Tangier Island on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake Bay is a waterman’s working island. Most men fish, crab, oyster or pilot boats; women run the shops, teach and raise children. You visit the island to see a way of life unique to the Chesapeake Bay. And while islanders welcome tourists, there’s little change to fit tourism. And that’s what makes Tangier Island such an amazing place to visit.
You’ll notice a unique accent on the island. It’s less noticeable among the women who adjust for the tourists. The men are not around tourists as much and their accent can be barely understandable to mainlanders. Colonists from Cornwall, England settled on the island in 1686 and the way of speaking has been handed down for generations.
About 500 people live on the mostly marsh island. It’s three miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide. Homes are built on the island’s three ridges that run parallel long-ways down the island. A ridge is about five feet above sea level. If a home is even slightly off the ridge, the back yard eases into marsh. Many of the newer homes have short, hidden stilts to allow water to flow underneath during high-tides.
The center of the island is tidal marsh with narrow, wood bridges going over the tidal streams. The island is 740 acres. Of that, a little over 80 acres is high enough to live on.
What’s called Main Street circles the main residential and commercial areas. It’s a mile-and-a-half, one lane asphalt road. As the tour guide says, “You can’t get lost.” You won’t find a traffic light. People get around on bicycles, golf carts or foot. Locals must get permission from the city council to have a vehicle on the island (about 25 now) and they fill up at the marina fuel pump.
The island calls itself the Soft-Shell Crab Capitol of the World.
The watermen maintain crab traps throughout the southern Bay and put the live crabs in long tanks, called “pens.”
There, the wait begins for the crabs to grow too large for their hard shell. When they shed it, the watermen scoop up the now soft-shell crab, pack ‘em in boxes and ship them off around the world. The crabs have to move out quickly before the shells harden again.
Watermen get up at 3am, meet for smokes and coffee, check the previous day’s catch for any molting and head out for more. Tangier Harbor is dotted with crab shanties (detached garages or sheds on stilts over the water). Outside they may look like they’re about fall into the water, but they have electricity and the insides are the waterman’s version of a man cave with TVs, lounge chairs & refrigerators.
The town revolves around watermen’ schedules and the ferries. The shops open when the first ferry arrives and close when the last ferry leaves. Don’t expect to find a restaurant open much after 8pm.
What to See
The Tangier Island History Museum contains artifacts dug out of attics and sheds by the locals. It tells the story of living on the island over generations. A short video, produced by an island native as a college project, does an excellent job explaining island life. You’ll learn that about 50 watermen working 15-hour days provide the livelihood for the island.
One of the more interesting exhibits is an oral history. Look for a white boat radio, and pick a button on the radio. You’ll hear different locals talk about their lives, and growing up-and-old on Tanger Island.
The library is a shed–like building near the museum and loans not only books, but also about five kayaks so visitors can travel the island’s water trails. The museum has a map of several water trails.
Homes tend to be small and very old. Yards are manicured and typically fenced. Many homes have a family graveyard in the front, back or side yard, with cement tops to keep their relatives from floating up during high water. Some tops are buried, others lay above ground.
The first mobile home on the island has an historical marker. It came by boat and was pushed into place by locals on foot (no vehicles were used). That was a major feat for the islanders.
On the far side of the island is the beach; far side on Tangier Island is a 20-minute walk. You may have to splash through some tidal marsh water to get there and walk over a dune created by Hurricane Sandy. It’s an amazingly natural, beautiful beach with sparkling off-white sand. The water is a clear blue-green.
Ferries stop by twice a day, and that’s when the shops open. For those who boat in, be aware that shops close between ferry arrivals. Most restaurants close after “supper,” which runs from noon to about 5pm. The island has no bar, nor do any of the establishments sell alcohol. Islanders aren’t teetotalers, but it’s kept discrete out of respect for others’ moral beliefs.
The island has a few B&B’s, no motels. You’ll find several gift shops on Main near the boat landings. There are about a half-dozen restaurants specializing in seafood (but they also serve chicken, burgers & BBQ). The island has one small grocery store, just big enough for the basic necessities.
Locals say all restaurants have good crab cakes. They use fresh, local crabs. You rarely find shell, and the crab is tender and flakey. Locals are expert “pickers” and are proud to say they use only fresh crab, while mainland restaurants often mix in frozen crab. This means Tangier Island crab cakes have smaller chunks than mainland versions.
Be patient with the restaurant staff. Help is limited on the island and only a few women typically work in each restaurant. There’s a rush when the ferries arrive.
It’s rural cooking in a homey setting. Lorraines features fish platters, soft shelled crabs, crab cakes and cream of crab soup.
Fisherman’s Corner across the small street is known for crab cakes, flounder, stuffed shrimp, soft shelled crab tidbits and crab bisque.
Four Brothers Crabhouse has covered picnic tables for those wanting to pick crabs.
Chesapeake House has all-you-can-eat crab cakes and clam fritters served family style (sharing tables and dishes of food). There’s also the Waterfront Sandwich and Seafood Shop by the ferry. All serve non-seafood options. Here’s a list of the restaurants.
Tangiers Island is a unique experience that is disappearing at the rate of about nine-acres a year, depending on the number of storms any given year. It’s a natural occurrence in Chesapeake Bay. They know it may be a matter of a couple generations before what they have now is gone.
But islanders constantly work to maintain their island and way of life as long as they can. As one islander said proudly, “We accept everybody, but if you try to change us, well,” after a pause, “that might be a problem.”
Once on the island, you’ll find ladies sitting in golf carts who give tours of the island. It takes about 15-minutes around the island perimeter and is a good overview of the island. The ladies will tell you the rate before the tour starts. You can also rent bicycles and golf carts. But you can walk anywhere on the island in 20-minutes. Kayaks are available at the island library. Here’s contact information.
The restaurants accept credit and debit cards. Golf Cart tours, most charter boats and such accept only cash. The island now has an ATM, approved by the city council in 2012. It’s located at Four Brothers Crab House.
The only way to get to the island is by boat. Cars must be left on the mainland. Ferries leave for Tangier Island, May through September, from a number of towns.
From the Western Shore: Reedville (VA).
From Eastern Shore: Onancock (VA), Chincoteague (VA) and Crisfield (MD). The year-round shuttle runs out of Crisfield.
The ferries typically leave the mainland around 12:30pm & the 5 o’clock hour and cost about $25.
However, you can charter a boat if you want to go earlier. The captains fit the ride in between the regular runs. We had a group of seven and paid $30 each for a ride on the Sharon Kay III out of Crisfield. It’s a 46-foot workboat with plastic lawn chairs and a comfortable, fast ride — only an hour. Water and sodas can be purchased from the on-deck cooler. It’s also the only boat that runs year-round. Capt. Mark grew up on Tangier Island. He explains places to see and answers questions about island life.
Ferries and charters will take kayaks and bicycles. Arrange for them in advance.
You dock in Parks Marina. It has slips, power & water, but it’s ‘marina lite’. You won’t find a marine outfitters. However, some boating supplies can be found at the fuel dock a half-mile down.
Milton Parks, age 82, runs the marina, and he’s been known to call the ladies “Lovey.” The biggest amenity at the marina is Milton’s charm. There’s no bathhouse.
Tangier Island is close enough to Smith Island that you can visit both in a weekend. Tangier Island has more to do, but Smith Island is extremely quaint and worth a visit.