Smith Island is actually a collection of 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.
Even so, Smith Island is home for 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. The ferry carefully winds past uninhabited marshy islands, following the channel to get there.
Many Smith Island families have lived on the island for generations. They speak a unique Cornish-based American, but you’re not likely to hear it unless you stay overnight since they speak Maryland-english around tourists.
Smith Island is famous now, though, for rising seas eroding the island and its unique way of life. It’s projected to be complete submerged by 2100.
EWELL – Smith Island’s Big Village
Ewell is where you’ll find the restaurants, gift shops, bakery and the museum. You can walk the entire village.
If you’re on the day-ferry, you now about two-and-a-half hours to explore Smith Island.
That means, you have a decision to make: Eat or Tour.
There are two main restaurants (as of 2021), Bayside Inn and Harborside Restaurant which is also the grocery store.
The ferry steers tourists to Bayside, while the locals head to the Harborside. Both are casual.
The island restaurants feature freshly made crab soup and crabcakes as well as non-seafood items. Harborside is known for soft-shelled crab subs. Both feature locally-made Smith Island cakes (more on that below).
Most visitors will chose lunch first. If you decide to wait, don’t try to get in until your second hour. The restaurants are crushed the first hour.
Around the side of Bayside Inn where the ferry lets you off, 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. There is a fee for the tour. Just ask the ladies what they charge.
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.
Ewell is walkable, but if you want to have lunch, visit the Ewell shops and cultural center, then still want to see the marshes or other village, you need transportation. Two hours go by quickly.
What to See in Ewell
The Smith Island Cultural Center is behind the Bayside Inn. 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.
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 are prohibited.
Ewell’s residential neighborhoods are are located both sides of the Cultural Center. Feel free to walk through them.
Many are homes of working watermen. You won’t see many men on the island during the day while the ferry is docked. They’re working on the water or in their huts. You’ll notice waterfront homes that have crab holding-tanks with live crabs waiting to be sold.
Smith Island has several B&Bs and even a motel.
Smith Island Cake
The island is famous for Smith Island Cakes, a round cake with seven-to-15 thin layers separated by coatings of frosting. Each restaurant makes its own or local ladies bake for the restaurants.
The Smith Island Cake Company started in Ewell. They became well known and moved to Crisfield where they could better handle the volume and shipping.
Smith Island now has Smith Island Bakery (20926 Caleb Jones Rd, Ewell, MD) making the cakes on the island. You can buy frozen cakes that are packed for carrying home.
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.
Keep in mind, Ewell is a village living on its own schedule. Shops and restaurants close when the ferry leaves or depending upon the personal needs of the people working there. If you want to go back during your trip, let the islanders know.
RHODES POINT – the Other Smith Island Village
The only route to Rhodes Point is Smith Island Road, a slightly wider-than-one-lane road that goes across a massive marsh to the far side of the main island.
The route through the marsh is gorgeous and vast, with the tops of homes peaking over the grass in the distance.
Rhodes Point homes start as soon as the land is high enough. Houses are scattered along the coastline to the island’s point.
There are no shops or restaurants. Only B&Bs and watermen homes. Some are nicely maintained. Others are abandoned.
Rhodes Point (below) ends at a boat yard. In the distance, you can see phone lines on poles strung across the water to Tylerton, accessible only by boat.
Tylerton is the smallest village and is located on a different island than Ewell. The only way to get there is by boat, but not the Crisfield ferry. 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.
Smith Island Life
Smith Island lives a slower, more easy-going pace. There are no bars or beaches; you go to this island to experience Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay as it was lived generations ago.
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.
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 shelled crabs, pack them and send them to the Eastern Shore for distribution.
The marsh island is “dry,” meaning no alcohol is sold on Smith 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.
Be aware that cell phone service can be spotty in places.
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.
There is no public beach on Smith Island, however you can kayak or boat to a secluded sandy spot if you can find one.
Getting To & Around Smith Island
The only way to get to Smith Island is by boat. Ferries, run by different companies/captains, leave from Crisfield or Point Lookout, twice a day, but check for seasonal schedules.
If want a longer stay on the island than provided by the ferry, you can charter a boat or get a seat on a cargo boat.
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.
The smaller boats are work boats that load up with supplies and do double-duty as ferries, but you get personal service. Also, you can arrange to take canoes and kayaks on the smaller boats. It’s a good idea to arrange that in advance.
If you take a boat from Crisfield’s City Dock, check to see if they’re returning that day. The double-decker boats alway returns the same day.
It’ll take about an hour to get to Smith Island from Crisfield. The ferry will return at exactly 4pm and get back to Crisfield about an hour after that depending on tides and weather.
You can leave your car in the municipal or ferry parking lots.
Once on Smith Island, 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 booth at the side of the Bayside Inn when you get off the boat to make arrangements.
Dogs are allowed on the Smith Island ferry and the island. The restaurants have outdoor seating for those with pets.
If arriving by personal 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 for a Day Trip
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.
Sunscreen, sunglasses and insect repellent are also a good idea. Marsh flies can seem like they’re swarming you if there’s not breeze. They bite! Long sleeves and long pants might help. And, there’s not much shade on that island as you walk about; don’t forget a hat.
And of course, bring your camera.
For a list of business, attractions, ferries, places to stay and all sorts of other information, check out the Smith Island United business directory. It’ll hook you up.ChesapeakeLiving