Tangier Island, Virginia

This is a tiny stretch of sand in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay (really a cluster of islands), just south of the Virginia - Maryland state line. Don't even try to look for it on a map (unless you've got a very detailed one); the main island is less than two miles long and half a mile wide, and it barely sticks out of the water.

Tangier Island has been settled more than three hundred years ago by six or so fishermen families from Cornwall, England; they have been living there ever since, making their lives off the bay. They have preserved their closeness to the sea, the slowly paced lifestyle, even this special melody of speech, not encountered anywhere else.

The islanders are also quite willing to let you have a glimpse of their life — and a bite of their food. And both are experiences well worth trying.

How to get there

From Washington, DC, take Rte. 50 East over the scenic Bay Bridge; when the highway splits into Interstates 301 and 50, take the southern branch (50). After passing Salisbury get on Rte. 13 south, and then another 15 miles west on Rte. 413, following the signs to Crisfield, Maryland. The trip should take 2.5 - 3 hours, depending on the traffic on Rte. 50.

In Crisfield the main street will lead you straight to the ferry terminal. Leave your car here, you will not need it for a while.

The ferry to Tangier Island leaves once a day from mid-May to October, at noon (call ahead at 410-968-2338 during bad weather just to check). The ride takes about one hour. The ferry departs back to Crisfield at 4 PM, and the return ticket is $18 or so. (There are also cruises available from Onancock on the Virginia's Eastern Shore.)

Or, if you have a light aircraft (who doesn't?), you can use the local airport and just fly in. The airport (just behind Mrs. Brown's backyard and next to the beach) is a fully self-service affair: log yourself into the book, put a $2 landing fee into the box and you're set. Oh, yes, need a ground transportation? No Hertz or Avis here, but there are some bikes waiting for you with, you've guessed!, another self-service fee box; drop in another dollar and get on the road!

Getting around

You've left your car at Crisfield, remember? This may be a rare opportunity to use your lower appendages. Or, if you prefer, you may rent a bike (or something that used to be one). Last time I checked the fee was a $1 "until the boat leaves" or a steep $4 for the full day.

There is one car on the island: a fire truck, but I don't think it would be very useful in case of need, as the only road wider than the car itself is about 200 meters (that's 220 yards, if you care) long.

If you are staying overnight and brought lots of luggage (what for?), one of the local ladies will give you a ride on a golf cart, at the all-inclusive price of $1.

An adventurer may also need a local map. No problem: in quite a few places you will find small boxes with photocopies of hand-drawn maps made by a local artist; just remember to drop in another quarter! (Local cooking recipes are distributed on the same basis.)

The Tangier Island ferry in the island dock. The Tangier Island airport building.

What to do?

This depends whether you are taking the return ferry to Crisfield the same afternoon or not. If yes, the choices are simple. You have just enough time to explore the island on foot or on a bike, and to have a heavenly seafood meal in one of the local eateries.

If you are staying overnight, at first you may be a little disoriented. You can see most of the island the first afternoon, the restaurants close at 7 PM, there is nothing, nothing to do, at least it may seem so.

And then - a revelation. Do you really have to do something? Is your daily rat race back home not enough? Relax, slow down, take a long walk down the long sandy beach extending from the island for an extra two or three miles (most probably you will have the whole place for yourself), watch the sunset (or an approaching storm).

The next day go to the harbor, talk to the crab farmers or fishermen who come back from the sea before noon, share a soda and exchange life stories, learn to live the way they live - at least for a day.

There is not much swimming around - this is Chesapeake Bay, after all. Although the water is clean, the jellyfish (stinging nettles) are quite common in Chesapeake Bay in July and August, and if you get into the water, sooner or later some good Samaritan will come on a boat to warn you about this. (This is especially funny if you are skin-dipping at the time, as the Missus can witness.)

The advice is simple. Just do nothing. After a day you'll start to enjoy it, and you will want to come back.

Eating out

For many visitors this is what Tangier Island is about. I am not surprised: the island offers the best seafood I've experienced (and believe me: I have tried long and hard). Many people drive a whole day just for a single meal - and it may be worth it.

The all-you-can-eat meals ($12 last time I checked!) at the Mrs. Crockett's Chesapeake House, served family-style at long wooden tables deserve a high recommendation. The food is simple and just delicious, and you may have to make reservations.

Even better, however (at least for my palate), is the Fisherman's Corner, a small, unpretentious place close to the harbor, performing miracles at its modest, vinyl-covered tables. This is the place where I had the best crab cakes of my life (the Mad Batter in Cape May, New Jersey, is, alongside with Chesapeake House, one of the candidates for the spot No. 2). Not only were they the best, but also the cheapest, or at least close.

Then, another reason to stay overnight (after all, how many meals can you have in one afternoon?): Fisherman Corner's broiled flounder, stuffed with the crab meat. You see, I live in Maryland, and nobody will teach us, Marylanders, how to do crab-stuffed flounder, and still - this one is just unbelievable!

To make the meal complete, however, you will have to bring your own wine. Tangier Island is a dry country, so packing a bottle of Chardonnay with your luggage may be a good idea.

Where to stay?

Mrs. Brown's Sunset Inn (804-891-2535) offers motel-style accomodations at the northern end of the island, next to the airstrip and the beach (a six-minute walk, or a short golf cart ride, from downtown). I've stayed with Mrs. Brown and can recommend the place, with country-style breakfasts served in the owner's kitchen.

Chesapeake House (804-891-2331) in the center of the village also has some simple but clean rooms for overnight stay and is closer to where the food is.

Practical hints

  • Bring some insect repellent. It will make your evening walks down the beach much more enjoyable.
  • Credit cards? Forget them; this is Tangier Island! Except of the local souvenir shop, nobody will accept your Visa or MC. Bring some old-fashioned cash; Chesapeake House will also accept your check.
  • If you like (like I do) a sip of cognac when watching a sunset, bring your own, unless you are planning on staying longer and running your own still. The same goes for wine and beer.
  • The island has no crime; if you bring in children, they can explore it on their own. Locking your hotel room? What a ridiculous idea!
  • The weekend traffic eastbound on Rte. 50 can be quite heavy; be prepared for delays. Once you are off 50, things will be OK.
  • Guidebooks: The best source I could find is Alan Fisher's Day Trips in Delmarva (Rambler Books, 1992). If you find anything better, let me know.

Leaving

The hardest part of the trip is leaving the island. If you spend two or three days there, leaving behind this tranquil, slow-paced world seems just not a right thing to do.

The ferry departs for Crisfield at 4 PM; to avoid a hassle with your luggage just leave it in front of your hotel in the morning (attach a dollar bill or two); then enjoy the rest of the day and just show up at the boat: you will find your things at a big pile of luggage in the center of the deck. What a civilized way to travel...

When the island's water tower disappears beyond the horizon, you know that one day you are going to come here again.


Pictures & text © 1998-2004 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak;

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Posted 1998/06/30; last updated 2004/11/10 Copyright © 1998-2004 by J. Andrzej Wrotniak.