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Trip Report Long Weekend in Chincoteague / Assateague

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I always get such helpful advice on the forums so I want to repay the favor by posting my trip report. There isn't a ton of information out there on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands so hopefully this may help someone in their planning. I tend to get a bit wordy so I will break it into Day-long chunks (with paragraphs) to make it easier to read. Thanks again to all who helped with my planning questions.

Day 1 - Travel to Chincoteague and our first glimpse of the ponies!!

I had an old-fashioned SW Airlines reward to use before it expired and it didn’t seem like I could get anywhere that would work within our schedule. So I switched it around to see where I could go - hmmmm.... Norfolk, VA. I have always wanted to see the wild ponies on Assateague Island since I read Misty of Chincoteague as a child. So, just as a refresher I bought the movie on iTunes - Yep! that was it. We had a long weekend at the end of April that seemed to work. I am ready to go, enjoy the beach during off-season and see some ponies.

We had an uneventful (the best kind) flight into Norfolk and although we left VERY early in the AM, at least that gives us a half day on the first day which is great when you only have a long weekend away.

First up, the drive to Chincoteague. I have never before been on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We stopped at the halfway point and could see the bay, the beginning of one of the tunnels, the ships waiting for their turn (at least that is what I think they were doing) and a lighthouse off in the distance. Very cool!

We stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites in a bay front room that overlooks the bridge onto Chincoteague Island - what a great place to stay. The people that worked there were all very friendly and ready and willing to help with any advice that you need. They had a great breakfast buffet that had all of the usual items as well as 2 hot items every day. And, best of all, a FABULOUS sunset view from the balcony of our room that we enjoyed almost every night.

We arrived around lunch time and our room was ready early so we cleaned up and then headed out for lunch. Bill’s Seafood which got good reviews on TripAdvisor and was recommended by the front desk was within walking distance. We started out with soup/chowder - She Crab Soup for me and New England Chowder for the hubby - then crab cake sandwiches for both of us. The food was excellent - a wonderful start to our weekend in Chincoteague.

Now, let’s see if we can find some ponies! We drove to the National Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island and bought a week-long pass as it was cheaper than if we bought 4 individual passes and I knew we’d be back multiple times. We drove into the park and it wasn’t too far in along Beach Road and we saw our first band of ponies - many of them have a 12 brand which means they are last years buy-back ponies. The ponies on the VA side of Assateague Island are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Co. and they have a yearly auction and sell the foals to raise money. They allocate certain ponies as “buy-backs” that stay on the island. This is to keep the herd healthy and the size of the herd limited. I could not see if they all had a 12 brand or not but many of them did - maybe they stay together for a bit until they join other bands. Someone with more knowledge about this would probably know better. Yay - my first ponies! I was so excited. I could have stayed and watched them do nothing but graze for hours but my hubby pushed us on.

We followed Beach Road to the end which brings you to their lovely unspoiled beach. I am sure that it is probably not this way during the high season but there were probably only about 20 other people there. Granted - not swimsuit weather but I love walking a beach in sweatshirt and jeans!

We stayed for a while and then followed Beach Road back. We then were able to drive the Wildlife Loop as it was after 3 or 4pm when vehicle traffic is allowed on the road. Throughout the day it is closed to vehicle traffic and is for walking, biking only. More wildlife sitings - a bald eagle and a Sika deer as well as lots of birds. I am not really a “birder” so I couldn’t begin to tell you what we saw but there was a lot of variety - an egret and a heron are probably the only that I could name besides the bald eagle. Evidently, the eagle pair’s nest was destroyed in Superstorm Sandy but they were able to find a new location and rebuild in time. We couldn’t see the chicks but others said that they had hatched.

There was still enough time that we walked to the Assateague Lighthouse. Part of the trail was closed because the lighthouse is in the middle of a restoration project and being repainted. The area immediately around it was closed off and it was surrounded in scaffolding - still a pretty sight with some nice views from there.

