Mention Chincoteague Island, Virginia, and you’re likely to be asked, “Isn’t that the place where those ponies are?” The answer is yes. The narrow spit of land and nearby Assateague Island became famous as home to a herd of wild ponies in 1947, when the popular children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” was published. A 1961 movie spread the story even further.
During my visit, I was immersed in stories about the ponies, including the annual penning and sale. Each summer since 1925, ponies have been rounded up and those strong enough to swim herded into the narrowest part of the channel that separates Assateague and Chincoteague. The next day the foals—those less than a year old—are sold at auction during some spirited bidding. The remaining ponies spend another night in town and swim back to their home on Assateague Island the next day.
If you’d prefer to miss the large crowds that gather for that annual event and see the ponies in their natural setting, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. They are often visible as they graze near designated viewing areas in the Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge.
I also enjoyed sightings during a water tour. The boat passed clam and oyster beds in the shallows, and I spotted bald eagles and other birds circling overhead. There are other ways to get up close and personal with the ponies, too. At the Chincoteague Pony Center, descendants of Misty are available for riding and lessons. Wildlife bus tours offered from April through November carry passengers into areas closed to other vehicles and include pony sightings on every trip.
Misty fans also won’t want to miss the Museum of Chincoteague Island. Exhibits explore the local history, culture, and people. They include interesting stories about the oystering industry, which employs many island residents, and descriptions of ornamental waterfowl and land-bird decoy carving, for which the area is equally well-known.
My introduction to oystering came during a visit to the Chincoteague Shellfish Farms. I learned that dredging for oysters as was done in the past has pretty much given way to present-day aquaculture. I welcomed the opportunity to sample the bivalves and followed the suggestion that in order to enjoy their full flavor I should down them “raw and naked,” without sauce.
As a self-styled aficionado of oysters who has slurped down more than my share, I was overjoyed by the first taste of the treat my host proudly offered and by each succeeding sample. Fat and succulent, they were the best I’ve enjoyed anywhere, any time.
A visit to an oyster operation and viewing the beds in the shallow waters surrounding the islands provides an introduction to the process that transports oysters from their environment to dinner plates all over the country. And if you’re as lucky as I was, you may be treated to a tasting.
Interactions with island residents add another layer to the local culture. People here exude a strong sense of pride in where they live and genuine friendliness toward visitors. Another attribute is the unique twang that immediately differentiates them from visitors. In their vernacular, the word “town” comes out as “tayn,” “where” is “wahr,” and “air” translates to “ayer.”
I found equally engrossing the story of ornamental bird-carving, which, I was told, still has about two dozen practitioners on Chincoteague Island today. Long before European settlers arrived in the New World, Native Americans fashioned floating decoys from reeds and grasses that they used to attract waterfowl to venture within reach of arrows and nets. Over time, those lures gave way to simple carved wooden decoys and, later, manufactured plastic models.
Some talented carvers began to fashion much more elaborate waterfowl, then added other bird species. What had begun as a craft with practical purposes evolved into an art form. The best examples display every feather and other features of birds in intricate, lifelike detail, and it can take months of painstaking work to complete a single model.
Decorative carvings are available to see and purchase at a number of places around town. The best collection I discovered was at the museumlike store named Decoys Decoys Decoys, which delivers on its promise. More than 2,000 birds that were produced by both local artists and outstanding carvers from around the country surround visitors like a colorful aviary.
While the highest known price paid for a decorative bird was $830,000, you won’t have to pay nearly that much to take home one of the magnificent figures here. If you do buy one, you’ll have a treasured keepsake to remind you of a very different kind of destination where life definitely moves at a leisurely pace.
That fact became evident shortly after I had arrived and saw several people gathered on a corner, all looking in the same direction. Moving nearby to check out the action, I realized that the object of attention was a mother duck followed by several ducklings that were slowly waddling across the street. The onlookers merely wanted to make sure traffic stopped to allow mom and kids to make it safely to the other side. Clearly, they are as friendly and kind to the local animals as they are to human visitors.
When You Go
For more information: ChincoteagueChamber.com
Victor Block is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Copyright 2022 Creators.com