Captain Dan Davis motors along the marshy banks of Assateague Island, looking for ponies in the wilds of Accomack County.
"Last night, we had a lot of ponies coming out, right at the water's edge," says Davis, 39. "We can see ponies, dolphins and bald eagles all in the same trip; it doesn't get much better than that."
Only, it actually can: Davis has seen Sika Elk, too, on his popular "Captain Dan’s Around the Island Tours," running four times a day, seven days a week—“just riding around and telling lies”—aboard his pontoon boat.
You hear storm stories. And, of course, you can watch those well-known Chincoteague Ponies of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge at Assateague Island—a breed made famous in large part by a horse named Misty.
This year marks 70 years since the premiere of author Marguerite Henry's ever-popular Misty of Chincoteague. This children's novel follows the adventures of a Chincoteague pony. It’s been reprinted multiple times, spawned sequels and made into a movie.
Henry had heard about Assateague's annual pony roundup and the pony auction on Chincoteague Island, says Billy Beebe, a Chincoteague resident. "And, when she met my grandparents, that was it for her. She said that she was a writer, and she was going to write a book and that would probably make the Beebe Ranch famous, and they could sell their baby ponies."
Beebe's grandparents are gone, but, as "Grandpa" and "Grandma," they live on in literature. Chincoteague's ongoing affection for Henry’s books has, in turn, blossomed into business. You can buy "Misty" DVDs and books at souvenir shops. You can also find the Chincoteague Ponies inspiring the name of the town's trolley, The Pony Express.
Capt. Dan Davis. Once a commercial fisherman and a former resident of Virginia
Beach, Capt. Dan Davis has spent the last decade conducting tours of Chincoteague.
Look for the famous pony swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island—plus the pony auction—on the last consecutive Wednesday and Thursday of each July. Chincoteague’s "Saltwater Cowboys" round up the wild ponies on the Virginia side of Assateague Island. The ponies swim across a channel before being corralled in Chincoteague, later to be auctioned as a fundraiser for Chincoteague’s volunteer fire company.
“The purpose of our big pony swim in July, really, is to bring the ponies over from the island so they can be sold,” says Davis, who grew up in Chincoteague. "When all this started, there was no bridge between Chincoteague and Assateague."
A bridge was built in 1962, paving the way to Assateague’s beach. Still, the pony swim remains a grand spectacle, attracting thousands. And it takes place not far from Etta's Channel Side Restaurant, which serves succulent seafood like oysters, shrimp and flounder in a dining room that overlooks open water.
Originally, says Davis, "We couldn't really get people over to Assateague to buy ponies and then bring them and the ponies back over by boat. So, they figured it would be a lot easier just to swim all the ponies from one island to the other, sell off whatever they needed to sell and then return everything back."
Out on Assateague, fences separate ponies and people. But, from the road between Chincoteague and the Atlantic Ocean beach of Assateague, you can easily see the herd in the distance, feeding on the grasses of the national wildlife refuge.
For two nights on Chincoteague, I stay at the Best Western Plus. It’s the closest hotel to Assateague Island, and it features hot breakfasts plus a cool pool overlooking the red-and-white Assateague Lighthouse, popping out of treetops at a height of 142 feet.
Just outside the hotel, I hike the boardwalk that parallels the bridge linking Chincoteague to Assateague. And, in between, I meet Misty at the Museum of Chincoteague.
No lie: Misty looks alive.
You will find the immortal “Misty of Chincoteague” standing next to her most famous foal, Stormy, at the Museum of Chincoteague Island, just off Maddox Boulevard, where the bodies of both animals are preserved. Stormy, by the way, is the star of Henry’s Stormy, Misty's Foal, which chronicles the historic Ash Wednesday storm of March 1962.
Henry had acquired Misty soon after the foal’s birth in 1946. But, later, the author returned Misty to the Beebe family in 1957, and, there, the horse would remain on the farm until her death in 1972.
"I always remember growing up with Misty," says Billy Beebe, who was born in 1953. "People from all over actually came to visit Misty because they had read the Misty book in their language.”
People still come to the Beebe ranch, a few miles from the museum. There, you will find the old stalls of Stormy and Misty. And, out in a fenced field, you can meet a direct descendant of Misty—a young horse named “Drizzle.”
Billy Beebe shows off the stall for Misty, the pony depicted in the classic 1947 book
Misty of Chincoteague.
You can also take the Chincoteague tour of Misty sites. Check out the bronze statue of Misty on Main Street. And see her hoofprints outside the Island Theatre, where the Misty movie premiered in 1961. Then go pose on the giant, multi-seat, L-O-V-E beach chair at the Robert N. Reed Waterfront Park.
"People like Chincoteague because it's quiet," Davis says. "And I think part of that is the attraction in that Assateague is a wildlife refuge. It's a beach. So, most people who come here for vacation, it's some sort of a beach vacation."
Some come to see the wild ponies. Some come to fish. Some come to surf.
"But the underlying thing, most of the attractions that they're coming for are on Assateague,” Davis says. “And that being a wildlife refuge, there's no alcohol allowed out there. So, you don't get this rowdy demographic. It's an area that's very popular with young families, with retirees and with anybody in the middle that just doesn't want a ruckus environment. It’s laid-back and relaxed.”
Best Western Plus Chincoteague Island
Captain Dan's Around the Island Tour
Etta's Channel Side Restaurant
Museum of Chincoteague Island