Chincoteague: More Than a Dream

Editor’s Note: Several years ago, when this magazine sponsored the weekly River City Live radio program, Victor and Kathy Gottlieb (better known as the Singing Gottliebs) were regulars on the program. Victor would sing, as often as we would let him, his Chincoteague Island Song. When it came time to assign a writer for our Small Town Virginia feature on Chincoteague, I knew there were only two people to whom the assignment should go.

“…Chincoteague Island, you’re more than just a dream. You’re more than just a vision. You’re paradise to me. I can’t wait to get there. I never want to leave, and I know the blue herons are waiting there for me.”

Victor: Pardon me for quoting the chorus from one of my own songs, “The Chincoteague Island Song” but that’s really how Kathy and I feel about Chincoteague — a beautiful island on the eastern shore of Virginia. My history with Chincoteague goes way back to when I was a kid in Baltimore. It was one of our favorite vacation destinations. I loved the island then and still do because it remains a classic, un-spoiled, small American town, which also happens to be a resort island a few miles off the eastern shore, adjacent (by bridge) to Assateague Island. Assateague has a stunningly beautiful white sand beach and is home to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Kathy: Some people might be familiar with the children’s book, “Misty of Chincoteague”, which is a story about one of the wild ponies for which the island is famous. There is debate about how the ponies arrived on Assateague Island. According to a legend, the ponies swam to the shore when a Spanish galleon was wrecked. The ponies roam free on Assateague, and sometimes you can see them standing in the marsh when you drive on the road to the beach. Once a year, there is a world-famous Pony Roundup and Swim, when ponies are herded across a channel from Assateague to Chincoteague and then “paraded” through the streets to holding pens where some are auctioned off to good homes. A real, small-town carnival is held at the same time, and proceeds benefit the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department. The 93rd annual event, which will be held July 25 to 26, is so popular that some people make their plans to attend a year in advance.

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Victor: My father, an avid fisherman, loved to go flounder fishing off Chincoteague and we would schedule our vacations according to flounder fishing season. We would rent a small boat out of (the former) Captain Bob’s Marina and spend our vacation days fishing, playing in the surf on Assateague and eating the freshest, most delicate and tasty flounder sandwiches that you can imagine at one of the local restaurants. At the end of our vacation, we would head home with some beautiful memories, plans to return soon and a cooler full of flounder fillets.

Kathy: The island has other fun events like the Chincoteague Seafood Festival on May 5 and the Chincoteague Oyster Festival on Oct. 6, both at Tom’s Cove. The Chincoteague salt oyster is one of the finest oysters you could ever hope to eat — briny, fresh from the sea and delicious. There’s an “Art Stroll” from 5 to 8 p.m. the second Saturday of each month, from April to November, when special art and music events are hosted by the local galleries and shops. People go from one interesting event to the other — no need to drive, because these shops are within walking distance of each other.

Victor: Chincoteague’s charming streets are filled with many interesting shops and friendly people. They have an old-time movie theater, lit up with neon. You can see people strolling up and down Main Street in beachwear, browsing in and out of shops and eateries, breathing in the fresh salt air and living in the tropical moment. If you could freeze time and just soak in that moment forever, you would surely be tempted.

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Chincoteague is near Wallops Island, which launches rockets into outer space on occasion. If your timing is right, you might be able to see a Wallops Island rocket launch from a bench in a waterside park on Chincoteague or from the NASA Wallops Visitor Center, which is located a few miles before you reach the causeway that takes you to Chincoteague. The next scheduled launch is for some time in May, when an Antares rocket will blast off on a commercial, re-supply mission for the International Space Station. The exact date has not been set. Some people come to Chincoteague and Assateague just to see the incredible variety of resident and migrating birds (more than 300 species). There are guided and self-guided nature walks, rental boats, boat tours and fishing party boats, which, if you want, will do all the work for you except holding the fishing rod. There’s also a lighthouse, which you can climb, porpoises, seagulls, pelicans, spectacular sunrises and sunsets, and saltwater taffy. A new Hawaiian-themed family water park is scheduled to open in Chincoteague in May.

Kathy and I stay at The Island Motor Inn Resort (4391 Main St.; 757-336-3141). It is right on the water, and the owners could not be friendlier. Seeing the welcoming faces of the gracious staff who remember us is a real treat.

Kathy: I particularly love being able to sit on the balcony and look out over the back water, even if the weather is too bad to venture out. We also would recommend the Refuge Inn at 7058 Maddox Blvd (757-336-5511).

Victor: Don’s Seafood Restaurant (4113 Main St.; 757-336-5715) is a local favorite. Steamers (6251 Maddox Blvd.; 757-336-5300) is also popular and has all-you-can-eat specials.

Right next door to Steamers is The Island Creamery (6243 Maddox Blvd.; 757-336-6236). Try the homemade “Marsh Mud” ice cream, our favorite flavor.

Kathy: But don’t forget to try the coconut, pistachio and blueberry (seasonal), which are equally delicious!

Victor: Chincoteague is not a short hop from Richmond, but well worth it. Take the Chesapeake Bridge Tunnel from the Virginia Beach area to the Eastern Shore. Be sure to check out the visitor’s center on the bridge-tunnel and watch the freighters as they go by.

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Upon exiting the bridge tunnel, you arrive at the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, where the land is perfectly flat with acres and acres of farmland. It’s about 100 miles north, up Route 13, to the turn off at Route 175, then roughly another 11 miles past the NASA Wallops Visitor Center and over a causeway that takes you to Chincoteague.

Give yourself plenty of time. The speed limits are not high and each small town you pass has a stop light. Chincoteague sprays for mosquitoes, but Assateague is a protected area and they do not spray. Either place, it makes sense to use bug repellant, especially on Assateague.

The Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce is a great resource, and they are happy to share. Use their expertise to help plan your vacation — especially if you want to attend a popular event.

If you’re not the planning type, don’t worry about special events and migrating bird schedules. Just being in Chincoteague at any time is a special event. Great natural beauty and wildlife, incredible seafood ­— it’s enough to make you start singing my song: “There’s an island, off the eastern shore. It has everything we want and so much more. It has the water. It has the sun. It has something for everyone, and the blue herons are waiting there for me. Chincoteague Island…”

You can listen to my song on YouTube.