At the age of 9, I probably could have recited most of Marguerite Henry’s book, Misty of Chincoteague, from memory. Horses, at the time, were my passion — I rode them, read about them, drew them, and would have done just about anything to have one of my own. I fantasized about participating in the annual roundup and "pony swim" between the islands of Assateague and Chincoteague, Va., and about buying one of the ponies at auction the following day (never mind that we would have to find space for the pony in our little townhouse in Bronxville). It never happened, and gradually I turned my attention to other things. But when I got an opportunity, at the age of 41, to finally see the annual July pony-penning for myself, I was as excited as a child. Chincoteague, with its pretty little wooden houses, seafood restaurants, and sky whose colors are tempered by the ocean, is the perfect little seaside town. The locals all know each other, and they know what never fails to bring herds of 9-year-old pony freaks and their families to the island every summer — the legend of Misty. At pony-penning time, the local cinema plays the film version of the book for free, and images of Misty and her shaggy Assateague Island cohorts are everywhere, in every possible form, year-round. (Misty herself has been taxidermied and is on display at the Beebe Ranch. You and your children will need to decide for yourselves how you feel about that). Even if your family has never heard of Misty, though, it’s almost impossible not to be thrilled by the sight of hundreds of ponies swimming across the narrow inlet between Assateague and Chincoteague, and then, after a brief rest, being driven through the streets of the town towards the penning area. (The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which owns and maintains the herd, and toward which proceeds from the auction go, sponsors the swim). Keeping Assateague from being overpopulated by the ponies, and giving the firemen the opportunity to examine and tend to them, ensures the herd’s well being). They’re gorgeous creatures, with the delicately chiseled, intelligent faces of Arabian horses, and thick, matted fur in every possible color. (We fell in love with a particularly wild-looking paint pony with shockingly blue eyes). Anyone who’s not enchanted by the foals can only be assumed to have been kicked by one at some point in life. Chincoteague and Assateague (which are wildlife preserves) are worth visiting any time of year, but, if you’re determined to see the pony-penning, plan your trip early. Chincoteague’s hotels are booked for the event many months in advance.
A few other tips: 1. If you want to get a good view of the swim, you’ll need to get up before dawn. Free shuttle buses run between the main streets of Chincoteague and the swim area, but the crowds are formidable. The local pony-penning volunteers are very friendly and very helpful. 2. Bring binoculars, sunscreen, insect repellent, rain gear, bottles of water, snacks, and, for extra comfort, light folding chairs. We also found a walkie-talkie invaluable. 3. If you’re lucky enough to be able to buy a pony, don’t show up expecting to drive home with a wild colt in your back seat. Bring a horse trailer!
PLACES TO STAY AND EAT: COMFORT SUITES (4195 Main St. (757)336-3700; www.choicehotels.com) Indoor and outdoor pools, beautiful views of Chincoteague Channel and Bay, and a great buffet breakfast. One of the pony swim shuttle bus stops is just a few steps down the street.
STEAMERS SEAFOOD (6251 Maddox Road) Enormous plates of fresh seafood (the all-you-can-eat specials should be necessary only for large football-player types), served on paper-covered tables (crayons provided) with mallets for getting your dinner out of its shell. Not exactly elegant, but a great meal.
SEA STAR CAFÉ (4121 Main St. 757-336-5442) True Misty aficionados will know who the name refers to. Great sandwiches and roll-ups with just about any combination of ingredients you can think of, in a take-out setting; there are also outdoor tables.
BILL’S RESTAURANT (4040 Main St. 757-336-5831) A long-time favorite with the locals, Bill’s has a nice, cozy (albeit crowded) family atmosphere. They specialize in seafood, but the menu is extensive. It’s a very good idea to make reservations.
The pony swim and auction are held on the last Wednesday and Thursday of every July. This year the swim will be on July 28, and the auction on July 29. For more information, go to: —www.chincoteaguechamber.com —www.Chincoteague.com —www.virginia.org