Blog, Travel, Virginia

How to Enjoy Chincoteague Island’s Annual Pony Swim for the First Time

When we learned about the famous annual Pony Swim, we knew we wanted to go, but our work schedule prevented it. However, two weeks before the Pony Swim we found out that we could go! We instantly started planning our trip for Chincoteague Island. Some may tell you that we were too late to enjoy the Pony Swim, in fact I had a gentleman casually laugh at me when I was trying to get a charter boat for the swim, but we are here to tell you otherwise. Though we recommend planning far in advance, we were able to find and book accommodation and kayaks for the annual Pony Swim a week before the event. We arrived on Tuesday afternoon and left on Wednesday late afternoon. In this post we will be sharing our tips and recommendations on how to have the best first time experience at Chincoteague Island’s Annual Pony Swim!

 

Accommodation

For such a small island, guests have a lot of options on their preference of comfortable accommodations. Chincoteague Island has some nice hotels (both well known brands and independent), cute bed and breakfast inns, air bnb and campgrounds.

The Annual Pony Swim is ALWAYS on the last Wednesday of July. Therefore, guests can knowingly book their accommodation far in advance for the event. We have heard to book as early as January and that rooms sell out fast. The room rates will of course be at a higher price than usual because this is the one time of the year when Chincoteague Island receives an influx of guests in a short period of time.

Hotel Recommendations:

We love camping and for those of you who do too, you will really enjoy camping for the Pony Swim. If you are not a camper, this is the perfect opportunity to try! Not only is camping cheaper, but it feels more organic for such an event and it was very convenient. We stayed at Chincoteague Island KOA and loved it! It is the perfect campground for families.

We loved KOA because of its location and amenities. It offers free wifi (if you don’t want to disconnect with the world), a shuttle bus for the Pony Swim and to the beach, a waterpark opening in 2018, a ship playground, an event center for kids activities, clean bathroom sites and a huge jumping pillow. If you are wondering if we jumped on the jumping pillow, then your answer is YES! There was no age limit on the jumping pillow, so you better believe we took our opportunity to be a kid at heart.

 

There are plenty of spots for hookups and tents. The hookups may be reserved, while the tent sites are first come first serve. Most of the sites have a close proximity to one of the bathroom facilities. We chose our tent site in a beautiful area that was near a tree and provided us with shade and had a view of the lighthouse. If you camp with a tent, we recommend choosing a spot on the East side where you can see the lighthouse. When the night comes the lighthouse lights up and it was beautiful to watch the rotating light beam (see video if it below).

 

Chincoteague Island KOA
6742 Maddox Blvd
Chincoteague Island, VA 23336
Tent Site for Pony Swim: $65 per night
Electric and Water for Pony Swim: $90 per night 
http://koa.com/campgrounds/chincoteague/

 

The other campsite that we recommend and hear is the best, is Tom’s Cove. It is quieter and has sites with a view of the ocean. For the Pony Swim and holiday weekends, there is a minimum stay of three nights. To reserve your site you must do so in person or by postal mail, therefore it is highly recommended to mail your reservation way in advance.

Tom’s Cove Campground
8128 Beebe Rd
Chincoteague Island, VA 23336
(757) 336-6498
Tent Site: $35 per night
Electric and Water: $45 per night
Waterfront Electric and Water $55 per night
http://www.tomscovepark.com

 

Food

We love to eat and we love to find new places to eat. Chincoteague Island is known for having some of the freshest and most delicious seafood, so we made sure to get our fair share. If you love seafood too, then you are going to love Chincoteague Island. Chincoteague Island has a lot of restaurants and food trucks with outside seatings areas that typically have sand and some yard games to enjoy. We definitely felt the beach vibe during our entire stay. From tacos to donuts, from ice cream to seafood, we enjoyed everything Chincoteague Island had to offer us. For a more in depth review on places we dined at, visit our post, “Five Best Places to Eat On Chincoteague Island“.

Here are some highlights of places we really enjoyed:

  • Sandy Pony Donuts
    • The most delicious donuts we have ever had! Their made to order donut-food truck can be found near KOA campground.
  • Captain Zack’s Seafood & Carryout
    • The freshest seafood on the entire island! Get your Chincoteague Salts Oysters here.
  • Pico Taqueria
    • Though the lines are long, these tacos are well worth the wait!
  • The Farmer’s Daughter
    • Fresh, local ingredients from farmers brought to the table with a modern twist.
  • Island Creamery
    • The best ice cream on the island – enough said!

We also enjoyed watching the sunset at Ropewalk Restaurant. There is plenty of seating both indoors and outdoors with a barge seating area and a patio seating area, which features sand, a bar and yard games. We shared drinks and appetizers after the sunset, which were all delicious.

