Smith Island is actually a collection of several marsh islands 12.5 miles off Crisfield, Maryland. The highest point is about four-feet above the waterline. More than half the main island is salt marsh. The northern part is the Martin National Wildlife Refuge, while the southern part of the island is Virginia. Most islanders live in the central portion.
The island is the home to a little more than 300 people divided among three communities: Ewell, the main village; Rhodes Point, once called Rogues Point due to privateering out of that village; and Tylerton, a water-locked village requiring a boat to get to there.
The harbor is located in Ewell. It’s protected by breakwater on the north and south sides, and there are some twists and turns through the marsh to find the harbor. If you’re arriving by boat, the harbormaster will guide you in.
Upon landing at Ewell, you walk down the pier toward the Bayside Inn (4065 Smith Island Road, Ewell, MD), a large, white wood structure. That’s where you come across Caleb Jones Road (the main street) paralleling the waterfront.
Around the side of Bayside, will be several island ladies in golf carts. They’re standing by to give you a tour of the island, and are only there when the ferries arrive. If you want a later tour, it’s a good idea to arrange for it when you arrive, otherwise they’ll go home to do other chores.
Behind the Bayside Inn, is a gift shop and the Smith Island Cultural Center (20846 Caleb Jones Rd, Ewell, MD). That’s where you’ll learn about island life.The museum has a short video with island residents that’s a very good overview if you have to the time to watch. It’s open daily, May through October. The fee is $3 for adults, kids are free. They provide a walking tour map at no charge. Remember to ask for it.
Across the street from the Cultural Center is Ruke’s Seafood Deck in a 100+-year-old red building. Rukes was the town’s general store, but there’s not much merchandise there now. It’s mainly a meeting place for locals.
Behind the museum you’ll see the spire of the Methodist Church. The cemetery next to the church is an interesting visit. The islanders ask that you not walk on the graves and rubbings of the headstones is prohibited.
Connecting to Caleb Jones Road via a “T” intersection is Smith Island Road, the only route to Rhodes Point, which consists of one street, Marsh Road.
Ewell only has two restaurants. Both are casual and recommended for their food. The basic difference is which kind of dining experience you want. The Bayside Inn has more seating and is more of a typical restaurant.
Rukes hasn’t changed much since it started in 1917. Tables and chairs don’t match, and old appliances from back in the day are stored on the screened-in porch next to the tables, overlooking the marsh and a waterman’s shack where crabs are in troughs waiting to outgrow their shells. But that means the restaurants have incredibly fresh soft-shelled crabs.
The island restaurants feature freshly made crab soup, crab sandwiches as well as non-seafood items. Rukes is also known for cheese steak sandwiches. But you may have to wait for service if there’s a crush of orders.
During one visit, the restaurant was contending with a funeral and an order for 40 sandwiches. Neighbors have been known to drop by to help out the one or two people who normally run the establishment on a busy day, but that may speed service only slightly.
The island is famous for Smith Island Cakes, a round cake with seven-to-15 thin layers separated by coatings of frosting. There are several different places baking the cake on the island, and the cakes made for sale on the island are made using a slightly different recipe than the ones shipped across the country, which are baked for better traveling.
Each restaurant makes its own. The Smith Island Cake company is located in Ewell, but is closed on the weekends. You can buy frozen cakes to take home from the Bayside Island. Their carry-out is through the side door.
Keep in mind, it’s a village living on their own schedule. Places close between ferry visits or depending upon the personal needs of the people working there.
The island is “dry,” meaning no alcohol is sold on the island. But that doesn’t stop people from having a drink in their home if they bring it in. Visitors should be discrete if they bring their own. If you’re staying at an island inn or B&B, check with the establishment.
A number of artisans have moved to the island and sell their wares to tourists. Here’s a list. The shops are located in homes throughout the island.
Tylerton is the smallest village and is located on a different island than Ewell. The only way to get there is by a different boat. You can catch the Captain Jason II at City Dock in Crisfield or arrange a ride on another boat from Ewell. Call the captains directly. On Tylerton, you’ll find the Smith Island Crab Co-op where the ladies hand-pick crabmeat. You can buy some of their crabmeat when available. For a fee, you can watch how the professionals pick crabs.
