Chincoteague Island, Virginia is one of our family’s favorite fall destinations.
Yes, you’re already thinking “back to school,” but that three-day weekend in September or October is a great time to travel.
Chincoteague Island was made famous by Marguerite Henry’s beloved horse story, Misty of Chincoteague. And wild ponies are still a big draw to the island and its sister island, Assateague.
There is a lot of fun to be had here beyond ponies, though. You’ll discover some spectacular beaches, outstanding seafood, and fun souvenir shopping.
Seafood from Virginia’s Coast
If you love crab, Chincoteague is the place to be.
We stopped at Don’s Seafood Restaurant the first evening of our long, get-away weekend.
Traveling from Ohio it took us about nine hours to reach the island, and we were starving.
October brings early sunsets, so it was already dark when we pulled into Don’s parking lot. And it had just started to rain.
The change in weather made the air a bit chilly, but it was cozy when we got inside.
Don’s isn’t ultra-fancy, so it’s perfect for a family with kids – even parents and kids who are a little cranky from a long car ride.
I remember enjoying a little glowing candle on our table as the rain pattered against the windows in the restaurant.
The waitress was wise and brought us our bread and cracker basket right away.
I ordered the crab cakes and decided to indulge in them fried rather than baked.
Well, that was a meal to remember.
The cakes were so gently coated that you wouldn’t believe they were fried. And the mayo binder was so light that the crab took center stage, as it should. I’ve never had better crab cakes. Anywhere.
I was so immersed in my food that I honestly don’t remember what anyone else ordered. I’m guessing the kids had fried shrimp because that’s their favorite.
After stuffing ourselves silly, we got back in the car for the short drive down Maddox Boulevard to our hotel.
We’ve stayed at other motels on the island, but the Refuge Inn is a favorite because it is cozy and clean at a mid-range price point. It’s a family-owned hotel, not a chain.
“Cozy and clean” may not sound glamorous, but the Refuge Inn is also tastefully decorated, offers quiet, and rents beach gear and bicycles for your trips to the seashore.
Best of all, a pen of Chincoteague ponies is next to the Inn, so you have a convenient photo-op right on site. This is probably the closest you will get to the wild ponies, so enjoy it!
The Refuge Inn is located on Maddox Boulevard, just before the bridge to Assateague.
Assateague Island National Seashore
After the wild ponies, Chincoteague is best known for its Wildlife Refuge and sister island, Assateague.
Here is where you’ll find some of the most beautiful sand beaches on the U.S. Atlantic Coast.
Even in fall, you’ll enjoy walking the wide, flat beach coated in white sand. Sometimes, you can drive your SUV right onto the beach.
What is nice about visiting this National Seashore in the fall is that there are very few people. And even fewer mosquitoes.
We were even lucky enough to catch a harvest moon on our last visit.
If you think the full moon is big at home, just picture it hovering over the ocean. It’s unbelievably beautiful.
True, you won’t be swimming in the ocean in October. But, you avoid the crowds and have an opportunity to experience the seashore in its blustery, windswept glory.
Not only is Assateague Island graced with a picturesque lighthouse, but this is one that you can actually explore from inside.
The Assateague lighthouse was restored for visitors in 2009.
You can climb to the top and get a fantastic panoramic view of both Chincoteague and Assateague Islands.
The lighthouse is located on Assateague Island, across from the Chincoteague Natural History Association Visitor Center, on Beach Access Road.
The novel Misty of Chincoteague explains how the wild horses came to be on Assateague and Chincoteague Islands.
In July, Chincoteague bursts at the seams with visitors eager to watch the annual pony swim for themselves.
Although this sounds like great fun, we prefer the quiet times on the islands. The wild ponies can be viewed on Assateague Island year-round.
You may get a lucky close-up view, but you should be prepared to view them from a distance.
Packing a small pair of binoculars on any vacation is a good idea. I’ve used mine not only for wildlife viewing but at concerts and to see the details on cathedral ceilings.
Ice Cream for Dinner
If you are an ice cream lover (who isn’t?) don’t miss the Island Creamery.
Located at 6243 Maddox Boulevard (the road you take to Assateague Island), the Island Creamery offers scrumptious ice cream and serves it scooped into freshly-rolled waffle cones.
What’s so great about this place? Well, the ice cream and cones are homemade.
That’s right – the Creamery makes its cones on-site. They are crunchy and slightly sweet, a perfect complement to the ice cream.
Real fruit chunks (some locally-sourced) and fresh nuts are incorporated into many of their ice cream flavors. So, flavors change often, but the consistent line of patrons never does.
Luckily, the Creamery is accustomed to handling crowds, so you move along the line at a steady pace.
Mr. Baldy’s for Breakfast
On a morning of driving around the perimeter of the island, we stumbled upon Mr. Baldy’s Family Restaurant.
Mr. Baldy’s is a cute little place with yummy breakfast offerings at great prices.
This is not fancy, it’s family dining. But, you’ll find basic menu items to satisfy your picky eaters.
And that starts the day off right!
You’ll find Mr. Baldy’s at 3441 Ridge Road.
There may be a day or evening during your trip when spending time outdoors isn’t in the cards.
Although Chincoteague is small. there are plenty of cute souvenir shops to keep you occupied for a few hours. Start on Main Street for pretty home gifts and books.
The downtown has a small shopping mall, grocery store, coffee shop, beach shops, movie theater, and restaurants. But our favorite store on Main Street is the bookstore.
Sundial Books has been around for decades. You’ll find it right on Main Street, to the left as you cross the bridge onto Chincoteague Island.
The store is bright and cheery, with cozy places to read.
Sundial sells new and used books, and they also sell online. When we last visited, my husband ruminated over buying a rare book about Ben Franklin, as it was a bit expensive. Thankfully, we were able to order it when we got back home, and he finally decided that yes, he really did want it.
Sundial also sells pretty souvenirs.
Sundial Books, 4065 Main St, Chincoteague Island, VA 23336, phone (757) 336-5825, website https://www.sundialbooks.net/
Kitschy Maddox Boulevard
Make your way down Maddox Boulevard, which intersects with Main Street, and you’ll find lots of traditional beach gifts, t-shirts, hats, and the like.
This is where our kids bought their hermit crabs. It was quite an experience traveling home with these little guys.
Catch Your Own Seafood
On another October trip, my husband and son took a small boat on a trailer with them to Chincoteague. This was their “crabbing” trip.
The boys brought home a cooler filled to the brim with crabs. My job was cooking. Oh, and eating.
They told us that the crabs are so plentiful that all you do is bait your line, lower it in the water, and then pull up so many crabs that they are dripping off the line.
Talk about “all you can eat.”
If you are interested in buying (rather than catching) seafood take-out, try Captain Zack’s Seafood, 4422 Deep Hole Road.
That we made these journeys half a dozen times tells you how special these islands are to us, and how many memories we hold of this wonderful place.
Today, I called my now-adult daughter and reminded her of our trips.
She promptly responded, “Mom, we should visit Chincoteague again!”