Spectators will flood Chincoteague again on Thursday for the 56th annual roundup of its fabled wild ponies -- said to be descendents of mustangs that survived the ship-wreck of a 17th-century Spanish gallleon.

But for lovers of nature in the raw, any time is right to visit Chinoteague -- home to wild ponies, wildlife and the wild natural beauty of sea and shore. For this serene fishing village on Virginia's eastern shore is the gateway to Assateague Island National Seashore and the 9,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Assateague Island, named by the Indians "running stream in between," wraps its pencil-slim 37 miles close around Maryland and Virginia, a barrier against a restless ocean. Ten miles of oceanfront offer surf-fishing, shelling, hiking, swimming, secluded sunbathing and an education in marine ecology.

More than 260 species of birds visit Chincoteague Refuge in their annual migrations, affording birdwatchers the largest variety of shore birds on the East Coast. Sika deer, raccoons, opossums, red foxes, owls and night herons have been spotted during nighttime "wildlife safaris" on the refuge. On the cruise ship Osprey, which leaves at sunset near the 1867 lighthouse, passengers are given bread to throw to the seagulls. Both tours operate daily in season and cost $4 for adults, $2 for children.

If you're new to identifying waterfowl and shells, stop at Chincoteague's two museums before going to the beach and refuge. The Oyster Museum (open daily, 10 to 4:45, admission 75 cents adults, 25 cents children) displays shells native to the island and items made from the shells, as well as marine algae and oyster pearls. A little boy who found a horseshoe crab on the beach learned here that the horseshoe crab has been around since before dinosaurs, which he was studying in school. There's also a diorama of oystering with a four-minute tape.

The Refuge Waterfowl Museum (open daily except Monday, 10 to 5; adults $1.50, children 50 cents) is a tribute to the folk art of decoy-carving, and helps identify waterfowl common to the refuge, such as the greater snow goose. The decoys of resident carver Delbert "Cigar" Daisey and Oliver Lawson of Crisfield look almost real. There's a charming, cluttered replica of a decoy-maker's shop and a great wooden peg leg in sou'wester who looks as if he was carved from a tree trunk.

Both museums are on Maddox Boulevard, the main road leading from the little town of Chincoteague to the seashore. Also on Maddox, which is pleasantly flat for biking, are lots of little convenience stores and fresh produce stands (corn, clams), as well as many of Chincoteague's restaurants, accomodations and other attractions. The rest are on Main Street, flanked by neat frame houses and Chincoteague Bay.

One on Maddox for the kids is the Chincoteague Miniature Pony Farm (open daily 10 to 9; adults $2 adults, kids $1, preschoolers free). Admission buys a tour of the farm and a chance to see Stormy, Misty's only living colt. (Misty was made famous by Marguerite Henry's book Misty of Chincoteague.) Afterward, steer your thristy crew to Mr. Chocolate's Ice Cream Garden for ice-cream floats.

For lodging, we like the Refuge Motor Inn (804/336-5511; $34 double in season), on Maddox overlooking the refuge. It's a rustic retreat of weathered wood, where the snack machine sells food for the bird feeders found on each balcony. The pony family that lives next door will eat right out of your hand. There's a pool with sliding board, swings, picnic tables with grills, laundry machines, a sun roof, bike rentals and tour headquarters. The Island Bakery across the street sells juice, coffee and good breakfast pastries.

If the Refuge is booked, try the Mariner (804/336-6565, $28); the Driftwood (804/336-6557, $35); and Sea Hawk (804/336-6527, $25); or, if camping, the Maddox Family Campground (804/336-6648), all conveniently located on Maddox Boulevard; or the Lighthouse (804/336-5091, $26) in town. All have pools. All rates quoted are for double rooms in season and require a one-night reservation deposit.

The Channel Bass Inn, just off Main Street, is in a class by itself (804/336-6148; $30 double with shared bath, $40 with private bath, full payment required with reservation). Innkeeper and chef James Hanretta runs "a country inn near the sea. "Fashionably tattered wicker adorns the front porch; inside, the lobby exudes classical music and refined elegance. The fare is gourmet cooking with a Spanish accent -- oysters Basque and seafood Espagnol are house specialities. If your taste runs to "mushroom and truffle omelet with cheese and chives" ($8.50) for breakfast, this is your kind of place. Dinner ranges from flounder filet with tarragon wine sauce at $12.75 to two-person entrees for $45. Reservations are a must, and young children are not welcome at the inn or restaurant.

Not surprising on an island, most of Chincoteague's restaurants serve seafood. One that's good for families in the Landmark Crab House (804/336-6552) in town. You dine on hatchcover tables with a fine view of bay, boats and seagulls perched on pilings. Kids can inspect the nautical trappings -- a captain's wheel, figureheads, lobster pots, wood blocks, rope fenders, a lobby aquarium -- while you wait for seafood raw, steamed, fried or Norfolked. Hardshells are a bargain at 60 cents apiece. Two dinners including salad bar, potato and beverage plus a $3 child's plate (fried chicken, plus salad bar and potato and beverage) came to about $20 with tax and tip.

After dinner, you can browse in The Brant, the restaurant's gift shop (a brant is a kind of wild goose).

Also on Main Street, locals patronize the Chincoteague Inn for seafood and Alice's Kitchen for fresh, homemade, money's-worth breakfasts. Shop at the First Floor Restaurant when you want sandwiches and Muller's Ice Cream Parlour for dessert.

Out on Maddox is McCready's, its parking lot paved with oyster shells, where you can make a walkaway picnic of shore sandwiches. Light, crisp clam fritters studded with corn are $1.50, the soft crab $2.25. For dinner, the Flagship and Beachway (both on Maddox) feature good, moderately priced seafood, fried chicken and steaks, and children's meals in the $3 range. p

The Pony Pines, recommended to us, was a disappointment -- mediocre at best. A bowl of oyster stew that tasted like watered-down milk with a few oysters floating in it was barely edible.

When you've had your fill of sunburn, seafood and scouting wildlife, try shopping. Moon Works (on Maddox) offers reasonably priced crafts: batiks, leather, jewelry, pottery, patchwork, wind chimes, stained glass, wooden toys, handmade dolls and prints. Shell and feather craft jewelry is worth a look. Next door, the Skipjack is a comfortable bookshop stocking guides on Assateague and Chincoteague, camping, cooking and nature. It has used paperbacks and wooden berry baskets, too.

There are a few interesting kids' shops and boat rentals in town. Ocean fishing charters can be arranged through the Refuge Motor Inn or the Wildlife Refuge tour office. Tennis courts are for rent on Maddox Boulevard. Remember to take bug spray -- island mosquitoes don't quit.

Most important, remember that on a visit to Chincoteague, you will spend less and come away with more than on a vacation to most of the crowded shore resorts.