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Chincoteague Island, Virginia: An early-autumn beach getaway
Labor Day may be fast approaching, but that doesn't mean beach season has to end. In fact, with the weather still warm and the number of beach-dwellers dwindling, early autumn is a great time to be seaside.
For a beach getaway within a day's drive from New York City, Chincoteague Island -- a tiny barrier island off the coast of Virginia -- offers a peaceful respite from the crowds and over-commercialization of other East Coast beach destinations.
Here are some of the best ways to enjoy Chincoteague this fall:
Revel in the island's natural beauty
Part of a 14,000-acre National Wildlife Refuge, the beaches of Chincoteague are quiet and pristine, with nary a hotel or boardwalk in sight. In addition to the immaculate beach and hiking and biking trails, the area is comprised of diverse habitats -- maritime forests, freshwater areas and salt marshes -- that teem with wildlife. Chincoteague in autumn is a bird lover's dream, with the season offering the best opportunities to see many of the refuge's more than 320 species of birds.
Chincoteague and neighboring Assateague Island are also famous for their population of wild ponies, which have lived there for hundreds of years. To get an up-close view of the ponies, book a boat tour such as Captain Dan's Around the Island Tours (757-894-0103, captaindanstours.com) or the Assateague Explorer (757-336-5956, assateagueexplorer.com), which operates a "Pony Express Nature Cruise" geared towards pony watching.
Eat lots of oysters and more
Oysters on the half shell, steamed, fried, frittered...if you visit the 42nd annual Chincoteague Island Oyster Festival (8128 Beebe Rd., chincoteagueoysterfestival.com) on Oct. 11, you'll discover that there are more ways to eat oysters than you could have possibly imagined. For $40 per person, you can sample as much food as you want from a variety of vendors between noon and 4 p.m.
If oysters aren't your thing, check out Bill's Prime Seafood and Steaks (4040 Main St., 757-336-5831, billsseafoodrestaurant.com) or Captain Zack's Seafood (4422 Deep Hole Rd., 757-336-3788, captzacksseafood.com), a family-owned spot with great food and a large outdoor seating area with picnic tables and games to keep you busy while you wait. Or, if you really just aren't a seafood person at all, Famous Pizza (6689 Maddox Blvd., 757-336-3301, famouspizzaci.com) has a full menu with everything from pizza to Greek food.
Stroll on Second Saturdays
Commercial development on Chincoteague is limited -- which is one of the best parts of vacationing there -- though the island does boast a tiny and very quaint downtown that's home to a number of antique shops and art galleries. And on the second Saturday of each month between April and November, the town hosts its "2nd Saturday Art Stroll," where visitors can enjoy a number of events including arts and crafts, exhibits, music and culinary tastings. The second Saturday of each month from June to October also brings the island's Artful Flea (6309 Church St., 757-336-0044, chincoteagueculturalalliance.org), a yard sale where visitors can purchase art, antiques and other collectables.
Where to stay: Because the beach is on protected land, all of the islands hotels and bed and breakfasts are situated either midland or along the bay. One of the best is the Waterside Inn (3761 S. Main St., 757-336-3434, watersideinn.biz), a family-owned hotel with reasonable prices (even more so in the fall), spacious rooms, a heated outdoor swimming pool, free breakfast and a fishing pier just for guests.
Getting there: The closest airport to Chincoteague Island is one hour away in Salisbury, Maryland, and there arent really any great public transportation options,
so a road trip is your best bet. The island is about a five-hour drive from New York City.