On our way out we spotted a different band of ponies. These were older ponies and I think possibly even “Surfer Dude” - one of the more famous stallions that I think I recognized from my research about the ponies. However, I had to go down a little trail to see them and the mosquitos were vicious!!! I had read about them but hadn’t put any bug spray on because I thought for this first pretty short visit we would be mostly in the car. Oh well - a small blood donation was worth it. :)

We went back to the hotel and changed for dinner. I had researched some dinner restaurants and AJ’s on the Creek was highly regarded so we decided to give it a try. I really should have taken notes or written this report earlier as I don’t remember what we had but I do remember that we enjoyed it.

We headed back to the hotel and saw a beautiful sunset from our balcony. Only a 1/2 day but we are loving Chincoteague. Next up Day 2 and a trip to the Maryland side of Assateague Island.

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    Day 2 - A day trip to the MD side of Assateague Island

    We got up and had a nice breakfast at the Hampton Inn & Suites. This was really a good choice for us - with a balcony room and breakfast every morning. (Oh - and did I mention I got one night for free with Hilton points - Bonus!)

    I must admit my first goal was to see the ponies - just to see them at all. Now I was getting a bit greedy and wanted to see them a bit more intimately - not too close mind you as I know that they are wild and it is really in their (and our) best interest to keep a safe distance from them so I certainly do not mean truly “up close and personal” but the VA ponies are fenced back a bit from the main roads and I knew that on the MD side they roam free.

    It took us under 2 hours to get there and it was a nice drive following the map that is published by the National Park Service. We brought the GPS too - just in case - but really didn’t need it.

    The week long pass that we purchased on the VA side at the National Wildlife Refuge is also good at the Assateague Island National Seashore on the MD side so we didn’t have to pay a separate fee.

    Not far after passing through the entrance gate but we came upon our first band of ponies grazing alongside the main road. I guess this may be why the VA side keeps them back a bit as it is a bit scary watching how fast some drive through the park. I got out of the car to take a couple of pictures trying to keep the recommended “bus length” distance away however, as I turned around to go back to the car one of them came walking right up behind me - curious about me & my camera I guess. I just talked to it a bit and backed away with my husband laughing in the car. He didn’t want to yell to me in case it would spook them. They really are beautiful!

    Ok - so at first I wanted to see them, then I wanted to see them a little closer (but a bit closer than I intended) and now I had to admit - what I really wanted to see was a pony on the beach. Boy I sure am getting greedy. :)

    We rode through the park and walked all 3 of the trails - Life of the Dunes, Life of the Forest and Life of the Marsh. They were nice trails and I thought the signs throughout were very informative. We walked a bit at the South beach area - and again a lovely unspoiled beach area - but alas no ponies on the beach. We drove back through the park and wanted to check out some of the campsites as we do have a travel trailer and now I definitely want to come back and camp here.

    Looking out into one of the marsh areas we saw a beautiful pony grazing. Since the Assateague Island Alliance allows you to “foster” their ponies by donation they have lots of pictures on their website and we identified him as Assateague Lightning - I love being able to attach names to the ponies.

    We decided to check out the North beach area and there was a band of ponies right there in the parking lot. One of the ponies was grazing right alongside the path that leads out to the beach and I walked out to the beach area hoping that she would decide to take a little stroll out on the beach to meet my next goal. Sure enough, she popped out for about a minute or so but lots of people began crowding her - she didn’t like that at all and headed back out toward the parking lot. I did manage to take 2 shots and got my pic of the Pony on the Beach - yay!! She was beautiful and with a bit more research we identified her as Annie Laurie. We watched them for a while but frankly the people in the parking lot were really crowding them and driving a bit too close - what is wrong with getting out of your car? Why do you have to drive right alongside them? Nutty! It made me nervous so we decided to head out.

    The MD side of Assateague has the National Seashore but also a state park. The National Seashore doesn’t have as many amenities so we headed over to the state park because it was mid-afternoon by now and I was really hungry. We got a burger and a grilled cheese at the stand and checked out their beach which was also quite lovely as well.

    I really love both sides of the island - they each have something unique to offer!!! So we drove (or rather I napped and hubby drove) back to Chincoteague.

