I grew up a mere 30 minute drive from the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague in Virginia. Assateague is known for its wild ponies as well as being the best place to go to the beach for northern Eastern Shore of VA residents (I know, we’re living on a peninsula that’s, at maximum, 12 miles wide, but we drive 30 minutes to the beach? But you have to go to an island to get to a beach on the oceanside and the shores of the bay are kind of muddy, not beach-like. If you didn’t have a boat then Assateague was the easiest).
I grew up not just reading Misty of Chincoteague but also going to watch the various events of Pony Penning, Virginia’s tactic to control the wild horse population by swimming some horses across the narrow channel to Chincoteague and auctioning off the foals. Also I might have giggled at the word Assateague (decidedly not as good as the place name Assawoman, though).
Sometimes I would go to Assateague for the beach or to bike or walk around the trails. Interestingly, the island is split between Maryland and Virginia, but you can’t go between the states on the island itself (there is, in fact, a fence at the border to separate the wild pony herds). You have to go off island to go to the other part. The Maryland side allows camping on the beach, which is how I learned at a young age that sleeping on sand is just not very fun. A couple of years ago (2009), Jeff and I headed to Assateague in the winter to walk around and see the sights. It’s cold and windy in the winter but there’s the advantage that you have it to yourself, there’s no bugs, and it’s not five million degrees.
The deer on Assateague are not the white-tailed deer you’ll see on the mainland – they’re actually Sika deer. It’s a small breed of deer native to East Asia, and you might recognize them if you’ve ever been to Nara in Japan. They were introduced to the island in the 1920s.
Another advantage of going in the winter is that you can watch the snow geese as they’re migrating. Mid-January seems like a good time.
Assateague is a great place to go to see wildlife. Sometimes the horses will be on the road or path with you. Birds are everywhere. It’s a nice relaxing place to spend the day. Info about pricing and hours can be found here. I might add from experience that the VA side fee is also free if you enter on horseback, but I believe you also need special permission.
Ever been to Chincoteague or Assateague?