Assateague – Island of the Wild Ponies

Misty of Chincoteague is one of those books my  daughter  loved  reading  as  much  as  I did—it’s  practically  required  reading  for any girl in her Horse Phase. As every Misty lover  knows,  the  book  is  about  a  Chincoteague  pony,  and  the  place  you  go  to see Chincoteague ponies is . . . Assateague Island.  Chincoteague  comes  into  the  picture  because  it’s  the  neighboring  island, sheltered  from  the  ocean  by  the  outlying barrier island of Assateague; every year in July,  Chincoteague  townsfolk  row  over  to uninhabited Assateague, round up the wild ponies  that  live  there,  make  them  swim across  the  narrow  channel  separating  the two islands, and sell the new foals to raise money for the local fire department. Everybody knows that, Mom.

The good news is that you don’t have to be  a  pony-crazed  girl  to  enjoy  a  trip  to Chincoteague  and  Assateague.  Like  most of  this  region  of  Maryland  and  Virginia, known as the Eastern Shore, it’s a tranquil, wind-ruffled  shore  land  with  a  lot  of  wildlife  refuges  and  weather-beaten  charm. You can drive right onto Chincoteague, an old  fishing  village  that  was  settled  by  the English  in  the  late  1600s,  and  from  there take  another  causeway  to  Assateague, which was settled by wild horses at about the  same  time.  Legend  has  it  that  the ponies’  ancestors  swam  ashore  from  a shipwrecked  Spanish  galleon,  but  more likely  they  were  put  there  by  the  English settlers as a natural corral. Go early in the day,  because  there’s  a  quota  for  how many  cars  can  be  on  Assateague  at  one time.  You’ll  have  to  wait  until  3pm  to  be allowed  to  drive  onto  the  paved  4 1 / 2 -mile Wildlife  Drive,  which  runs  through  the marshes and is the best place to see these shaggy, sturdy little horses. (Earlier in the day,  you  can  walk  or  bicycle  around  this flat, easy loop to your heart’s content; narrated  bus  tours  run  all  day.)  Besides  the ponies,  there  are  an  amazing  number  of birds  to  spot,  and  at  the  end  of  the  main road lies a splendid unspoiled beach—the Assateague National Seashore—which has bathhouses and lifeguards and a visitor  center.  If  you’re  into  shell  collecting, the  southern  spit  of  land  called  Tom’s Cove yields pails full.

Back in Chincoteague, there’s one more must-do  for  pony  lovers:  taking  a  ride  at the  Chincoteague  Pony  Centre,  6417 Carriage  Dr. Who knows—the pony you ride might be one of Misty’s many descendants!