We recommend the channel marker for a tasty cold alcohol beverage, the seared ahi tuna and the crab & artichoke dip.

 

Assateague Island

Guests can access Assateague Island, by foot, bike or vehicle from Chincoteague Island. Entrance fee by foot and bike are free. Entrance fee by vehicle is $20 for a 7-day pass. Annual pass is $40. The Island has three visitor centers, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Tom’s Cove Visitor Center and Barrier Island Visitor Center, where park rangers can further assist you with anything you need.

 

Assateague Beach

There were “two” beaches on Assateague Island, VA. On the right side of the beach, lifeguards were on duty, whereas on the left side there were none. We found the right side to be slightly more crowded with families because of the safety. We also found a lot of seashells! Adam found two really big clam and oyster shells to add to our sand collection.

If you plan to be at the beach for a long time, you can bring umbrellas and set them up at your leisure. Kids were building sandcastles, flying kites, boogie boarding, sand boarding and playing in the water. It is definitely a very family-friendly beach that is loved by both locals and tourists. Going to the beach is definitely a must during the pony swim week.

 

Assateague Lighthouse

Most lighthouses are found on the shore of a beach or island, but Assateague Lighthouse is more inland on the island. The lighthouse remains as an active navigational aid for the U.S. Coast Guard, which can be seen 19 miles out from sea. With the help of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, guests are allowed access to the lighthouse during operational hours. The lighthouse is open daily for guests during the hours of 9am to 3pm (closed from 12pm – 12:30pm for lunch). Admission is free, but donations are welcomed. Guests should be aware that the lighthouse is 175 steps up, though a little strenuous, the views are worth it!

 

Southern Corral

The Saturday before the Pony Swim, the Saltwater Cowboys roundup the Southern herd and place them in the Southern Corral, which is down the road from the beach located by the Woodland Trail. On Sunday the Saltwater Cowboys roundup the Northern herd and place them in the Northern Corral. On Monday the Saltwater Cowboys move the ponies from the Northern Corral and walk them down the beach to the Southern Corral. This is called the Beach Walk and starts as early as 5am. This is also a beloved event that guests may watch.

The Southern Corral can be viewed by the public all day from Sunday to Tuesday. The corral is divided into two sections, one for the Northern herd and one for the Southern herd. This allows the herds to stay separate and not fight with each other. Guests will be able to see all of the ponies branded with numbers, this indicates the year the pony was born. Though we are not huge horse lovers, this was still enjoyable to watch the horses interact in close encounters.

 

Carnival

The Chincoteague Fireman’s Carnival is open from Monday – Saturday during Pony Penning Week from 7pm – 11pm. Admission to the carnival is free. The carnival has rides for all ages, games, raffles, carnival food, bingo, a live band and more! We opted out of the rides and games, but played our fair share of bingo and enjoyed the live band. This carnival reminded Adam of his small town in Missouri and their annual carnival, so it definitely has a warming atmosphere.

 

Experiencing the Pony Swim

The Pony Swim takes place during “slack tide”, which is a period between tides when there is no current and lasts for about 30 minutes. This is the best and easiest time for the ponies to make their swim across the Assateague Channel. The time of slack tide varies each year, but typically happens between 7am to 1pm. The earlier the better due to the heat for both the horses and crowds. This year the slack tide was at one of the earliest times in history. We were told to be on the water by 6am, however the Pony Swim took place at 7am.

The Pony Swim can be viewed from either land or water in a couple of different ways. By land, guests can visit the main public viewing area at Veterans Memorial Park, where a large screen will be located with a live feed of the Pony Swim. The best way to see the Pony Swim up close is by water, which can be done by kayaks or charter boats.

Charter boats are the most popular option, but also the most expensive and be should reserved months in advance. We found prices to be around $225 per person. The Pony Swim takes approximately five minutes and of those five minutes you will get to see the ponies up close for a spectacular experience. Some recommended charter boats are:

For a more budget friendly and adventurous experience, guests can rent kayaks on their own or take a kayak tour. We chose to kayak for both reasons. Though we did not get up close to the Pony Swim, we were able to see the experience entirely, whereas some charter boats and kayaks only get up close in one specific area.

We chose Snug Harbor Marina and had a lovely experience with them. We highly recommend Snug Harbor Marina. From the moment I called them for an inquiry, till we picked up our kayak, their customer service was outstanding. Owned and operated by a family from Poland, they were hard working and very hospitable to everyone. They also provide parking for $20, which is recommended because there is limited parking available due to the Pony Swim and Parade. Our double kayak cost us $115 total and was ours for the entire day. They provided us with our oars and life vests as well as helping us into the water from the dock.

