If you are female and grew up in the United States in the ‘70s/80’s, there’s a good chance you read Misty of Chincoteague. (It’s possible boys read this beloved novel as well, but I have yet to meet a gentleman who will admit to it.) This children’s novel* is set in the small community of Chincoteague, Virginia, and depicts the trials and tribulations of a family raising a filly (young horse) born to a wild horse. I don’t recall what about the book resonated with me, but something did and I read all of Marguerite Henry’s books in the ‘Misty’ series.
In a passing conversation with Mr. Os about B&Bs and cabins last year, it was brought to my attention that Washington, DC is comparatively close to Chincoteague Island. In fact, it’s about a 3-hour straight shot by car. A visit to see the horses Misty is based on instantly appealed to me and the spot landed smack on my 2015 2015 Summer Bucket List. It was such a great visit that I decided to revisit the quiet island for some much needed stress relief.
After two trips to Chincoteague Island, along Virginia’s scenic Eastern Shore, one of the more important influences on a visitor’s first impressions is the time and season you are visiting the island.
“The season,” (essentially the summer months June, July and August) is the time of year when the sun is out, temperature is hot and being on an island offers ocean breezes; a wonderful respite from the land-locked scorch of DC humidity. If you are here during “the season” you’ll observe islanders in typical island attire (shorts, t-shirts and sandals) with a business as usual attitude. Souvenir shops are open and almost too plentiful in some spots, the boat tours are running (and worth it) and ice cream or coffee bar is churning out everyone’s favorite treat. It’s one part quaint, one part relaxing, and just invitingly frozen-in-time enough to make a perfect getaway.
Make no mistake, this is the kind of sleepy small town where no matter how much you might try to blend, islanders will instantly peg you as visiting. It’s a tight-knit, but friendly community (population under 3,000 per the 2010 census). You’ll be treated in a courteous manner, but don’t expect to be making new friends of locals at Chattie’s for happy hour. Nod, be polite and pass through.
If you grew up in a similar town or community, you know exactly what I mean. If you didn’t, it’s difficult to explain. Small, tight-knit communities are just that. Visitors move on, that’s the way it goes. It takes a long time to prove to these folks that you are worth an investment of their time.
But, you aren’t necessarily on Chincoteague to make new friends. If you made the trip, you are hear to see the famous ponies, relax, (over)eat seafood and enjoy the scenery, beautiful beaches and vibrant wildlife.
A visit in shoulder months surrounding “the season,” either late May, or early November, is a drastically different experience. Beach weather varies depending on the year, but it’s likely going to be overcast and chilly. More importantly, unlike “the season” when there are a series of festivals and things to do from Thursday through Sunday, people are left to their own devices. Shops aren’t open during the week; some not at all. Visitor foot traffic just doesn’t warrant it and can’t support it.
Without the sunny skies the island feels tired, maybe a little forgotten. You get the feeling it’s a bit like time bypasses Chincoteague until it’s time to expect visitors. Cinco de Mayo is not much more than a passing thought—even at the local taco stand. When we recently visited it was more about the upcoming Mayoral election.
Interestingly, I found islanders to be more welcoming in the off-season. While I don’t read much into it, I do believe it takes a special kind of traveler to visit Chincoteague outside the normal dates. The type of person who can appreciate when weather is grey and wet. Maybe it’s the kind of traveler who’s visited before and appreciates quiet time to refresh and recharge. Maybe locals can sense this and are happy to oblige. Maybe they just appreciate a little extra off-tourism income.
Either way, a visit to Chincoteague is worth the time. Before you go, consider the type of experience you want and book accordingly.
*Yes, the novel launched a life long love of horses, which was sadly stifled short by an off-the-chart allergies to grass, hay…and (wait for it)…horses.
Author’s note: My personal travel philosophy is never to write while I’m away. I do keep notes in a journal. Observations help me to remember my impressions and experiences for your (and really my) enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not spending the moment on a computer.