The little pocket of coastal Maryland and Virginia known as Assateague and Chincoteague is a unique stretch of coastal wilderness that is completely different from all the other beach towns around. To start with, the wild ponies that inhabit the island are the main draw, and there are no beachside resorts or boardwalks, making it one of the most unique beach settings you come across. Both barrier islands are situated about 3 hours away from D.C., making either an easy weekend getaway.
Where to Stay
On Assateague, which is about 37 miles long, camping is the way to go. Beach camping can be a lot of fun, but make sure you are prepared. Make a reservation in advance at an Oceanside campsite (tents only), or a Bayside campsite (RV trailers). All campsites have public bathrooms and shower facilities.
On Chincoteague island, which is seven miles long, there are hotels, rental homes, and B&B’s to choose from. The island is so small that anywhere you stay will be central and a short drive away from anything you need to get to.
A short bridge connects Assateague island from the south side to Chincoteague island, so you can get between the two irrespective of where you choose to stay.
What to Do
First things first, meet the wild ponies. As the story goes, wild ponies have been on the island for many years, descending from domestic horses that landed here from a shipwreck off the coast. You will almost always come across these on the island (especially the Maryland side where they roam free), but you can take a wildlife cruise if you are more curious. A great time to see the horses is during the annual Pony Penning, when over 150 of them are swum up from Assateague to Chincoteague (about 1000 yards). This happens on the last Wednesday and Thursday of July, so plan to be there July 25 this year! It’s one of the busiest times on the island, and the best way to see this event is from a kayak on the water!
Explore the changing landscape of the islands on foot or by renting a bike. The Bayberry drive on Assateague is a four-mile scenic route with fantastic views of the island, and a chance to spot many species of birds. There are also plenty of hiking trails on both islands, which are a great way to see the diversity of wildlife that inhabit it.
Of course, you are here mainly for the beach. Assateague State Park has one of the best swimming beaches in the area, and with water temperatures in the 70s during summer, many people get in the water as soon they get here. Kayaking and swimming in the calm bay side waters are absolutely fun too, and more secluded.
Tip: If you are planning on visiting in summer, make sure to take plenty of bug spray.
Where to Eat
Fresh seafood such as Chesapeake blue crabs, clams, oysters and fish are the specialties of the region and there are plenty of spots on Chincoteague to try some.
Stop by Etta’s Channel Side Restaurant to enjoy fresh seafood while taking in stunning waterside views, or Captain Zack’s seafood for large portions of (carryout only) fried seafood and sandwiches. Pico Taqueria is a popular outdoor spot serving up delicious tacos with a local twist -- you must try the Maddox with cornmeal fried oysters. If seafood is not your thing, there are pizza spots and a couple of Asian restaurants too. The best dessert on the island is at Island Creamery, which features a wide range of freshly made ice cream from local cows.
Our Analysis: Assateague and Chincoteague are definitely for nature lovers, so if you want to spend your time on the beach actively without too many creature comforts while experiencing a vacation that's memorably unique, head here.