When I told friends that my wife and I were planning to visit Tangier Island, most of them paused and looked a bit envious. They hadn’t heard of the place before, but it sounded so… exotic. Perhaps it’s near Tangiers, in Morocco, they thought. Would we be shopping for rugs or jewelry in the bazaars and souks?
Well, not exactly. Tangier Island is in truth a marshy little spit of land in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. About 650 people live there. Most have some connection to crabbing, which is the island’s main commercial activity–and also the biggest reason for going there. Remember that line in Forrest Gump, when Bubba calls shrimp “the fruit of the sea”? He goes on to say, “you can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it”–and so on. That’s sort of what crabs are like on Tangier. I’ve never eaten so many in my life, and they’ve never tasted so good.
Speaking of movies, the island became briefly notorious in Hollywood a few years ago, when Kevin Costner and Paul Newman wanted to film Message in a Bottle there. They understandably saw Tangier as a quaint maritime setting. They also thought it would serve as an ideal backdrop for their tale. But the locals didn’t care for the script, with its curses, booze, and sex. Theirs is a tradition-bound community, whose social life revolves around a Methodist church and where there’s not a single drop of alcohol to be found in the restaurants or stores. The town council voted unanimously against the filming, and the moviemakers hurried off to shoot their scenes in Maine (even though the story supposedly takes place in North Carolina, where the shoreline is sandy and flat rather than rocky and wooded).
Tourists have an easier time than movie directors getting to Tangier, which isn’t to say that getting there is just a road trip away. There are no bridges or causeways from the mainland–you have to take a boat. For most, that means taking a cruiser from Virginia’s Northern Neck or the town of Crisfield, Md. (There’s also an airstrip, which is a lifeline to the outside world when the bay freezes.) Most people come for a jaunt that lasts a few hours–enough time to scarf down a few crab cakes for lunch, buy a souvenir at the trinket shops, and walk the island circuit. There are a few stops everyone’s expected to make, such as “recipe row”–a chain-link fence near the docks where you can purchase a bag of recipes. You’re supposed to leave behind a dollar, on the honor system.
But it’s best to experience Tangier after the tourists boats depart and you don’t need to worry about being stranded. You can spend some time by the marshes, watching the egrets hunt in the reeds and the crabs dash for their holes. Or walk on a desolate beach and look for sea glass. Or take a nap. Or do all of the above.
Tangier has a rich history, stretching back to when Jamestown settler John Smith (allegedly) discovered and named the island in 1608. Two centuries later, Tangier was populated–and in 1814 it became a launching pad for the British attack on Baltimore, the failed one that provided the occasion for Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Later on, the island became a site for big revival meetings. Woodrow Wilson once dropped by for a surprise visit. In 1921, Gen. Billy Mitchell conducted exercises near the island to prove that airplanes could bomb battleships. (God’s Island: A History of Tangier, by Kirk Mariner, is an excellent guide to the island’s past and present.)
Most of the locals seem to have one of three surnames: Crockett, Parks, or Pruitt. They are also famous for speaking with a distinctive accent that is said to resemble Elizabethan English. To my unrefined ears, it sounded like a southern dialect. Everyone seems to drive a golf cart, including the town’s one cop. I spotted a couple of pick-up trucks, but no cars.
The highlight of any trip is the food. You basically can’t go wrong on the island–the crabs are fresh and delicious, and they’re everywhere. My two best meals were at the Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant and Hilda Crockett’s Chesapeake House, which doubles as a bed and breakfast. (My wife and I had a nice stay at Shirley’s Bay View Inn.) Dinner on Tangier is a late afternoon affair. The watermen are early-to-bed, early-to-rise types, and the whole island follows their lead. Most of the restaurants start to close around the time we landlubbers are wondering what’s on the early-bird menu.
Kids are welcome on the island, but I’m glad we didn’t take ours–proper restaurant decorum can be a challenge for our brood, and it wouldn’t have taken long for at least one small voice to start asking about putt-putt golf courses (there aren’t any).
But for grown-ups who live near Chesapeake Bay, the island makes for a wonderful excursion. As a time traveler from Elizabethan England might say: Get thee to Tangier.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the co-author, most recently, of Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France.