The vintage Capt. Eulice left tiny Onancock at 10 a.m. sharp, its polished deck dotted with a handful of locals heading home and tourists, standing out with their getaway moods and cameras strung about their necks. Destination: tiny Tangier Island in the heart of Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from shore by boat and about 90 miles southeast, as the crow flies, from Washington, D.C. — thousands of miles away in mind and spirit.
We skimmed across the bay, seeing nothing but gray water and tacking sailboats, then a low-lying blue bulge appeared on the horizon and slowly crystallized into focus. Soon I made out white dots in a line — houses, a sky-blue water tower, a church steeple and a pier lined with pelicans.
They took flight and glided low across the water in synchronicity, momentarily disturbed, and an osprey eyed us from his piling-top nest. Heading into the harbor on the island's east end, at what is known as tourist dock, we passed oyster-shucking and crab-picking shacks and moored alongside the proud working boats inscribed with the names of loved ones: Three Sons, Mary Elizabeth, Miss Eloise and the like.
And then we were on Tangier. An aura of peace enshrouded its New England-style cottages, white picket fences and tiny, sun-baked lanes. For centuries, watermen, the fabled hard-working men of the Chesapeake, have lived in this flat, marsh-filled hinterland, eking a living from the water — crabbin', sharkin', eelin' and oysterin' — "whatever you can get," said Nancy, whom I had met on the boat.
She grew up on Tangier but had since moved to Crisfield, Md., on the Eastern Shore mainland, a picturesque village and out of the way in my big-city eyes but a big change in her opinion. She was here to show her childhood stamping grounds to two friends.
A line of mutated golf carts — many with three, four, five rows of seats and driven by women offering island tours — greeted our boat. But I was hungry, and most people on the island will tell you there's only one place to go — Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, founded in 1939. It's a rambling old farmhouse, with several rooms crammed with long tables covered in white paper.
I was guided to a seat and, without further ado, white-aproned women started placing plate after plate of local fare in front of me — clam fritters, hot corn pudding, green beans, coleslaw, potato salad, pickled beets, applesauce, slices of baked Virginia ham, homemade rolls and baked butter poundcake.
"Crab cake?" one platter-laden waitress asked.
"Does a bear go into the woods?" asked Nancy, who sat next to me at the family-style table with her friends. She insisted these were the best crab cakes in Tangier, if not all the Eastern Shore, but I was willing to bet they might be the best in all of Virginia and Maryland, if not the East Coast. Mostly made of blue crab meat, they were waterman-fresh and lightly fried to perfection.
Given the amount of food I ate, I really should have taken the 20-minute stroll around the island's 1.25-mile perimeter. Instead, for some local flair I chose the $3 golf cart tour, led by Gina. With five others in our elongated golf cart, we barreled through tiny house-lined Main Ridge, as the island's biggest community is known.
Tangier has three communities — called ridges because they sit on ground a few feet higher than the surrounding marshland — connected by roads that are little more than paths. As she drove, Gina honked at locals chatting in the street, who returned a sociable wave.
Throughout Main Ridge I noted personal touches — a recipe board where I could purchase by honor system local recipes for corn pudding, shrimp-and-crab casserole and mom's coleslaw; a bench decorated with hearts and a sign that read "Rest a While." Gardens were lovingly maintained with flower patches and little girl and windmill statues. And the same balloons bedecked nearly every frontyard, avowing: "I Love Grandma" and "I Love My Grandparents."
The most disconcerting thing I spotted were the graves and coffins scattered in many frontyards — aboveground because there's not much extra space on Tangier and the water table is so high. The white marble monuments were interesting because many are etched with the same family names you see on mailboxes and business signs all across the island: Parks, Pruitts, Dises and, the most prominent, Crockett. These are a direct link to the past.
Tangier was first charted by Capt. John Smith, who spotted the isle on his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. It is debated who the first settler was: Some say it was John Crockett and his eight sons, who came in 1686.
