Misty of Chincoteague is one of those books my daughter loved reading as much as I did -- it's practically required reading for any girl in her Horse Phase. As every Misty lover knows, the book is about a Chincoteague pony, and the place you go to see Chincoteague ponies is . . . Assateague Island. Chincoteague comes into the picture because it's the neighboring island, sheltered from the ocean by the outlying barrier island of Assateague; every year in July, Chincoteague townsfolk row over to uninhabited Assateague, round up the wild ponies that live there, make them swim across the narrow channel separating the two islands, and sell the new foals to raise money for the local fire department. Everybody knows that, Mom.
The good news is that you don't have to be a pony-crazed girl to enjoy a trip to Chincoteague and Assateague. Like most of this region of Maryland and Virginia, known as the Eastern Shore, it's a tranquil, wind-ruffled shore land with a lot of wildlife refuges and weather-beaten charm. You can drive right onto Chincoteague Island, home to an old fishing village that was settled by the English in the late 1600s, and from there take another causeway to Assateague, which was settled by wild horses at about the same time. Legend has it that the ponies' ancestors swam ashore from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon, but more likely they were put there by the English settlers as a natural corral. Go early in the day, because there's a quota for how many cars can be on Assateague at one time. You'll have to wait until 3pm to be allowed to drive onto the paved 4 1/2-mile Wildlife Drive, which runs through the marshes and is the best place to see these shaggy, sturdy little horses. (Earlier in the day, you can walk or bicycle around this flat, easy loop to your heart's content; narrated bus tours run all day.) Besides the ponies, there are an amazing number of birds to spot, and at the end of the main road lies a splendid unspoiled beach -- the Assateague Island National Seashore -- which has bathhouses and lifeguards and a visitor center. If you're into shell collecting, the southern spit of land called Tom's Cove yields pails full.
Back in Chincoteague, there's one more must-do for pony lovers: taking a ride at the Chincoteague Pony Centre, 6417 Carriage Dr. (tel. 757/336-2776; http://chincoteague.com/ponycentre/pony). Who knows -- the pony you ride might be one of Misty's many descendants!
Nearest Airport: Salisbury–Ocean City Wicomico Regional, MD, 48 miles. Norfolk International, VA, 83 miles.
Where to Stay: $$$ Island Motor Inn Resort, 4391 Main St., Chincoteague (tel. 757/336-3141; www.islandmotorinn.com). $$ Refuge Inn, 7058 Maddox Blvd., Chincoteague (tel. 888/257-0038 or 757/336-5511; www.refugeinn.com).