Chincoteague, Va.--Chincoteague loves its ponies.
The annual pony swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island is the star attraction that draws crowds from around the world each July.
Children arrive in town clutching their well-worn copies of the novel "Misty of Chincoteague" by Marguerite Henry. Volunteer firemen play cowboy and mount horses for the pony roundup. Spectators get to enjoy the show.
Festivities for the pony swim start this morning when the horses that roam the Virginia side of Assateague Island are rounded up by about 40 cowboys and culminate with the pony swim Wednesday and a colt auction Thursday. Proceeds support the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company, which owns and cares for the herd.
Each year, more and more visitors squeeze onto the island -- population 3,500 -- for the event. "Last year we had 50,000. It was the biggest crowd we've ever had," says Jacklyn Russell, executive assistant of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce.
It's also drawing worldwide attention. Mrs. Russell says she has received a call from a Tokyo-based company that plans to televise the event for Japanese viewers and adds that a German magazine writer plans to be on hand. "This is the first international media coverage that I know of," she says.
The pony swim has been going on since 1924 and still creates an air of excitement among its participants. "Its like Virginia has two Christmases," says Roe Terry, a volunteer firefighter. "It's something that only happens in Chincoteague."
All of this is pretty heady stuff for a small town whose Main Street is dotted with bed-and-breakfasts and decoy shops.
Summer visitors will find a country atmosphere typified by the carnival, which has been held daily since July 16 in anticipation of the pony swim. Rides, games of chance, bingo and locally prepared oyster and clam sandwiches take adults and children back to a simpler time.
"We're becoming more of a vacation spot," says Mrs. Russell. "[Visitors] like the slowness we have here. It's not a lot of hustle and bustle."
Chincoteague is best seen by foot or on a bicycle (bikes can be rented in town). Strolling the length of Main Street, visitors will see tidy homes and inns.
Barbara Weidenheft, who owns and operates Miss Molly's Inn on Main Street, sums up the appeal of the town: "It's a real place with real people."
Her Victorian house, which dates to 1886, played a part in the town's pony story. Marguerite Henry is said to have outlined the plot of "Misty of Chincoteague" while staying there.
Not surprising, says Mrs. Weidenheft. "People get in touch with nature here, and they aren't harassed." Just check out the chain-store-free Main Street. Instead, browsers will find crafts by local artists, art galleries and sellers of hand-carved duck decoys and birds.
"Misty" fans also won't want to miss the famous pony's hoof prints, which are embedded in the sidewalk in front of the Island Roxy Theater on Main Street. The theater was host to one of the two premieres in 1960 of the film version of "Misty of Chincoteague."
From Main Street, Maddox Boulevard leads to Assateague Island. Most of the motor inns, restaurants and beach stores can be found along this route, also called Beach Road.
Also located on Maddox Boulevard, before the bridge over Assateague Channel, are Chincoteague's two museums -- the Refuge Waterfowl Museum and the Oyster & Maritime Museum.
The Refuge Waterfowl Museum features carved wooden decoys tucked into every available nook, along with implements to produce decoys and a sign that reads, "as we imagined it was forty or fifty years ago."
In another room is a restored hunting carriage that has gun boxes on the side and a cage in the back for hunting dogs.
The Oyster & Maritime Museum is a reminder of Chincoteague's oystering heritage. Visitors can see displays on the oyster harvest, which takes place in the fall and winter months.
There are also shell collections that include oyster shells from around the world. In another section, photographs capture pony pennings from the 1930s and '40s.
On Assateague Island, it's not unusual for cars to creep along the road at a snail's pace as the occupants look upward at the area's bird population.
"It's a birders' paradise," says James Kenyon, outdoor recreation planner for Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which is located there.
Birds commonly spotted on the reserve include great blue herons, great egrets and snowy egrets. In September and October, bird watchers may be able to spot peregrine falcons, an endangered species. Also, in a protected part of the beach, there are nests of piping plover, a threatened species.
"It's a refuge that receives a lot of summer visitors that go to the beach, but they also get a wildlife experience," Mr. Kenyon says.
Along a woodland trail, it is possible to see the Delmarva fox squirrel, an endangered species -- which is larger and not as aggressive as the more common gray squirrel -- and muskrats and river otters in marshy areas. White-tail deer can also be spotted as well as sika elk, which resemble deer. The sika is native to Asia and was released on the island in 1923.
The wildlife refuge offers guided walks, programs for children and audiovisual shows from April through November. There is also an evening cruise with a guide to point out birds and the changing land patterns, and in the morning, a guided bus tour takes visitors into an area of the refuge normally off limits to vehicles. Tickets for the cruise and bus tour are available at the refuge visitor center.
On the other side of the island near the ocean is another visitor center operated by the National Park Service, which oversees the beach area and also provides a variety of nature programs.
There is ample parking near the beach, a bath house with outdoor showers, and lifeguards on duty during the day. It is necessary to bring food and equipment to the beach. The stores that rent chairs, umbrellas and bicycles are located on Maddox Boulevard outside the nature reserve.
Another must-see attraction is the NASA Wallops Flight Facility on nearby Wallops Island on state Route 175. The visitor center is devoted to the history of flight. Films about space programs are shown every half-hour.
There is also a moon rock on display, and an interesting satellite -- the Orbiting Frog Otolith satellite -- which was launched in 1970 with two bullfrogs aboard to study the animals' responses to weightlessness. Another exhibit shows how technology developed for space flight has been adapted for humans.
IF YOU GO . . .
To drive to Chincoteague, Va., from Baltimore: Take U.S. 50 south to Salisbury; U.S. 13 south through Pocomoke City and into Virginia; state Route 175 east to Chincoteague.
Information: Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce, 6733 Maddox Blvd., P.O. Box 258, Chincoteague, Va. 23336; (804) 336-6161.
Assateague Island: Entrance fee: $3 per car for seven-day pass; free for seniors age 62 and older with a Golden Age pass; free for those with disabilities who have a Golden Access Pass. For more information : Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, P.O. Box 62, Chincoteague, Va. 23336; (804) 336-6122. Assateague Island National Seashore, National Park Service, P.O. Box 38, Chincoteague, Va. 23336; (804) 336-6577.
NASA Wallops Flight Facility: Visitor Center, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Va. 23337; (804) 824-1344. Visitor Center open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, July 4 through Labor Day; at other times of the year, Thursdays to Mondays. Free admission.
Today: Starting at 8 a.m., horses on Assateague Island are rounded up into two groups at the north and south ends of the island.
Tomorrow: In the morning, the horses at the northern end are walked to the holding pen at the southern end to join the other horses.
Tuesday: Horses are groomed and checked by veterinarians.
Wednesday: Horses swim from Assateague to Chincoteague Memorial Park in the morning. (The swim begins around 10 or 10:30 a.m. The exact time will be determined the day of the event.) The first horse to land is crowned King or Queen Neptune. Horses are then led down Main Street to the carnival grounds.
Thursday: Auction of the colts begins at 8 a.m. at the carnival grounds and ends around noon. The raffle drawing for King or Queen Neptune is held at 11 p.m.
Friday: Adult mares and stallions swim back to Assateague (time of swim to be determined that day) until next year's pony penning.
Chincoteague Volunteer Fireman's Carnival, Main Street: Tomorrow and Tuesday, 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. to 11:30 p.m.