The first written record indicates that John's distant relation Joseph Crockett was the first official settler. He acquired 475 acres in 1778 and sailed from Cornwall, England, to claim his land. Regardless of who was here first, by 1800 there were 79 people on the Tangier Islands (as the trio of Tangier and two nearby islands, now uninhabited, were called). Almost half were Crocketts or descendants of Crocketts. They mostly farmed until the 1840s, when the seafood market was born and the Chesapeake exploded with sailing ships that transported oysters and, later, crabs to Baltimore and New York. Today, about 650 people, still mostly watermen and their families — a third called Crockett — call Tangier home.
No strip malls here Gina jabbered away about the island in a well-practiced drone, pointing out buildings and other notable sites: the library, the post office, two churches, two grocery stores, one of the artesian wells, the volunteer fire department, one school (kindergarten through the 12th grade, with eight graduates last year), three inns, a 3-mile-long beach — nothing too eye catching until you ponder the fact that few other places can draw tourists by showcasing their day-to-day facilities.
And that's what's fascinating about Tangier. Such facilities — and the lack of them — provide a glimpse into another era. There are no stoplights, no movie theaters, no McDonald's, no jail, no supermarkets, no malls, no alcohol (though I overheard one man say that no alcohol is available or sold, but "plenty is brought in and drank"). There are few cars. Most people get around by golf cart or scooter — or on foot.
Because I live near Washington, D.C., I usually go over to Tangier for day trips. But a few years back, I stayed over one Saturday night. I was surprised to learn that Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House restaurant — my big plans for the evening — closes at 6 p.m., and the only thing to do afterward was attend a concert at one of the island's two churches.
What Gina doesn't bring up is Hollywood's attempt to film the 1999 movie "Message in a Bottle" here. The town council deemed the film, starring Paul Newman and Kevin Costner, too racy and sent the filmmakers elsewhere to find their idyllic island. This may be the only place in the U.S. where Newman could stroll down the street and not be recognized.
But even without modern-day hassles and distractions, life is by no means easy on Tangier. The area's once abundant oysters suffered a serious decline some years back, and when local watermen turned to blue crabs, their numbers dwindled. In 1999, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission placed a freeze on crabbing licenses to help rejuvenate the crab population through 2007. The 660-square-mile sanctuary nearby, run by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, is off-limits to crabbers — a necessary move to maintain the bay's crab population but a job-killer if crabs are your life.
Erosion is also a severe problem. The island is only 7 feet above sea level and is ever at the mercy of the encroaching bay, which has swallowed three of the island's communities over the years. Some houses, propped on cinderblocks, have enormous puddles beneath them. One large house I saw along Main Street in Main Ridge bowed inward, its screen door a foot lower in the middle than the sides, its two sides higher than its middle. It looked uninhabitable but for the dainty white curtains and cheery unlit candles adorning its 16 windows.
Stuck in the middle of Chesapeake Bay, the island is brutalized by harsh weather. At least once a year, ice and snow leave Tangier in absolute isolation. Which makes me wonder: What do you do if your washing machine breaks? Where do you buy medicine? What if you run out of sodas? And what if you're sick? Or having a baby? The nearest hospital is an emergency helicopter ride away — 40 miles across the bay in Salisbury, Md.
Gina took her passengers over Big Gut Canal to the island's "far" side, zipping past soft marsh grasses dotted with snow-white egrets and through West Ridge village, looping back to our starting point. After she dropped us off at Hilda's, I strolled a bit and came to the small post office — the best place to find local flavor. After the mail is delivered, the townspeople flock here to collect letters and socialize.
"How are ye?" I overheard one man greeting another, confirming that traces of the original settlers' Elizabethan speech are alive, a pleasant, graceful lilt honed by years of isolation.
I also spotted notices tacked on the post office door. Among the open invitations to baby showers and funerals was an amateurish printed sign: "Balloons & images by Chris — don't forget Grandparents Day this Sunday!" The mystery of the balloons was solved.