    We spent some time on the balcony of our room and watched the sea birds and the fishing boats - so relaxing! After a while we decided to check out another of the Chincoteague restaurants and had dinner at Etta’s Channel Side restaurant. Although we weren’t seated right at the windows, there was still a beautiful view of the channel looking across to Assateague Island and watching the sun set. We had a great meal here as well - at first I was a bit concerned as I thought it was a bit more formal but capri pants and a nice shirt and Dockers and a collared shirt seemed to be fine. I don’t think anything is too formal here on the island - which is just another thing that I loved! I am really loving all of the crab that we have had too.

    We decided to try one of “the three” places for ice cream - Mr. Whippy’s. It is soft serve ice cream and was a nice dessert after we went for a quick walk to work off some of our dinners from Etta’s and some balcony time at the hotel. A nice end to our evening!!

    Next up - Biking Assateague and more ponies!

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    Thanks Suewoo! I wish we lived within a closer driving distance - it really is a gem!! I don't think we've ever done a long weekend that I actually felt that it was a true getaway but we really enjoyed ourselves.

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    Haha, ponies on the beach? That Nicholas Sparks got to you, didn't he? There are people who believe horses run all over the Outer Banks! Well, they DID until people bugged them and ran over them with cars so much they moved them up near the VA border.

    Thanks for the Hampton tip. I am a big Hampton fan, so I'll reserve there when I go.

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    Day 3 - Biking Assateague

    Today was the day that we planned to rent bikes and bike over to Assateague Island and do some more exploring. We had a nice breakfast at the Hampton Inn and then headed over to the Bike Depot at the Refuge Inn where they have bike rentals. There is also a pen there where some ponies from the Chincoteague Pony Center - and there was a baby!!!!! She was so cute! The woman inside the bike depot said she is a real spitfire and very active but she was napping when we were there. Hopefully when we come back she might be more active.

    It is a pretty quick ride over to Assateague Island from here and thankfully pretty flat as we aren’t really avid bikers by any stretch of the imagination. But it really is a great way to experience the park. Because for most of the day the wildlife loop is closed to vehicle traffic it is a great place to ride and we saw the bald eagle again.

    Toward the back of the wildlife loop there is Swan Cove Trail where you have to park your bike and walk but it leads out to the beach and there was only one other person out there. I guess it is relatively uncrowded most of the time as we came across the “Public Nudity Prohibited” sign. We walked down along the water and looked for some sea shells - this area is so pretty. We just sat and watched and listened to the waves for a while.

    We walked back to the bikes and finished the wildlife loop. Near the end of the loop is the Visitor Center. It was a nice break and they really have some good exhibits and a nice film to watch so we stayed and looked around for a bit. They do offer a bus ride into the areas that aren’t really open to the public that I wish we could have done but we couldn’t make the times work out quite right.

    Back to the bikes and over to the Woodland Trail this is another area that you can usually see some ponies but we struck out. Speaking of ponies, first just to see them, then a closer view, a pony on the beach and now I would really like to see a 2013 foal in “the wild” although little Marta Luna at the Bike Depot sure is cute! We had binoculars in our backpack but couldn’t see any ponies.

    From Beach Road we could see the band of the 2012 ponies again but they were out quite a ways so we decided to do the wildlife loop one more time. We saw the Sika deer again - they are very different from the white tails that we get in our yard that are very cute but eat every last bit of vegetation that we plant. Ugh!

    Although all of the riding has been nice and flat and very enjoyable, I am getting hungry (what else is new?) and we head back to return the bikes. Marta Luna is up and about and running about the pen - she is adorable and I take lots of pictures. She is very curious about all of the people that come to see her and checks us all out. She then gives out a whinny and takes off to go find Mom.

    We stop at the Sea Star Cafe - I had read that they had good soup, sandwiches, salads, etc. and I am a big soup lover. So I got a soup and a wrap and they were fantastic!! The wrap was huge but filling after a morning riding bikes.

    We went back to the hotel and decided to walk around town for a bit and do a little bit of shopping. We then relaxed for a bit as this was supposed to be a relaxing getaway after all - which it really was as we were able to do everything at our own pace and I am guessing there weren’t any crowds because it is still off-season or early-season but we are having fun!

