Assateague Island

Assateague is one of my all-time favorite Virginia get-aways. A 37 mile-long barrier island stretching from just south of Maryland’s Ocean City into Virginia, it’s not well known even within the state. Sure, it has beaches and islands, but we have lots of those. It has something that’s much harder to find – wild ponies!

“Ponies” is a misnomer. The herd are mostly made of adults, although their diet doesn’t allow them to grow very large. The myth is their ancestors washed ashore from a floundering Spanish galleon, only to make their homes here. More likely, they are descended from horses left unattended by tax evaders who tried to hide their wealth on the island…only to lose them in the wild. But that’s not nearly as cool a story, so the Spanish myth persists.

The park is divided between Virginia and Maryland, with the later being the more touristy of the two. The closeness to Ocean City would make the beach popular in any circumstances. But coupled with several packs of wild horses and beach-side campgrounds, it definitely gets crowded. And unlike it’s Virginian neighbors, the horses here roam free – so watch where you drive.

I prefer the quieter Virginia side. You enter the Virginia half of Assateague via Chincoteague Island, home to a small community stacked with small shops and B&Bs. This is the setting of Misty of Chincoteague, a popular children’s book back in the 50s.

I often stay at Tom’s Cove Campground; it’s very family-oriented, with lots of spots overlooking the bay. A number of RVs seem to make an almost permanent home there, in addition to weekend campers. The camp store has your basic amenities, and the showers are more than serviceable. The worst you have to worry about (besides mosquitos) are late-night parties.

Horses on Virginia side are fenced in and can usually only be seen at a distance – for their protection, no doubt. It’s not unusual to see long lines of cars parked along the road, their windows down and phones & cameras taking in the view.

The park offers other attractions, including nature walks, biking, and a beach. Overall you can traverse the entire island in half an hour.

Of course the star of the show are the ponies. Every July the town does the ‘running of the ponies’, where they take the ponies from Assateague and swim them over to the town for the equivalent of an annual checkup.

Telling this story gives me Anthony Bourdain-esque guilt trips; if you share a fun travel story, people will come. And too many people ruins the fun for everyone. So do me a favor…keep this on the down-low…OK?

Chatham Vineyard

Located on the Delmarva Peninsula separating the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic (and only winery in the Chesapeake AVA), Chatham is a bit out of the way, even by Virginia wine standards. Operating by the Wehner family, they’ve been operating the place since it opened in 2005. Jon is actually a second-generation wine grower himself. I arrived early in the morning, and as the first visitor of the day I had the place to myself.

Visually the place is stunning. The property is right next to the water, so there was always a cool breeze to enjoy. You drive down the road past long rows of vines, passing the historic manor home (where the family still lives) before entering the production/tasting room.

Chatham’s story begins…35 million years ago (work with me here) when a meteor strike created what would become the Chesapeake Bay. The vineyard’s location on a peninsula can be described as a trade-off of different growing conditions; it never gets the heat a California-type vineyard gets, but at the same time it never gets particularly cold. The result is a terroir friendly to a lot of grapes, especially those who like mineral-rich whites.

Bordeaux’s influence is strong here. Today, they have 20 acres of French vinifera and make around 5000 cases/year. They even have a visiting French wine maker!

While I liked the reds, I LOVED the whites. Across the board, they were light and refreshing, often with nice minerality to them. I especially liked the 2017 Chardonnay, fermented in steel.

Next up was the rose was a nice pinkish color.

But a not-distant 3rd favorite was their French oak Chardonnay – it was a perfect example of how to get the most out of your oak barrels but not over-doing it. A bottle of that eventually went home with me.