Few tourist trappings For those looking for tourist sights to visit, Tangier really doesn't have any. The closest things are the couple of shops near the tourist dock that are jampacked with nautical paraphernalia, T-shirts, lighthouse trinkets and books filled with old family stories by local authors. One shop has a soft-shell crab farm exhibit out back. But there's not much else. Perhaps that's why most visitors come for the afternoon, to eat a seafood lunch, take a look around and return to the mainland.
Those who choose to stay the night, in one of the island's three inns, are treated to the true Tangier — a quiet, restful outpost of the Chesapeake where life ebbs and flows with the tides.
I decided to head home this time. As the Capt. Eulice glided away from the dock and the tiny houses disappeared from view, I felt a sense of peace accompanying me back to the mainland. The stillness of Tangier had found its way inside me, even on such a brief visit.
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Tiny Tangier Island
From LAX to Baltimore/Washington International Airport, Southwest and United have nonstop service; America West and Southwest have direct service (stop, no change of planes); and Continental, American, US Airways, America West, Southwest, Northwest, United and Air Tran have connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $198.
To Reagan National Airport just outside the District of Columbia, Continental, American, US Airways, America West, Northwest, United, Delta, ATA and Alaska offer connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $178.
To Dulles in suburban Virginia, American, America West and United offer nonstop service; Continental, US Airways, American, United, Northwest, Delta, Frontier and America West have connecting service. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $178.
The best way to reach Tangier Island is by ferry:
Tangier Island Cruises, (410) 968-2338, http://www.tangiercruises.com , has daily departures from Crisfield, Md., to Tangier Island in summer. Round-trip fares $22 adults, $11 children 7-12, 6 and younger free.
Tangier-Onancock Cruises, (757) 891-2240, leaves daily from Onancock, Va., April-Oct. 15. Round-trip fares $22 adults, $11 kids 6-12, younger than 6 free.
Tangier & Rappahannock Cruises, (804) 453-2628, http://www.tangiercruise.com , departs Reedville, Va., daily May 1-Oct. 15. Round-trip fares $22 adults, $11 children 4-12, younger than 4 free. Reservations required.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, Main Street, in Main Ridge near boat dock; (757) 891-2331, http://www.esva.us/chesapeakehouse . Since 1939, this mainstay has welcomed guests from May 1 to Oct. 15. Eight comfortable rooms with shared baths in the original house and a house across the street. Doubles $100, including seafood lunch or dinner and breakfast.
Shirley's Bay View Inn, Ridge Road; (757) 891-2396, http://www.tangierisland.net . Nine cottages and two guest rooms in one of the island's oldest homes, a picturesque 1904 gingerbread with air-conditioning. Open year-round. Golf cart transportation to and from the dock. $90, including full breakfast.
Sunset Inn Bed and Breakfast, West Ridge Road; (757) 891-2535, http://www.tangierislandsunset.com . Ten cottages, plus a small apartment with two bedrooms, right by the water. All are air-conditioned with private baths. Open year-round. Golf cart transportation to and from the dock. Doubles $95, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Fisherman's Corner, 4419 Long Bridge Road; (757) 891-2900. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 12:30-5 p.m. Sundays May 1-Sept. 30. Crab soup, fresh seafood and more, prepared using favorite local recipes. Dinners $11-$24.
Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, (757) 891-2331. Open 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily May 1-Oct. 15. The place to eat for a true Tangier experience. A set price of $17.50 for all-you-can-eat lunch or dinner; $6.75 for breakfast (scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, Chesapeake-style fried potatoes, homemade fried bread, cheddar cheese, preserves).
TO LEARN MORE:
Virginia's Eastern Shore Tourism Commission, P.O. Box 460, Melfa, VA 23410; (757) 787-2460, http://www.esvatourism.org .
Virginia Tourism Corp., 901 E. Byrd St., Richmond, VA 23219; (800) 932-5827, http://www.virginia.org .
— Barbara Noe
Barbara Noe is an editor with National Geographic Travel Books.