CHINCOTEAGUE

A Refuge From Life in the Fast Lane

Wild ponies aren't an uncommon sight on the unspoiled Assateague Island shoreline.
Wild ponies aren't an uncommon sight on the unspoiled Assateague Island shoreline. (Art Baltrotsky Ftwp)

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Ever since "Misty of Chincoteague" author Marguerite Henry made the wild ponies famous in 1947, fans have flocked to see Misty's descendants and even bid on them at the annual pony penning swim and auction. Despite the inevitable buildup of apartments and condos, and despite (or perhaps partly because of) the old-fashioned, ticky-tacky nature of much of the "Misty" souveniria, Chincoteague probably retains more of its original village charm than any of the other resorts. The miles of unspoiled Assateague Island shoreline, the aesthetic charm of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge -- both populated by Sika deer, a huge variety of birds (and chicks) as well as ponies, and all just as likely to wander into the road, making cameras a backpack must -- the town's ice cream parlors and decoy-carving garages and bike-friendly, alley-like back roads are a world away from the boardwalk life.

And there is one other palpable difference: the easy hospitality and laid-back manners of the locals. This is still peninsular Virginia, and the pace of life echoes nature, not the 9-to-5 (whether a.m. or p.m.) competition of the larger resorts. Day life, not nightlife, rules here.

FRIDAY

7:30 p.m. Get right into the swim, and a little wetlands sound effects, with dinner on the screened-in porch at AJ's on the Creek (6585 Maddox Blvd.; 757-336-5888), which offers such local fare as fried hometown oysters or oysters Rockefeller and the seafood-smothered flounder, plus live entertainment.

9:30 p.m. Head to Muller's Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlour (4034 Main St.; 757-336-5894) for sundaes or a strawberry-topped Belgian waffle, with a side of Old Dominion root beer. The Victorian house comes complete with candle-lit porches and a reputed ghost.

SATURDAY

6:30 a.m. Get a head start on the day's activities with a sunrise eco-tour of the flat waters between Chincoteague and Assateague islands with Wildlife Expedition's kayak guides (East Side Drive across from the water; 757-336-6811). Tandem kayaks ($59) even have a jumper seat for children 5 and younger. (Departure times vary slightly.)

9 a.m. Get your wind back with coffee and a pastry at Main Street Coffeehouse (4288 Main St.; 757-336-6782). It's also a one-stop lifestyle shop; try on a few new clothes while you're waiting for a refill.

10 a.m. Bikes may be the traditional method of transportation around town, and scooters have renewed chic, but imagine cruising almost silently through the wildlife areas on a Segway. The ponies and even deer may be pretty used to cars, but even the birds will be less shy. Rent any of the above at Jus' Bikes (6527 Maddox Blvd.; 757-336-6700); bring your driver's license. (Note: Neither skateboards nor skates are allowed in the park areas.)

Next door is Captain Steve's Bait & Tackle (757-336-0569), where you can rent a rake for clamming -- or depend on your toes, a method right out of "Misty of Chincoteague" -- or get a line, a long-handled net and some chicken necks for crabbing.

11 a.m. Stop by the Sea Star carryout for generous wraps, sandwiches and salads, including vegetarian and vegan options (4121 Main St.; 757-336-5442), then pedal or putter over the Maddox Boulevard bridge to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge ($10). You may see people hanging lines off the bridge into the shallows there; they are dropping lines for crabs. Stop by the Herbert H. Bateman visitors center for maps, tour schedules and wildlife information (check out the live eagle-cam in a nearby nest); climb the 142-foot Assateague Lighthouse (if your legs are holding out) and then ride or stroll the trails.

1 p.m. Cross the causeway to Toms Cove and eat lunch at the picnic tables looking out to sea.

2 p.m. Unpack the rake, and check with the staff in the Toms Cove Visitors Center for tips on good clamming spots. You can drag the rake through shallow water until you feel the clam; or wade in to about your waist and feel around with your feet for the bivalve and then dive or "pinch" them up with your toes. If even that sounds hard, wait until low tide, then look for the tiny keyhole-shaped indentations where the clams have dug in just under the sand and pull them out.

3 p.m. No real Chincoteague visit would be complete without the wild ponies, and you will probably have spotted some by now, but you can get up close and personal at the Chincoteague Pony Centre (Chicken City Road; 757-336-2776), where kids weighing less than 100 pounds can ride one of Misty's descendants. Die-hard "Misty" fans may want to make the pilgrimage to Grandma and Grandpa's Beebe Ranch (757-336-6520), where the stuffed bodies of Misty and her foal Stormy are, along with movie and family memorabilia. Despite their age, they're pretty well preserved, the skins reportedly tanned by the same expert who preserved Roy Rogers's palomino Trigger. The farm belongs to Billy King Beebe, cousin of the book's Paul and Maureen Beebe (and son of Stormy's original owners) and his wife, Bonnie. Take Main Street south to Beebe Road; turn left on Ridge Road and look for a three-slat white fence on the left ($5, ages 6 and older; open 11 to 5).


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