Finding winter's refuge on Chincoteague

Wintertime visit to the Virginia barrier island reveals nature at its coolest

(Chincoteague Chamber of…)
January 24, 2014|By Rona Kobell, For The Baltimore Sun

This would be the one where we stayed home, my husband and I agreed before the recent holidays. No Christmas flight to Texas to visit his family. No four-hour drive through the mountains to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving dinner with my dad. With two busy careers, an active 8-year-old and a toddler who had taken to saying "no night-night" when it's time for bed, we didn't have the energy. Even a low-maintenance weekend jaunt to New York on BoltBus seemed like too much work.

But then the 8-year-old read "Misty of Chincoteague" that wonderful book about a horse born in the wilds of Assateague Island and raised on Chincoteague Island. We spent hours on the computer, reading facts about the author, Marguerite Henry, and the small Virginia island community that captivated her. By the time Maya asked if we could go there during the holiday break, I'd already begun looking online for hotels.

Like most people, I'd always associated Chincoteague with the annual summer pony swim, when the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department's "saltwater cowboys" guide dozens of ponies across Chincoteague Bay from Assateague Island, where they roam wild, and corral them at a carnival in the center of town. There, anxious little girls wait to buy the foals. I'd covered the event as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and it wasn't my favorite assignment. There were lines in every restaurant, hotels cost twice what they should and most visitors were too focused on jockeying for a better view to chat with a reporter. Standing in a marsh thick with mosquitoes and jellyfish made it tough to appreciate the island's beauty.

I hoped a winter visit would be different. At least there wouldn't be any mosquitoes. And, I quickly learned, it would cost a lot less.

The Refuge Inn, a locally owned hotel, offers a suite for $149 per night in the winter. The room includes a small wet bar/kitchen, a living room with a sofa bed and an alcove bed for a child. It also has a comfortable master bedroom and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub. The price includes breakfast. In New York, we'd be lucky to get a twin bed in Brooklyn for that rate.

The hotel also has horses. They spend their days in a corral between the inn and a local McDonald's. The friendly hotel staff provides oats and other staples to feed them. Even so, they told us we could feed the horses french fries — given the proximity to the fast-food restaurant, they eat them quite a bit.

The inn's ponies are a great insurance policy against the promises nature sometimes breaks. The Great Outdoors isn't as tightly scheduled as Disney World. Monarchs are supposed to show up on the Eastern Shore in June, snow geese in November, ospreys in March. But too often, we go someplace expecting to see something and it isn't there. I suspect many a little girl has been assured a look at the ponies, only to return home disappointed.

I had my own hopes: to see a flock of the island's legendary snow geese, which friends had described as so voluminous that the sky turns white when they're in flight. In the past three years, I'd been to three of the geese's major regional staging areas. Each time, wildlife officials told me, I'd just missed the peak.

The hotel also rents bicycles, and getting around is easy. There are two main drags, Main Street and Maddox Boulevard. The pedaling helps justify multiple trips to the Island Creamery, which serves delicious ice cream. Also, winter is the best time of year to eat Chincoteague's famous oysters, and for a fraction of what you'd pay in Baltimore. Several good restaurants remain open all year. Our favorites were Bill's Prime Seafood and Steaks and Don's Seafood Restaurant, both of which are on Main Street and relatively kid-friendly.

Some pony-related attractions — such as the Chincoteague Museum, where the horse that inspired the Misty books has been preserved, stuffed and put on display — are closed in the winter. But Chincoteague's main event is its wildlife refuge, and it is not only open but looks more beautiful than ever in the winter light.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in 1943, primarily as a habitat for migratory birds. Most people think of Assateague as part of Maryland, but the barrier island straddles the border of two states. From the Refuge Inn, you can drive about a half-mile to a small bridge. Once you cross it, you are on Assateague, on the Virginia side.

Maryland and Virginia manage their pony herds differently. In Virginia, the fire department maintains a herd of just 150 ponies. Every year, it sells off foals to keep the population manageable so the horses do not overgraze and out-compete with native species. We saw a few ponies at a designated viewing area along the Woodland Trail, but the fire department keeps most of its herd in an area not accessible to the general public.

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