Chincoteague Island, Va., is the kind of place many beachgoers crave. It's quiet and secluded. There's practically no development, and the sand goes on for miles. But Chincoteague is also the kind of place that can let you down if you don't know what you're doing.
You can pretty much do whatever you want if you're into kayaking, hiking, fishing, biking and the like. But don't expect a boardwalk, whizzy games, or a nightlife scene with dancing at beachside clubs. That is the joy of Chincoteague.
Let's start with the basics: Chincoteague is the town. This is where there are a few hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, and cottages to rent. Camping is also popular. Chincoteague is where you'll eat, shop and stroll. Main Street has a library, bookstores, restaurants, and gift, antiques, and T-shirt shops when you want a break from the beach or trails.
But for those days that must be spent on the beach, head to Assateague Island, site of the 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore. (There is also an entrance to the beach from Maryland's Ocean City side, but to get to Chincoteague from there, you might have to join the ponies on their annual swim.)
A perfect Chincoteague vacation includes parking the car for the week, renting bikes, and going from there. Getting onto the beach costs $5 daily per car but is free if you walk or bike. The bike ride from downtown is about 31/2 miles (or about 15 minutes). Biking from town onto Assateague takes you along trails where you can see wildlife from the quiet road and paths.
Stop by the informative Herbert H. Bateman Center to get a sense of what's around you. Get tips from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff before you head out to take in the many birds, ponies, and other wildlife abundant on the island. You can also catch Refuge Wildlife bus tours here that will loop around the island for almost two hours, during which time you may see the herd of wild ponies made famous by Marguerite Henry's book Misty of Chincoteague.
The beach itself is long, wide, incredibly clean, and perfect for a day of sunning, reading, and swimming.
When you're ready for a little more town time, there is plenty to do. A hearty breakfast at Bill's Seafood Restaurant (4040 Main St.) and lunch at the Sea Star Gourmet Carryout (4121 Main St.) are two good options. The Island Creamery (6243 Maddox Blvd.), complete with homemade waffle cones and ice cream, is a must-stop. For a nice meal waterside, drop by Etta's Channel Side Restaurant (7452 East Side Dr.), where you have views of the lighthouse, sunsets, and, yes, more wildlife. And if steamed seafood is your thing, Don's Seafood Restaurant (4113 Main St.) is your place.
At the table near us on a recent visit, a waitress asked a couple what they thought of their steamed crabs. She said she was asking because her husband pulled them out of the nearby waters that day.