds. I, actually, tried to spot the nests over the fence, but in the temperature of 95F, I believe not much of “nesting” is happening in that time of the season. That does not include the crabs – crab holes can be spotted all over the beach and the seagulls that look for them.
The long barrier island of Assateague is divided into three parts: Assateague State Park, a Maryland facility; Assateague Island National Seashore, under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service; and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service park in Virginia. (And oddly, Assateague Island may be the only place along the Maryland-Virginia border where you cannot cross by car.) You can camp in either Assateague State Park or Assateague Island, but the Virginia section is sacrosanct – not even overnight parking is allowed.
Another local landmark is the 142 feet tall Assateque Lighthouse that’s been constructed in 1822. It can be accessed by foot only, bikes could be left at parking spots nearby. But do not worry, the walk is a mere 5 min, but the view from the top of the lighthouse is totally worth the $5.00 fee for the entrance.
While The Assateague beaches and wildlife refuge are an ideal getaway for nature lovers, the village of Chincoteague one can call – a place for all the “after-the-beach” activities. And one could definitely get enough of seafood (sorry, non-seafood eaters) – I think in just three days of our stay I’ve tried oysters, shrimp, crab, scallops and mussels in all the kinds of preparations possible – and I still wanted more. At the end of the stay I could definitely say that the best of it all were oysters and crab bisque soup – the two items that the locals mastered the best of all!
Here are my top things-to-do on the islands:
Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center – not only offers a variety of exhibits and walking and birding tours, but also has the “eagle-cam,” a live, 24-hour closed-circuit camera perched above the bald eagles’ nest, where a pair of eaglets are fledging, (8231 Beach Rd.; 757-336-6122).
Assateague Lighthouse – the panoramic view from the 142 feet high and 175 steps lighthouse that is the very first ‘building’ of the island and holds much of history of the island that has survived on oyster industry for decades (open Friday-Sunday 9 to 3).
Ice-cream parlors – 130-year-old Victorian-style Muller’s (4034 Main St.; 757-336-5894) and Mister Whippy’s (6201 Maddox Blvd.; 757-336-5122).
Captain Zach’s Seafood Carryout – you can mix and match your own combination of raw seafood and choose the ways to cook it. Perfect if you have a great balcony, terrace and/or a place of your own where you’d like to enjoy your food (this place offers outside seating, but it’s in no way a full-service restaurant, there is no waiter services, it’s a take-out), *4422 Deep Hole Rd, Chincoteague, VA 23336, (757) 336-3788).
If you are traveling with your own grill and/or you are staying at a place that offers a grill, do not miss the many seafood-buy-your-own raw seafood stands that are open from 7am to 9pm every day, offering the daily catch.
And of course – seafood, seafood and seafood restaurants: many to choose – from crabhouses and crab stands (I’ve heard Boston crab roll is pretty popular as well), but do not miss the Steamers All You Can Eat on 6251 Maddox Blvd, Chincoteague VA 23336, (757)336-5300.
And, of course, biking, biking, biking…
Other things you might consider:
NASA Visitor Center at Wallops Island on Route 175 west of the island of Chincoteague (757-824-1344) – offers hands-on exhibits, some real missiles and space suits, a cool Air & Space-style gift shop and a view across the road of the NOAA weather station with its array of huge satellite dishes.
Chincoteague Pony Centre – you can’t feed the wild ponies, much less ride them; but you can ride (or learn to ride) them (Chicken City Road off Maddox Boulevard (757-336-2776)
The Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen’s Carnival – held Fridays and Saturdays in July on the fairgrounds on South Main Street, leading up to the pony roundup and swim July 27 and the auction July 28. If you can’t afford to buy one, you can “foster” a wild horse (and get a picture of your pony) for $25
Barrier Island Visitors Center – on Route 611 on the way into Assateague (410-641-1441)
Tom’s Cove – if you grew up on the “Misty of Chincoteague” books, it’s not just the ponies you remember, but the scenes of clamming and fishing
And, if you want a scenic drive: drive south to the islands from Salisbury or Ocean City, taking Maryland Route 12/Virginia Route 679 from Snow Hill through Stockton to Route 175 (instead of Maryland Route 113/Virginia Route 13). It offers farms and thus – the farm markets, a few older towns and woods.