Two weeks ago, our family took a short trip to Chincoteague, Virginia.
Whoever said it’s hard work to take kids on a trip must not have had five kids because the couple of days away from home were near bliss for this harried mom. I didn’t have to cook a single meal, the hotel room was miraculously put in order each day without me lifting a finger and my husband was around 24/7 to help with the kids. It was almost like being on an actual vacation.
You might be considering a trip to Ocean City this summer, but if you like your beaches a little quieter and your views more natural and serene, you might want to consider Chincoteague.
There are, of course, the famous wild ponies that draw thousands of visitors to Chincoteague’s shores each summer for the annual pony swim. And you can go just about anywhere on the island to do some serious bird watching.
You might also sense a recognizable bit of our Southern Maryland culture within the people of Chincoteague. Those born on the island are known as Teaguers (pronounced tiggers), but many folks we encountered got to Chincoteague following the adage of “I wasn’t born here, but I got here as quick as I could.”
A chat with a local waterman, a trip around the island by boat or a conversation about local history will almost make you think you’re still in Southern Maryland. The last names are different, but the insight into a way of life that’s slipping away is the same.
Consider these recommendations to make your trip enjoyable.
Mr. Whippy’s Ice Cream, 6201 Maddox Blvd.
The visit certainly started off on the right foot. As soon as we crossed the bridge to the island, we made a beeline for Mr. Whippy’s.
Stepping inside is almost like taking a trip back in time. The walls of the shop are decorated with photographs of Chincoteague townsfolk from the last 100 years.
It’s nice to know that not much has changed in a century. Fishermen are still catching flounder (there’s a public pier off the main street where locals and visitors can try their luck) and little boys are still giving their mothers flowers for Mother’s Day.
I ate my ice cream in just a few minutes, but I spent twice as long looking at the photographs and appreciating the charm of small-town life captured in black and white.
Sundial Books, 4065 Main Street
One of the nicest things about visiting Chincoteague is you can get pretty much anywhere on Main Street by foot.
There are lots of shops, but one that caught my eye immediately was a bookstore. It caught my daughters’ eyes, too, because the bulk of their souvenir money ended up in its cash register till.
Sundial Books carries both new and used books. The shop is housed in a historic building, and taking the narrow staircase upstairs to browse the complete collection is just one of the perks of shopping there.
While you’re looking around, make sure to check out the serigraphs by artist Erick Sahler. Much of his artwork depicts landmarks from the Eastern Shore. I may have gotten something for my new house.
Capt. Barry’s Back Bay Cruises, 6262 Marlin Street
A trip to Chincoteague was on our itinerary for last year’s spring break, but the baby I was due to have that same spring was making life miserable, so we opted to cancel our plans.
It’s probably a good thing we stayed home, since we were scheduled to go on one of Capt. Barry’s cruises then, and as he told me when we met, the weather during that same week of 2018 was only highs in the 40s, windy, cold, and spitting rain much of the time.
We really lucked out this year, sunny and unseasonably warm for spring, with not a cloud in the sky. It was the perfect morning to be on the water.
If you have children 3 and 16, you really should take them on one of these eco-trips. Capt. Barry’s schtick is exactly the kind of entertainment that captivates a kid’s attention, from his conch-shell blowing skills to the Indiana Jones theme music that he blasts every time he puts his boat in drive.
He’s got a story for every seashell, crustacean or sailboat that crosses his path and makes learning an adventure. And for those of you interested in local trivia, he’s got your covered there, too. From the largest employer on the island (the Coast Guard, followed by the school system) to whose great-grandfather leased a particular oyster ground, you’ll find out all the tidbits that make life on Chincoteague unique.
Regulations limit his boat to six passengers. Call 757-336-6508 for reservations. Trips are two hours and his boat has a bathroom on board.
Bill’s Prime Seafood and Steaks, 4040 Main Street
Did I tell you that I didn’t have to cook anything on this vacation since we ate out for every single meal?
The best dinner we had, by far, was at Bill’s Prime. And we aren’t the only folks who like this place. It’s open 365 days a year for breakfast, lunch and dinner, even during the offseason.
On an island like Chincoteague, you won’t find many opportunities for finer dining, so it’s tough to get a seat.
Your chances of just showing up and catching a meal are remote, so take the time to plan things a bit and call ahead (757-336-5831).
While it’s a little more fancy than other establishments, the dress code is still laid back. Wearing jeans and bringing your kids along are perfectly acceptable.
In a Cat’s Eye, 6691 Maddox Blvd.
Located next to Famous Pizza, this shop for animal lovers was slated to open one day after we were leaving Chincoteague. Ever the optimist, I called before we left and was pleasantly surprised when the owner answered and offered to meet us that afternoon so we could check it out.
It was a smart business move on her part because we knew we’d be picking up our new puppy soon and of course he would need the very best treats and toys to welcome him home. This place has quite a selection of items for cats and dogs and plenty of horse-themed accessories.
The owner has run an Internet-based boutique at www.inacatseye.com where you can shop even if you don’t make it to Chincoteague.
Decoys Decoys Decoys, 4039 Main Street
This shop was also not open while we were in town, but the owner left his phone number posted on the door, so customers could set up appointments to peruse the decoys for sale.
We left with two boxes of artwork, including a well-used bufflehead decoy that had seen many a hunting season and a colorful puffin carving.
My favorite piece that came home with us is a mourning dove crafted by Mark Daisey, grandson of storied carver Delbert “Cigar” Daisey.
There’s an awful lot to look at in the shop, if you appreciate the waterman’s art of carving what they see around them. The real pleasure of the hour’s visit was hearing stories of the men and women behind the decoys and the lives they led.
Daisey got himself that “Cigar” nickname by leaving a telltale cigar behind in the duck blind. You’d know he’d been there when you saw it smoldering on the floor.