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Travel

Finding winter's refuge on Chincoteague

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This would be the one where we stayed home, my husband and I agreed before the recent holidays. No Christmas flight to Texas to visit his family. No four-hour drive through the mountains to Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving dinner with my dad. With two busy careers, an active 8-year-old and a toddler who had taken to saying "no night-night" when it's time for bed, we didn't have the energy. Even a low-maintenance weekend jaunt to New York on BoltBus seemed like too much work.

But then the 8-year-old read "Misty of Chincoteague" that wonderful book about a horse born in the wilds of Assateague Island and raised on Chincoteague Island. We spent hours on the computer, reading facts about the author, Marguerite Henry, and the small Virginia island community that captivated her. By the time Maya asked if we could go there during the holiday break, I'd already begun looking online for hotels.

Like most people, I'd always associated Chincoteague with the annual summer pony swim, when the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department's "saltwater cowboys" guide dozens of ponies across Chincoteague Bay from Assateague Island, where they roam wild, and corral them at a carnival in the center of town. There, anxious little girls wait to buy the foals. I'd covered the event as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and it wasn't my favorite assignment. There were lines in every restaurant, hotels cost twice what they should and most visitors were too focused on jockeying for a better view to chat with a reporter. Standing in a marsh thick with mosquitoes and jellyfish made it tough to appreciate the island's beauty.

I hoped a winter visit would be different. At least there wouldn't be any mosquitoes. And, I quickly learned, it would cost a lot less.

The Refuge Inn, a locally owned hotel, offers a suite for $149 per night in the winter. The room includes a small wet bar/kitchen, a living room with a sofa bed and an alcove bed for a child. It also has a comfortable master bedroom and a bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub. The price includes breakfast. In New York, we'd be lucky to get a twin bed in Brooklyn for that rate.

The hotel also has horses. They spend their days in a corral between the inn and a local McDonald's. The friendly hotel staff provides oats and other staples to feed them. Even so, they told us we could feed the horses french fries — given the proximity to the fast-food restaurant, they eat them quite a bit.

The inn's ponies are a great insurance policy against the promises nature sometimes breaks. The Great Outdoors isn't as tightly scheduled as Disney World. Monarchs are supposed to show up on the Eastern Shore in June, snow geese in November, ospreys in March. But too often, we go someplace expecting to see something and it isn't there. I suspect many a little girl has been assured a look at the ponies, only to return home disappointed.

I had my own hopes: to see a flock of the island's legendary snow geese, which friends had described as so voluminous that the sky turns white when they're in flight. In the past three years, I'd been to three of the geese's major regional staging areas. Each time, wildlife officials told me, I'd just missed the peak.

The hotel also rents bicycles, and getting around is easy. There are two main drags, Main Street and Maddox Boulevard. The pedaling helps justify multiple trips to the Island Creamery, which serves delicious ice cream. Also, winter is the best time of year to eat Chincoteague's famous oysters, and for a fraction of what you'd pay in Baltimore. Several good restaurants remain open all year. Our favorites were Bill's Prime Seafood and Steaks and Don's Seafood Restaurant, both of which are on Main Street and relatively kid-friendly.

Some pony-related attractions — such as the Chincoteague Museum, where the horse that inspired the Misty books has been preserved, stuffed and put on display — are closed in the winter. But Chincoteague's main event is its wildlife refuge, and it is not only open but looks more beautiful than ever in the winter light.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in 1943, primarily as a habitat for migratory birds. Most people think of Assateague as part of Maryland, but the barrier island straddles the border of two states. From the Refuge Inn, you can drive about a half-mile to a small bridge. Once you cross it, you are on Assateague, on the Virginia side.

Maryland and Virginia manage their pony herds differently. In Virginia, the fire department maintains a herd of just 150 ponies. Every year, it sells off foals to keep the population manageable so the horses do not overgraze and out-compete with native species. We saw a few ponies at a designated viewing area along the Woodland Trail, but the fire department keeps most of its herd in an area not accessible to the general public.

To see wild ponies on the beach, you have to go the long way around to the Maryland town of Berlin, then six miles south on route 611 to Assateague's national seashore. Here, the National Park Service has posted signs instructing visitors not to feed or touch the ponies, which roam freely. Again, there are no guarantees of a pony sighting, and the drive from Chincoteague takes about an hour each way. Assateague has no hotels, but camping is allowed in designated areas.

A better choice is to save the Maryland side of Assateague for a stop on your next beach vacation to Ocean City, and to stay on the Virginia side for this trip.

Though about 1.4 million visitors come to the Chincoteague refuge every year, you won't see too many of them in the winter. In the stillness, you can bask in the splendor of the sunsets and take in the pungent smell of the salt marshes. Black skimmers glide across the shallow marshes. Snowy egrets dart in and out of the marsh; increasingly, visitors are seeing snowy owls, too.

The $8 daily admission for cars includes entrance to two visitor centers. The larger one is by the main entrance. Start your visit at the smaller one, Toms Cove Visitor Center, which has a couple of touch tanks and photos of the many critters that inhabit these barrier islands. From there, you can walk to the beach. With major tide flows twice a day, you're likely to discover a horseshoe crab or clam, conch and whelk shells.

You can then double back to the main visitor center for more information, or just to get inside for a bit. Chincoteague is about 10 degrees warmer than Baltimore, but the beach can be windy.

Once you've gotten the lay of the land via car, come back on a bike. The wildlife loop is about 3.5 miles, and various mile and half-mile trails around the island take visitors to different habitats.

I took each of my daughters into the refuge on a trailer bicycle. We meandered through woods, peddled past the lighthouse and watched the light dance off the marsh grasses as the sun set. The highlight came as I rounded a corner and heard a long honk. I looked up to see thousands of snow geese gliding on the marsh. The sound was even more beautiful because no one but us was there to hear it.

"Do you see that? Do you hear that?" I asked my 2-year-old.

"I see birdies, Mommy," she replied, though she appeared more interested in playing with her shoes.

It was a singular sensation, the kind nature can only provide when tides and migration patterns are in sync. I hope to be back next year to catch the show again.

Rona Kobell is a staff writer for the Chesapeake Bay Journal.

If you go

Chincoteague is about 180 miles from Baltimore. Take U.S. 50 East across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, then U.S. 13 South toward Norfolk, Va. Route 175 to Chincoteague will be on your left.

Lodging

The Refuge Inn, 7058 Maddox Blvd., Chincoteague Island, Va., 757-336-5511. It offers great winter specials and is a half-mile from the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

Dining

Bill's Prime Seafood and Steaks, 4040 Main St., Chincoteague Island, Va., 757-336-5831. It features excellent seafood, chili and plenty of fare for kids.

Don's Seafood Restaurant, 4113 Main St., Chincoteague Island, Va., 757-336-5715, is also good and affordable.

Attractions

The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge offers biking, hiking, bird-watching and shell-collecting opportunities. 231 Beach Road, 757-336-6122.

NASA Wallops Visitor Center. If you visit on a particularly nasty day, consider heading five miles west to tour the NASA Visitor Center on nearby Wallops Island. It's free, it's indoors, and it's open year-round Monday through Friday. For more information, go to nasa.gov/centers/wallops/visitorcenter.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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