    Before dinner, we decided to take another swing through the park - it is so close after all. The band with the 2012 ponies was closer to the fence line and down a bit from there we saw another band.....and......YES - they had babies with them. They were quite a distance back but through the binoculars I saw at least 2 babies possibly 3 but they were standing near their moms and the other ponies but oh so very cute!! My trip is now complete!

    Dinner tonight was at The Village and we made excellent choices for all of our meals - another good one here!! Although I have to say we did try Calamari at 2 of the restaurants and it certainly is not what we were expecting by New England standards - we really should have stuck with the crab appetizers. However, everything else we had was very very good. I wish I had written down exactly what we had but I can’t find the receipts - I would certainly recommend all of the restaurants we went to.

    We decided to try another of the ice cream restaurants - the Island Creamery and got “one scoop” waffle cones. Well, after the girl at the counter put at least 5 scoops of ice cream in my cone she handed me my one-scooper. Good thing we put some miles on the bikes today but certainly not enough for this cone - the ice cream was fantastic though!! I much prefer hard ice cream and the hubby likes soft so one vote for Mr Whippy’s and one for the Island Creamery. I guess we’ll just have to come back to see if Muller’s is the tie-breaker.

    Sad to say - our trip is coming to a close and Day 4 is back to Norfolk and closer to reality.

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    This is the last of my report and much shorter than all of the other days as we didn't have the best of weather and a minor hiccup in my planning efforts.

    Day 4 - Leaving Chincoteague and Heading to Norfolk

    Well, it was bound to happen with a tropical storm in the area. We woke up to a grey rainy day today. We started off by having our last breakfast at the Hampton Inn - I would highly recommend this as a great place to stay to see the Chincoteague / Assateague area.

    I wanted to take one last spin through the NWR. The ponies were off in the distance standing in the rain - not a day to stay out and pony watch so a couple of last pictures and we were off.

    We drove back to Norfolk and were staying at the Holiday Inn Express - Norfolk Airport since we have an early flight in the morning. We were able to get an early check-in when we got there and decided to get a late lunch. There was a Ruby Tuesdays across the street in the mall area (which is what most of this area around the airport seems to be) and it was as expected.

    Here is where my planning fell down a little bit - I thought hubby would really enjoy the Nauticus Maritime Center and the USS Wisconsin as he tends to like historical and military attractions. What I didn’t notice however was that they were closed on Mondays and everything else seemed to be outside and it was still raining quite steadily.

    We got in the car and decided to drive around and explore a little bit. I had also never been to VA Beach so we decided to head in that direction just so I could see what it was like. However with the rain and it still being offseason there wasn’t a whole lot to see. I also think hubby was a bit tired of driving so we decided to just head back to the hotel and relax and get ready to get back to reality. The HI Express was a nice suite-type room and really quite nice for an “airport” hotel which I usually try to avoid.

    Flight home was uneventful which was a good thing. One observation that we both made was that for a long-weekend away we had a very relaxing time and it felt more like a “mini-vacation” and definitely a place that we will return.

    I know this was long-winded but I hope that it will be helpful for someone else planning a trip to the area.

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    It was a great trip report, lyndsyb, thank you for posting. I haven't been in years even though I'm close enough to do it in a day trip,
    How did you get up to Assateague, MD? Did you go back out to 13 or up through the park?

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    Birdie - I am jealous you live so close. We went back out to the main route (the NPS map has the directions on it) because you can't get back/forth between the MD/VA sides within the park as they don't connect.

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    It was fun to read your report! I'm heading to Chincoteague for the pony swim in a few weeks, and have never been there before, so your recommendations are really helpful. I'm sure the mob scene of the pony swim will change the dynamics of my own visit, but maybe I'll come back again and do the quiet route :)

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    Thank you so much for your timely report! We have only briefly visited Chincoteague, never stayed. We leave next Sunday for a few nights stay at the Hampton Inn. I've had little time to trip plan, your report is a great start -- thank you!

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