Chincoteague Island for Kids
by Sam Serio
Where else in the world can kids pull their freshly steamed food from a plastic bucket and smash it with a wooden mallet to get at its meat? If that sounds like heaven to your youngsters, then they deserve a trip to Virginia's Eastern Shore, and the Island of Chincoteague.
The freedom to make a mess at mealtime, leaving the table full of the world's finest blue crab meat and covered in slivers of blue crab shell will make your kids' visit to Chincoteague Island unforgettable even before they experience its other attractions. The town of Chincoteague is loaded with small fishing town charm and character, and the beaches of Chincoteague Island and its neighbor, Assateague Island, are some of the least spoiled on the Atlantic coast. The Assateague Island national Seashore, in fact, is part of the National Park system and will remain undeveloped forever.
You and the kids can use rented bicycles to cross the short bridge connecting Chincoteague and the Wildlife Refuge on Assateague Island. If your kids aren't ready to bike on their own, simply ask for a kid-toting trailer to be hooked to the back of your bicycle.
Visit the Wildlife Refuge Center, and pick up the Junior Refuge Manager and Junior Birder Activity Booklets before beginning your bike tour. Answering the questions and completing the games and puzzles in the books using what they've learned about the Refuge's birds and other wildlife and returning them to the Visitor Center for checking may earn your kids official Chincoteague National Wildlife "Junior Refuge Manager" and Jr. Birder" patches for their jackets or backpacks!
It's a short hike from the Wildlife Refuge Center to the beach at Toms Cove, where the calm waters will appeal to the smallest kids and shell collecting can result in a bucket of free souvenirs.
The horse lovers among your offspring will undoubtedly fill you in on the Marguerite Henry children's classic, Misty of Chincoteague and be beside themselves with delight at any glimpses of the herds of wild horses which inhabit Assateague's salt marches in to cool weather and head for the beaches in the summer.
The horses on the Virginia end of Assateague Island are rounded up at the end of July each year for a swim across the channel to Chincoteague, where the youngest of them are auctioned off to buyers from around the country. The money they bring is used to fund the Chincoteague Fire Department and provide care for the rest of the herd. But even if your family can't afford to buy and care for one of the wild ponies, you kids can become foster parents of a horse in the wild herd on the Maryland side of Assateague Island. Their donation will help maintain the horse and protect its habitat.
Don't deprive your horse loving kids of the opportunity to ride a Chincoteague pony during their stay. The Chincoteague Pony Center has a herd of ponies descended from the original Misty, and offers pony rides for the little ones, and riding lessons for the older kids! There's also a museum and stable tour.
When you return to the town of Chincoteague after your excursions, take the family to the Chincoteague Veteran's National Park, on the waterfront. The park not only has all the standard playground equipment. It also has a skateboarding park and a crabbing and fishing pier, and is a marvelous place for a family picnic!
Finally, if you want your kids to return home with a memory which will last a lifetime, treat them to one of the weekly beach campfires hosted by the National Park rangers. Put on your warmest sweatshirts and long pants, stock up on some marshmallow roasting sticks, and return to the Wildlife Refuge. Curl up under the stars and listen as the rangers spin tales of island history, including stories of Blackbeard and his lost treasure. With the Assateague Lighthouse beacon flashing against the night sky, you'll have the perfect ending to a Chincoteague day!