Connected to coastal southeastern Virginia and the Hampton Roads region by the world engineering wonder that is the 17.6-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, the state’s Eastern Shore is steeped in maritime lore and natural history.
Dozens of shipwrecks haunt the waters on either side of this 70-mile strip of farmland and beaches, from 19th century schooners to the decaying WWII-era concrete ships offshore at Kiptopeke State Park. Count a Spanish galleon or two, as well, including La Galga, which reportedly ran aground off Assateague Island around 1750. No lives were lost—including the ponies aboard. Genetic evidence strongly suggests that these animals swam ashore and have lived and propagated here ever since.
Assateague is one of some 20 barrier islands forming a broken chain along the shore’s Atlantic-facing side. One pony herd lives in the island’s northernmost Maryland section, the other on Virginia’s 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, with Chincoteague Island as its gateway.
These legendary roaming creatures will “un-tame” any group agenda. Self-led options include hiking or biking on marked trails, and limited vehicular access. Organized programs with pony-viewing include boat excursions with operators like Captain Dan’s Around the Island Tours and Assateague Explorer Cruises & Kayak Tours.
Groups can also visit the Chincoteague Pony Centre, or they can witness the spectacle each July—officially since 1925 but dating to the 1800s—of the annual Pony Swim and auction. First, “Saltwater Cowboys” round up the adult ponies and their foals on Assateague Island, and then they swim them over to Chincoteague Island in the centerpiece sunrise event. Paraded and corralled, the foals stay for auction (for herd control), while the adults swim back to Assateague. Attracting thousands of visitors, it’s mesmerizing to behold.
Featuring windswept white-sand beaches, dunes, marshes and coastal forest, the Refuge, protected and pristine, is also the setting for other guided animal and eco-experiences.
From whale-watching to wellness treatments, yet more unique encounters are calling groups in Virginia, the state for lovers—of wildlife.
For equine interludes of another breed entirely, groups meeting at the 168-room Salamander Resort & Spa in historic Middleburg can experience facilitated interaction and self-discovery with horses via the luxurious LEED-certified property’s remarkable EquiSpective program.
Set on 340 acres in Northern Virginia’s wine and horse country, versatile indoor and outdoor spaces at this luxurious LEED-certified (and pet-friendly) resort range from the 4,500-square-foot Middleburg Ballroom to the 42,000-plus-square- foot Great Lawn.
In addition, the resort’s nationally acclaimed Equestrian Center includes 25 on-site acres dedicated to riding and a 14,000-square-foot stable.
Also in Loudoun County, 21-acre Leesburg Animal Park features domestic and exotic animals such as llamas, camels, lemurs, gibbons and zebras.
Accommodating outdoor events on-site, the year-round park also takes its residents to groups. The fully insured and FDA-licensed Zoo-To-You program has supplied countless corporate, school, social and public events in the region for three decades.
Packages, all of which include at least one trained handler, set-up and clean-up, range from the four-animal indoor Barnyard Zoo to the Full Zoo, featuring 15 animals in an outdoor enclosure.
Closer to D.C., where groups have the event-capable Smithsonian-run National Zoo, Roer’s Zoofari, formerly the Reston Zoo, is a Fairfax County attraction offering educational encounters and hands-on interactions. The 30-acre venue features a free-flight aviary, reptile house and petting barn, and exotic creatures such as roaming kangaroos.