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 it has something that’s hard to find – wild ponies!

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

Divided between Virginia and Maryland, the northern half is more touristy. The closeness to Ocean City would make the beach popular regardless. 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. Near the southern tip is Chincoteague Island, home to a sleepy community of small shops and B&Bs. This is the home of Misty of Chincoteague, a popular children’s book back in the 50s.

I like staying in Tom’s Cove Campground; it’s a very family-oriented campground 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.

Here on the Virginia side the horses are fenced – 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. It’s a short drive though; you can traverse the entire island in half an hour. But why would you? Do a nature hike, or walk along the sandy dunes.

Of course the stars 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?

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