Crime is rare. If there’s a dispute, rather than go the mainland, the locals head to the island’s Methodist minister, who has a service each Sunday in the three villages.
Most of the homes are wood frame structures that appear to have used the same architectural plan with only a few changes to make them unique. White picket fences are common. Many homes have been boarded up and abandoned as the population drops.
You won’t find a baseball or football field on the island; the land is too marshy. Visitors are warned to not walk across marshy areas. But if you do and become stuck, islanders recommend the following solution: lie on your back and use your elbows and hands to pull yourself back to solid land.
Island tours are available. You can rent a golf cart or bicycle, or go to Rukes restaurant and you may run into a John, a retired U.S. Navy petty officer typically sporting a Navy baseball cap, for a tour in an air conditioned van. He points out that unlike a golf cart tour his van is bug free.
John explains the history and life on the island while driving between Ewell and Rhodes Point on the 1.5-mile single lane road, showing off the island’s version of a Wal-Mart, a 20-by-40 foot concrete general store containing boat parts, fishing needs and groceries. What’s there depends on the last delivery.
Soft-shelled crabs are main industry in the summer. Watermen rake the grasses for crabs and store them in shanties. The crabs are held in tubs, where they’re checked every three or four hours until they molt. Then, islanders gather the soft shells, pack them and send them to the Eastern Shore for distribution.
Cell phone service can be spotty in places.
Its not an easy place to get to and there’s not a lot there. Here’s a list of places to stay overnight. It’s a good place to visit if you’re looking for a different kind of adventure, traveling a little farther and out of the ordinary. While up-to-date, Smith Island lives a slower, more easy-going pace. There are no bars or beaches; you go to experience Maryland as it was lived a generation ago.
The only way to get to Smith Island is by boat. Ferries, run by different companies/captains, leave from Crisfield or Tylerton, Maryland, twice a day (12:30pm & 5pm), but check for seasonal schedules.
You must leave your car behind in the municipal or ferry parking lots, although the ferries will take kayaks for an extra fee.
There are several boats that leave promptly at 12:30pm from Crisfield:
- The cruise boat, Twister or Chelsea Lane Tyler, large double-decker boats with an air-conditioned first level & restrooms. They leaves out of Somers Cove Marina
- The mailboat, Island Belle II, a working boat that leaves from the City Dock. You’ll sit on plastic lawn chairs
- A ferryboat, Capt. Jason I, also departing from City Dock. This is also a working boat, often taking supplies to the islands. It’s open and visitors sit on plastic lawn chairs.
- You can also arrange for a charter on a working boat to leave and return at different times. You negotiate the price with the Captain. This should be arranged in advance because you’ll often be scheduling around their loading times.
All boats charge about the same and leave at the same time. If you take a boat from City Dock, check to see if they’re returning that day. The double-decker boats always returns the same day. The smaller boats are work boats and do double-duty as ferries, but you get personal service. Also, you can arrange to take canoes, kayaks and bicycles on the smaller boats. It’s a good idea to arrange that in advance.
It’ll take about 45 minutes to an hour to get there by boat from Crisfield. Once there, the ferry will return about 4pm. That doesn’t leave much walking around time if you decide to stop for lunch. It’s about enough time to see the main island. If you want to travel across the marsh to Rhodes Point, you’ll need to hire transportation.
Once there, you can rent a golf cart or bicycle. But the island is small and walking is the main way of getting around. There’s a limited number of carts and bicycles, if you decide to rent one go directly to the side door of the Bayside Inn when you get off the boat to make arrangements.
If arriving by boat, call ahead to the Smith Island Marina to check on availability and space. At the fuel dock, be prepared to pay cash or wait until they’re able to run the card at the B&B. Tip the kids helping out at the dock, but the professional dock master does not expect tips.
What to Bring
You’ll need binoculars to see the many waterfowl, wading birds, shore birds, herons and brown pelicans. You can see the Martin National Wildlife Refuge in the distance from the boat. You’ll also pass Goat Island. Goats were released on the island 20 years ago. Now, there’s a herd of about 20 goats.
Sunscreen, sunglasses and insect repellent are also a good idea. There’s not much shade on that island as you walk about; don’t forget a hat.
And of course, bring your camera.