Weekend's 2005 Beach Guide
Assateague & Chincoteague
Friday, May 20, 2005
Assateague Island is all about wildlife, and the famous ponies are just the headliners. The island is crawling, cawing and cavorting (so to speak) with dozens of kinds of birds and waterfowl, including some relatively rare species; deer; bats; foxes; otters; and such offshore favorites as whales, dolphins and seals.
It's also rife with regulations, the most important of which are "Get a permit" and "Don't feed the wildlife." The long barrier island of Assateague is divided like Caesar's legendary Gaul, 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.
The Assateague beaches and wildlife refuge may still be the ideal getaway for nature lovers, but the village of Chincoteague, on the small island, is beginning to lose a little of its innocent charm, or at least its legendary quiet. The building boom (and the phalanx of billboards along the causeway leading to the drawbridge that obscure the view of Chincoteague Bay) have all but eliminated what was once a picture-perfect first glimpse of the island. There are mini-golf parks and arcades, bumper boats and jet skis, and tiki bars -- even an Internet cafe complete with cappuccino. There's one of those Dewey Beach-style displays of 500 hot sauces. And Pony Penning has become such a huge attraction that the SUVs are lined up for miles, even though civilians are not allowed to swim alongside the "saltwater cowboys," as the local volunteer firefighters are known, as they herd the ponies from the "big island" to the carnival grounds.
Still, the curio shops and mini-museums do offer rainy-day amusements (the village is dotted with little nooks, and open garages are often invitations into decoy-carving studios), and the town's legendary ice cream parlors serve some of the best soft ice cream, malts and hot fudge sundaes left in this Haagen-Dazs age. Along the west side of the island, the gussied-up B&Bs and nicer rental cottages have the look of bygone days. And it's only a short bike ride from the town to the big island, where the deer and the waterfowl and those shaggy ponies hold sway. Just look past the condos and keep your eyes on the lighthouse.
The new and airy Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center (8231 Beach Rd.; 757-336-6122) 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. Even with a line of rooftops showing, the panoramic view from the glass-sided hatch of the still-active Assateague Lighthouse inside the refuge is pretty impressive, encompassing marsh, bay and ocean, and a variety of light effects that any impressionist would love. At 142 feet high and 175 steps, it's a moderately challenging climb, but the spiraling iron staircase itself may fascinate the kids (open Friday-Sunday 9 to 3). . . . For those who've seen every heron they ever care to, the 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. . . . You can't feed the wild ponies, much less ride them; but you can ride (or learn to ride) the ones at the Chincoteague Pony Centre on Chicken City Road off Maddox Boulevard (757-336-2776). . . . The Chincoteague Volunteer Firemen's Carnival is 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; stop at the Barrier Island Visitors Center on Route 611 on the way into Assateague (410-641-1441). . . . 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. One of the best spots is along Tom's Cove at the south end of Assateague; rent a canoe on Chincoteague, row across the inlet and clam to your heart's, or stomach's, content. . . . Among the tempting ice cream parlors in Chincoteague are the 130-year-old Victorian-style Muller's (4034 Main St.; 757-336-5894) and Mister Whippy's (6201 Maddox Blvd.; 757-336-5122), which is more ordinary-looking but has that dangerous drive-up window where you can do the "Fat Actress" scarf-in-the-car shtick. Or indulge in what might be the only regular English afternoon tea in Delmarva at the Channel Bass Inn (6228 Church St.; 757-336-6148). And here's a tip to make the trip even more calming: If you're driving 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) is not only much prettier than the cluttered commercial strip -- all farms, a few older towns and woods -- but has not a stoplight and only a few stop signs for a good 30 minutes.