IF YOU'D LIKE to visit the beaches and the wildlife refuge at the southern end of Assateague Island, you might head for Chincoteague and try these homey inns as your home away from home. YEAR OF THE HORSE INN
This inn welcomes well-behaved children with such amenities as color televisions in each room, and crab pots, poles, and nets for crabbing at the dock.
The Year of the Horse, a sprawling white beach house right on Chincoteague Bay, offers three bed-and-breakfast rooms and a two-bedroom apartment. Owners Jean and Carlton Bond have decorated with whimsy. A four-foot-tall rocking camel sturdy enough for adults greets you in the sitting room, a charmingly eclectic mixture of collectibles. A wreath of peacock feathers graces a wall. The nickel-plated hat stand blooms with gargoyles and an array of straw hats, '20s fedoras and '50s vinyl purses.
After a sundrenched day, relax on a Victorian fainting couch draped with a curled-up fox wrap complete with glaring head. Enjoy your continental breakfast of cinnamon rolls and coffee here or in your room.
Each of the three guest rooms has a balcony facing Chincoteague Bay, the perfect place to watch summer sunsets turn from flame to purple before dropping into the water. Favorites include Room No. 1, evocative of the beach with its creamy white walls and wicker chairs, and Room No. 3, with tiny kitchenette and a hand-painted seascape of magenta sand dunes, sea grass and egret cut-outs rising across one wall.
The apartment, convenient for two couples or a family, faces the street, and offers a glassed-in porch, country kitchen and dining area decorated with patchwork quilts, stuffed animals and a pine table; two bedrooms and a bath upstairs.
After a full beach day, join the Bonds in toasting the sunset with a glass of wine.
YEAR OF THE HORSE INN -- 600 South Main Street, Chincoteague, Va. 23336. 804/336-3221. Rates: Room 1, $65; Room 2, $59; Room 3, efficiency, $75; apartment $80 a night for 4 people (weekly July and August, $375). Children welcome.
To get to Chincoteague: From the Bay Bridge continue on U.S. 50 east to Salisbury. Follow U.S. 13 South to Virginia Route 175 east across the bridge to Chincoteague.
To get to the inn: Once in Chincoteague, turn right at the traffic light onto Main Street. Follow for about 1/2 mile. CHANNEL BASS INN
If your weekend fantasy includes fine dining, this is the place to stay. The inn, an unprepossessing rambling house, offers 11 rooms and two suites comfortably furnished with antique oak dressers, reproduction wing chairs and queen- or king-size beds.
Watch the crowds pass by from the glassed-in sunporch, or read on the Victorian sofa in the friendly parlor. However, the real treat comes at meal time when owner James Hanretta serves up delights from his Mobil four-star-rated restaurant. Just be prepared to fork over something in return.
Breakfast for two can cost $30, and dinner for two more than $100. Breakfast -- served to inn guests only -- provides such treats as souffle pancakes with strawberries and cream, backfin crab omelette, asparagus omelette, or eggs espanol (made with sausage and green peppers).
Dinner specialties include broiled seafood espanol (lobster, shrimp, oysters and clams in a Spanish sauce) for $28, or backfin crab souffle for two ($60). Then top it off with a dessert like strawberries continental, flambe'd with cognac and smothered with chocolate sauce (for two, $18).
While islanders may make dinner reservations, first priority for the 24 seats goes to inn guests.
CHANNEL BASS INN -- 100 Church Street, Chincoteague, Va. 23336. 804/336-6148. Eleven rooms and two suites, all with private bath. Rates: $95-$150. No children. All meals extra. Breakfast 8:30 to 10; dinner 6 to 9.
From the bridge into town, turn left at the traffic light onto Main Street, then right on Church Street. MISS MOLLY'S
At Miss Molly's and its sister inn across the street -- the Little Traveller -- you can enjoy a 19th-century beach getaway. Like two proper Victorian ladies, these inns receive guests with grace and put their best finery forward. Amid antiques and high tea, you can get acquainted with owners James Stam, a retired college president, and his professor wife, Priscilla Stam.
Miss Molly's, a large 1886 Victorian with ginger-bread molding and inviting front porch, once was home to J.R. Rowley, "the clam king of the world," whose thriving 1880s clamming business made him one of Chincoteague's wealthiest citizens. His daughter, Miss Molly, entertained in the house until she was 84.
After bicycling through the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge's woods and marshes and walking along its beaches, refresh yourself as one of Miss Molly's guests would have -- with lemonade served on the gazebo-like back porch -- or rock in the parlor's Morris chair to rhythms from the Edison gramophone.
Finish your beach novel in the quiet of the back sitting room, charmingly furnished with old trunks, children's rockers and 19th-century porcelain dolls.
Let the bay breezes waft over you in one of the seven guest rooms, all furnished with antique beds, bureaus and wash stands, and brightened with Victorian patterned wallpaper. Favorites include the Blue Room (with private bath), whose five windows overlook Main Street, and the Bay Room (with a window seat, water view and Miss Molly's iron bed). Wash the sand off in a leisurely soak in the third floor bath, complete with vaulted ceiling, potted palm, wicker rocker and a handy Jane Austen novel next to the tub.
MISS MOLLY'S -- 113 North Main Street, Chincoteague, Va. 23336. 804/336-6686. Seven rooms, one with private bath. Rates: $59-$79, includes full breakfast and afternoon tea. At the traffic light, turn left onto Main Street. LITTLE TRAVELLER BY THE SEA
Built in 1840, it is older than Miss Molly's, and a bit more demure.
Here you can share summer secrets in the formal parlor graced with such interesting pieces as a 1780 Scottish tall case clock, and an elaborate New Orleans carved tea table. Or relax in one of the six guest rooms, furnished with Federal and Victorian pieces.
From the bed in the Green Room, you can watch the sunset over the bay, and from the Witlatch Room, with its yellow and green floral wallpaper, catch the morning sun rising over the island. Guests at both inns enjoy a hearty breakfast on Miss Molly's back porch. Before heading for the surf, fortify yourself with melon stuffed with blueberries, crab quiche and coffee cake. And consider that this is the kind of beach getaway great grandma and her best beau might have enjoyed.
LITTLE TRAVELLER BY THE SEA -- 112 North Main Street, Chincoteague, Va. 2336. 804/336-6686. Six guest rooms, one with private bath. Rates: $55-$75, includes full breakfast and afternoon tea. Turn left onto Main Street.