As soon as the sunrise started we were able to get our kayaks into the water and paddle our way to the Assateague Channel. Since this was our first time and we really found no directions on how to properly do this, we followed other kayakers as we paddled and stopped along the channel like follow the leader. We saw kayaks and boats lined up, so we lined up along side them. Tip: make friends with a nearby boat or you will find yourself drifting and causing more work for yourself. We made friends with some lovely ladies from Buffalo, NY who allowed us to hold onto their boat.

Across the channel we saw all the charter boats and more kayaks (probably tours). We could also see where people were watching from land.

Throughout the morning there was a MC that everyone could hear from speakers informing us of what to expect, it was comforting to hear what was happening while we waited. We were told to expect a red flare to go up and from that moment we could count down to five minutes and that is when the Pony Swim would begin.

Sure enough a Coast Guard boat fired up a red flare and five minutes later we saw the Saltwater Cowboys ride their stallions through the water with the wild ponies running behind them. Sure enough, the Pony Swim happened so fast! You could hear the Saltwater Cowboys yell, “Yeehaw!” and whip their lasso in the air. We were able to watch the ponies swim across the channel with a perfect view. From our distance a good camera with zoom or binoculars is advised. We could see their heads sort of bobble up and down as they made their way – incredible animals. Before we knew it, the ponies had made it on Chincoteague Island. As tradition goes, the first horse that makes it to land first is crowned Queen or King of Neptune! This horse is raffled for $1 and all the proceeds go to the Chincoteague Fire Department.

To enjoy more pictures of the Pony Swim, please enjoy our slideshow…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Pony Parade

After the Pony Swim, the Saltwater Cowboys rest the ponies for 45 minutes to an hour while everyone makes their way to the streets for the Pony Parade. After we kayaked our way back to Snug Harbor Marina we drove towards the carnival and parked at Ropewalk Restaurant. We highly recommend doing the same because your car is safe in this lot and from this point forward there is heavy traffic with police officers directing the vehicles. It is only a ten minute walk from Ropewalk Restaurant to the carnival grounds.

The Pony Parade takes place along Main Street from Veterans Memorial Park to the carnival grounds. We were at the end of the parade right by the turn into the carnival, which seemed to be the best area to view the parade. The earlier you get to your parade viewing point the better, but expect to wait for at least 30 minutes for the ponies to make their way to you.

We were able to experience the Pony Parade up close and it was an unique and cool experience. So many beautiful ponies making their way down the street.

Once they make it to the carnival grounds they are kept in a stable in the back where guests can view them from the fence. This is why we recommend experiencing the Pony Parade close to the end of the carnival because you can watch the ponies enter the stable and view them till your heart is content.

 

Pony Penning Week Events

Saturday before the Pony Swim – Southern Herd Roundup in the afternoon.

Sunday before the Pony Swim – Northern Herd Roundup in the morning. Special bus tours are offered to guests to go the Northern Corral after the roundup. To make reservations or receive more information, guests can call 757-336-3696.

Monday before the Pony Swim – The Beach Walk in the morning. Guests can watch the Saltwater Cowboys move the ponies from the Northern Corral out to the beachfront, then south along the Atlantic Ocean and into the Southern Corral.

Tuesday before the Pony Swim – Vet Checks. Guests can visit the Southern Corral and watch the ponies get checked by the vet.

Wednesday – the Pony Swim!

Thursday after the Pony Swim – Pony Auction in the morning. Guests can watch and participate in the pony auction. The auction is for two great causes – to help control the overall size of the herd and to support the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company with a fundraiser. In addition, the Fire Company uses a portion of the proceeds to provide veterinary care for the ponies through out the year.

Friday after the Pony Swim – the Pony Swim back to Assateague Island. The adult ponies make a swim back across the channel to Assateague Island where they will live in the wild for another year. This event is not as popular, but still an exciting experience. The crowds and prices are much less.

Misty of Chincoteague is shown at the Island Theater, Monday through Friday at 11:00 am. Admission is free and is first come, first serve.

The Chincoteague Fireman’s Carnival is open from Monday – Saturday of Pony Penning Week during 7pm – 11pm. Admission is free.

 

Overall Highlights

  • Book tours and accommodation in advance!
  • Skip the restaurants, the food trucks are amazing!
  • Visit the Assateague Lighthouse and Beach
  • Visit the ponies at the Southern Corral
  • Play bingo at the carnival
  • If you choose to kayak, make friends with boats so you don’t drift
  • Don’t forget your camera, bug spray and binoculars to the Pony Swim
  • Park at Ropewalk Restaurant and watch the Pony Parade near the end of the carnival
  • Enjoy Pony Penning Week!

 

We hope you found this article useful for your own trip to Chincoteague Island’s Annual Pony Swim. It was an experience we will never forget!

We really LOVEd our visit to Chincoteague Island and we know you will too!

Ciao,

C+A