Travel Tips: Tangier and Smith Islands, Chesapeake Bay

Historic—and Endangered—Communities of a Bygone America

In the middle of the lower Chesapeake Bay, almost facing each other across the Maryland-Virginia state line, sit two centuries-old, remote, and threatened communities.

Both Smith Island, Maryland, and Tangier Island, Virginia, were first mapped by Captain John Smith in 1608. Welsh and English settlers mainly took to Smith, while natives from England’s West Country favored Tangier. Residents of both islands retain unique “relic dialects,” passed down from their ancestors and preserved by isolation. Watermen here have lived off the bay’s oysters, crabs, and fish for almost 200 years. Their family names resound throughout the islands: Evans and Tyler on Smith; Parks, Pruitt, and Crockett on Tangier.

Life here is slower and quieter than on the mainland. Even with regular ferries, these are secluded places: few stores, almost no cars, and no bars (both Tangier and Smith are dry). The islanders constitute a tough and independent lot: Tangier folks refused to join the Confederacy over slavery, while Rhodes Point village, on Smith Island, was once known as “Rogues Point” for area pirates who operated from there.

Visitors can explore on foot, by bike (rentals are available on-island), and by boat. Both islands offer overnight accommodations in a few B&Bs—and take pride in distinct local fare. Smith Island Cake, a towering layered confection, is Maryland’s official dessert, while Tangier justly claims to be “the soft-shell crab capital” of the nation.

With their low-lying shores yielding to erosion and storm surges, these two marshy “islands out of time” may be running out of time. Yet islanders are fighting to hang on, holding fast as long as they can to their thin and vulnerable homes. —Stephen Blakely

Travel Tips

When to Go: Mid-May through September for soft-shell crab season and daily ferry service

How to Get Around: Take a ferry to get to either island, and charter a ride to travel between the two. In the off-season, October through April, ferries are available but less frequent.

Smith ferries leave from Crisfield, Maryland, and go either to Ewell, one of two villages on the northern part of the island, or Tylerton, on the southern end. In Ewell, walk or rent a golf cart or bike. From here, it's about two miles to the neighboring village, Rhodes Point. Tylerton is separated from the rest of the island by Tyler Creek.

To reach Tangier, take a ferry from Crisfield, or from Onancock or Reedville, Virginia. The island is easy to navigate on foot, or you can rent a golf cart or bike at Four Brothers Crab House & Ice Cream Deck.

Where to Stay: The Smith Island Inn in Ewell is a comfy and quaint bed-and-breakfast with three guest rooms. Rates include use of bikes, canoes, and kayaks. On Tangier, the Bay View Inn has two guest rooms in the historic main house, built in 1904, plus two small cottages and seven motel rooms. Rates include daily made-to-order breakfasts and golf-cart transfers from and to the ferry.

What to Eat or Drink: At Fisherman's Corner, try soft-shell blue crab, prepared Tangier-style (dusted with seasoned breading and fried), in a white-bread sandwich or as an entrée. If soft shells aren't in season, order Uncle Frank's Fried Crab Cakes: two fresh, lump Chesapeake Bay blue-crab-meat patties pan-fried to a golden brown.

What to Buy: At Smith Island Baking Company, try a slice of original-recipe Smith Island Cake—a melt-in-your-mouth, ten-layer tower built with moist yellow cake and fudge frosting. Buy a whole cake at the bakery to take with you or to have shipped via FedEx.

What to Watch Before You Go: The short, documentary-style video "A Waterman's Life" (National Geographic, 2005) was shot on location in the waters off Tangier Island and is narrated by Tangier's waterman mayor, James Eskridge, Jr.

Cultural Tip: Islanders live with one foot in the water. Follow their lead by hiring someone to take you out on a boat, renting a kayak, or taking a waterman's tour with a Tangier captain.

Did You Know? During the War of 1812, Tangier Island was a safe haven for nearly 1,000 escaped slaves. Since the island was controlled by Britain, which had outlawed slavery in its territories, slaves who made it to Tangier became free subjects of the British Empire. When the British evacuated the island in 1815, the former slaves moved to colonies in Canada and the Caribbean.

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