First Impressions: Chincoteague, Virginia

 

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.

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The ponies of Assateague Island.

 

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.

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Even grey days on Chincoteague Island are lovely.

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.

 

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Moshi, Tanzania: First Impressions

It was only 9:00 pm local time when we landed at Kilimanjaro Airport in Moshi, Tanzania. But it felt more like a year’s air travel, and our exhausted expressions had that typical cloudy-eyed confusion that says “I just landed, where am I, which way to the luggage?”

Although it was dark, I could tell Moshi was larger than I’d expected it to be. The airport’s proximity to Moshi is similar to Regan National Airport’s distance to DC. Because we were climbing Kilimanjaro, I was expecting a smaller city, like Cusco, Peru, the gateway town for those hiking the Inca Trail. More importantly, I was anticipated landing in a place easy to navigate on foot (with shops, restaurants and a few sites to visit).

Moshi is not that. It’s spread out and visitors are encouraged not to walk around after dark. The hotels are happy to call you a taxi. Our guide confirmed it’s not safe, which is about where everyone left it. We didn’t contest that guidance. My number one, golden rule for Kilimanjaro is “on, or off the mountain, always listen to your guide.”

By day, we discovered Moshi hums like any large city: people walking to work, catching buses, people generally going about their lives. One thing you’ll notice about Moshi, is that westerners really stand out. Thus, be prepared for people to stare at you. It’s a welcoming and warm curiosity, but it can be intimidating if you aren’t used to it.

As a redhead, I’d experienced being stared at once before in India. It gives one a good idea of what a hassle celebrity must be.

Moshi is welcoming, but to get the most out of visiting make friends with your guide. A distant second recommendation is to keep on the lookout for ex-pats (who speak Swahili, the language of Tanzania). It appeared that most ex-pats lived in the “Shanty Town” neighborhood. Anyone familiar with that name knows it usually describes a poor area. In this case the name’s ironic.

Moshi is friendly, but staff in grocery stores, restaurants and banks don’t always speak English. Additionally, prices can mysteriously increase at grocery stores—if you argue, it’s nicely explained that you don’t understand. Now you understand.

Taxi’s can also be a source of frustration. The hotel will arrange transportation and provide a price. But it’s important to confirm things with your driver. What is called “Chaka-Chewa,” or funny business, is part of the experience.

For example, our first cab driver argued once we reached our destination that the price quoted was dollars, and the price in local currency is higher. I will grant this can become frustrating. But it’s also important to point out that—although you don’t want to be a sucker—ultimately you’re arguing over not a lot of money. We bickered because we didn’t carry a lot of cash—and you never use a debit card.

It helps not to look at Chaka-Chewa as dishonest, as much as opportunistic. Wealthy people take taxis—people who can afford that extra couple bucks that can make a big difference for the individual. It helps keep things in perspective, and maintaining that outlook prevents premature aging.

With that, here is a Travelers Tip: Before getting in a taxi, confirm your destination, number of passengers, repeat the agreed upon price and currency. Make certain the driver agrees to this before you get depart your hotel. That said, if the bill is 9,000 Tsh (Tanzanian Shillings), be a sport and let the person keep the change. Tipping is not part of the culture, but it is very appreciated and there is a growing expectation that westerners will tip.

I’ve focused on this point more than I’d expected to, so let me sum it up as follows. Consider it not so much as “buyer beware” as a “buyer be aware” thing, and plan accordingly so that you can enjoy your time prior to climbing Kilimanjaro or heading off on a Safari.

These frustrations are by no means unique to Tanzania. Do not get overly frustrated or allow it to ruin your holiday. Instead, write it off as local customs and ways of doing things.

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 enjoyment. To me, travel is about being in the moment, not documenting it on a computer.

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