Tangier Island, appearing only as mere tiny speck in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay on any map, hardly draws attention to itself. The island is only 1.5 miles wide and approximately 3 miles long but every inch of it is filled with scenic views, hospitality and honest living. You won’t find a Wal-Mart, 7-11 or McDonald’s any where but the residents want for nothing in their daily lives. Despite this lack of large scale commercialism, the island population of 700 swells from May to October every year as tourists flock here by the boatloads. Visitors are not looking for a something bigger, better, faster but simply wanting to get away from it all.
It was with this idea in mind that we decided to visit the tiny island via the Chesapeake Breeze, a cruise ship that departs from the Victorian fishing village of Reedville, VA. We planned to meet with several others motorcycle riders along Rt. 17 and ride together from Rt. 360 E to Buzzard Point Marina but the rain forced a last minute change of plans and we made the route via automobile.
The rain finally ceased and the day settled into a gray haze that kept the temperature quite comfortable for a July day in Virginia. Our cruise ship departed right on schedule at 10:00AM for the hour and half cruise 18 miles east to Tangier Island. Our Captain provided a detailed history of Reedville offering us a different view of the town not visible by land.
The boat ride was surprisingly smooth as we enjoyed the wind in our faces (if we weren’t able to get wind from riding the bike, this was the next best thing). After about an hour of seeing nothing but water and haze, the island appeared out of now where. We were being welcomed not by neon signs but instead the first thing to come into view was the steeple of the Methodist church. This seemed more appropriate considering that the church historically has been a driving force on the island.
As we drew nearer to the island, we noted the soft shell crab farms that lined the harbor. Our captain explained that soft-shell crabbing was a 24/7 operation. The watermen had to check the crabs every 3 hours day and night to determine the exact time when the peeler crabs would shed their outer shell. With this skillful attention to detail there is little doubt why Tangier Island is known as the “Soft-shell crab capital of the world”.
As we departed the boat, we were greeted by local guides offering a tour of the island via golf cart. With only two and half hours on the island, we felt it was the best way to get an overview of the community from a local resident’s point of view. Our guide skillfully navigated the narrow “roads” built primarily for pedestrians, golf carts and the occasional motor scooter (there is no need for cars on the Island). Speaking with the unique accent that only natives of Tangier Island possess, she pointed out the local gift shops, bed and breakfasts, numerous restaurants, 2 churches, 2 grocery stores, recreational center, airport, health center, post office and school which houses K – 12 grades with approximately 120 students. Within 15 minutes we were back where we started. In that short time, not only did we know where everything on the island was located, but we also received a history lesson and a basic understanding of life on Tangier Island. - All for a mere $4.00.
As it was lunch time, we faced the dilemma of finding the best place to eat. Based on where we were standing at the time, we decided upon The Channel Marker. Our meal was strangely silent as we were enjoying the meal too much to speak while we were eating it. We all decided that the cream of crab soup and the crab cake alone were worth the trip. In fairness to all the other restaurants on the Island, Tangier is known for is crab recipes and I am looking forward to the possibility of trying each one of them in the future.
After such a great meal, we decided to spend our remaining hour walking off the calories. (For those who wish to take a more leisurely approach, golf cart and bike rentals are available.) As we walked along the flat marshy landscape we were left with the impression that the sea could reclaim the land with very little effort. At only 4 – 7 feet above sea level, the threat is very real. In fact, the heavy rains from the previous days had left some of the front lawns under several inches of water.
We visited gift shops, several of which included additional museums and exhibits that could be viewed for $.25 - $.50 cents per person. We also passed several areas along the way where someone had posted recipes, maps and local history of the church that could be purchased by leaving $1.00 in a jar. Presumably, someone would collect the earnings at the end of the day. It was impressive to see home-grown tourism in action.
The idea that land was at a premium was highlighted by the close proximity of numerous above-ground graves in the two main cemeteries and the fact that there were several homes in which people were buried in their own front yard. It was also interesting to note that a vast majority of the graves had the last name of Crockett (descendents John Crockett and his family who settled Tangier Island in 1686), Pruitt and Parks. It was very apparent that tradition and family have contributed to the longevity of this fishing village way of life.
As we made our made our way back to our cruise ship for our 2:00 departure, I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer this uncomplicated lifestyle will continue. In a world that is getting smaller every day, it becomes more of a challenge to remain isolated. In addition to natural weather-related threats, the island faces challenges of balancing Chesapeake Bay Conservation efforts with the watermen’s lifestyle. Even the modern conveniences that have enhanced life on the Island over the past 25 years such as cable TV, could eventually contribute to the unrest of the younger generations who may yearn for more than Tangier Island has to offer. Who may choose to leave the landscape behind to become another over-commercialized tourist attraction filled with hotel chains and overpriced restaurants. For now, Tangier Island is home to residents proud to maintain their unique lifestyle. We can only hope the tradition continues as over-developed resort islands are easy to come by but the life reflected on Tangier Island is irreplaceable.