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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“The Time Has Come,” The Walrus Said…

Pottsville, Pennsylvania is a small town about three hours from Washington, DC if you don’t hit traffic. We hit traffic. Now, why exactly did we find ourselves here?

Well, often we adopt the hobbies of our loved ones. Mr. Os started following football, and I began joining him on brewery tours. We’ve visited about…ten or 12, but he’s probably visited 20-plus breweries in the states and worldwide. And we’ve done ultra-micro breweries, like Maine Beer Company, and the big ones like Heineken.

For several years, Mr. Os and I toyed with visiting America’s oldest operating brewery, just because…gotta do it, right? Founded in Pottsville in 1829, the Yuengling Brewery is that brewery.

The reason it took so long was that, well, it’s three hours away. And all the beer enthusiasts we’d invite to join us on this mini adventure expressed interest. But when it came time to pick a date though, they didn’t actually commit. And, when you think about it, that’s a six-hour drive (round trip—more when you hit traffic), which makes it A Commitment. More so than most of our outings.

If you follow Nomadic Matt, you’ll recall that he wrote a post about people who say they don’t have time to travel. There was a lot of wisdom that stuck with me. Primarily the idea that we have weekends to travel and find our own adventures, whatever they may be.

It’s just that we find excuses not to use the time we have. Let’s face it. It’s not easy to find time. There’s so much to do, and it’s exhausting. That’s why Nomadic Matt’s perspective was enlightening, and was probably a big driving force behind me not letting this trip slip into the “some day” list.

So, when a friend of ours said he was down for the trip, I figured, carpe diem. It’s time to nail a date and just go before the window of opportunity closed.

After 3.5 hours in a car, what's another 11 miles?
After 3.5 hours in a car, what’s another 11 miles?

Traveling to Pottsville was, in many ways, going back in time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the soft-focus dreamy good kind of traveling back in time, like when you visit Shakespeare’s birth house in Britain or Plymouth Rock in, Massachusetts.

It was traveling back in time to a community where the color has slowly faded out of the scenery. Pennsylvania fell on really hard times, and this is a great example of what we’re dealing with on a national scale. You can tell the houses that lined the streets were loved once. Once this was a thriving small town with big dreams and high hopes. And it had a lot of promise.

Now what was bright is dull, what was shiny is in disrepair. The signs outside buildings are a mélange of 50’s, 60’s, and 1970’s typeface. It looks as if each of these was yet another failed attempt to bring Pottsville back to its promise and glory days. Similarly, it again looks as though they could use an infusion of cash and love. You can tell that there are people investing in the town, people who refuse to give up on it. But driving a bit off of the main drag, you can also tell there’s a long way to go.

Having said all that, we stumbled upon one of the good first steps “in the right direction,” and a real gem in Pottsville: Greystone’s Restaurant. Located at 315 N Centre Street, this unassuming restaurant sits in the town’s former Park Hotel. Although it looks grey on the outside, it’s a real pop of color and personality inside.

Although the sign is black and white, Greystone's a burst of color in Pottsville.
Although the sign is black and white, Greystone’s a burst of color in Pottsville.

The hotel was purchased by a local businessman and renovated in the 1990’s. Because of structural problems, only a portion of the building could actually be saved and used as the current restaurant. Check out their website for more of the restaurant’s history because it’s rich.

It was easy to peg us as tourists, because it seems to be a popular locals spot. Regardless, we were greeted warmly by the bartender. We were impressed by the beer selection and were even talked into a sample of a “banana flavored” beer, which was better than it sounds. The menu is not overly complicated, but it was straightforward, and included a solid showing of locally sourced food. We also learned their BBQ is smoked at the restaurant every Wednesday for Thursday and Friday lunch, and the occasional dinner specials. Mr. Os and our friend opted for the BBQ sandwich; both said it was amazing. It must have been because I never got to try a bite. That was okay though, because I went all out and ordered the friend bologna and cheese. It was fantastic, deceptively light tasting but MASSIVE. So much so, that Mr. Os had to help me finish my sandwich.

Don’t miss the restrooms when you stop by Greystone’s. Both the men’s and ladies room sinks are works of ceramic art. The men’s room sink is in the form of a cabbage and the lady’s room’s an oyster. Both were inspired by and refer to a passage from The Walrus and The Carpenter by Lewis Carroll: “…The time has come,” the walrus said, “To talk of others things. Of Shoes and ships and ceilings wax. And cabbages and Kinds. And while the sea is boiling hot and whether pigs have wings. Kaloo Kalay no work today. Were cabbages and Kings. Oysters, come walk with us…” The first line could not be more fitting for this journey.

The cabbage sink inside the ladies room at Greystone Restaurant.
The cabbage sink inside the ladies room at Greystone Restaurant.

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