Smith Island is actually a collection of marsh islands about 12 miles from the mainland, most in Maryland but some are in Virginia. More than half the main island is salt marsh, and the highest point is only about four feet above the waterline.
Even so, Smith Island is home to little less than 300 people who are determined to maintain their way of living off the Chesapeake Bay through crabbing and oystering, as well as a bit of tourism on the side.
The marsh island has three villages: 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 shuttle boat to get you 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 completely submerged by 2100.
EWELL: Smith Island’s Big Village
Ewell is where you’ll find the restaurants, gift shops, bakery, and museum. You can walk the entire village.
If you’re on the day ferry, you have about two-and-a-half hours to explore Smith Island.
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 the other village, Rhodes Point, you need transportation. Two hours go by quickly.
Around the side of Bayside Inn, where the ferry lets you off, several island ladies are usually sitting in golf carts. They’re standing by to give you a tour of the island and are there only 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.
There’s also the option to rent your own golf cart or bicycle. You can bring a bike with you on the ferry for a small extra charge.
TANGIER ISLAND ACCENT
The islanders are famous for their accent that evolved from the original colonists from England. It’s hard to understand. “One odd characteristic of the dialect is so-called ‘talking backwards.’ If a man says of his wife, “She ain’t purty none,” it’s not an insult. It means that she is pretty!,” says George Shivers, retired – Washington College Foreign Language Department.
Click on the image below to hear how islanders speak.
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 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 located on 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 does not have a public beach. There are sandy areas that you can kayak to.
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.
Tylerton: the Village on a Seperate Island
Ewell is at the bottom of the picture (above). Rhodes Point is the upper right green area. Tylerton is in the upper left.
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 charter boat, 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.
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 the 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.
Smith Island Restaurants & Shops
The restaurants are in Ewell. You have two choices: the Bayside Inn and Harborside Deli. Both have crabcakes and other island specialties. The fried soft-shell crab sandwich is amazing on the island. The crabcakes are all Maryland blue crab, which is delicate, flaky, and deserves to be savored.
Most travelers will head to the restaurants immediately off the ferry. Keep that in mind when strategizing your visit. You can order food to take with you and eat on the return ferry.
Be patient with the restaurant staff. Help is limited on the island and only a few women typically work in each restaurant. They often do the cooking as well as serving.
The island has attracted artisans who moved to the island and sell their wares to tourists. Here’s a list. The shops are located in homes throughout the island.
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 that Ewell is a village living on its 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.
Where to Stay on Smith Island
Smith Island has a motel, B&Bs, and cottages for rent if you want to stay the night or weekend.
Getting to 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 you 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.
Are dogs allowed on Tangier Island? Dogs are allowed on the Smith Island ferry and the island. The restaurants have outdoor seating for those with pets.
Ferry and Shuttles Leaving from Crisfield, Maryland
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. Several boats leave promptly at 12:30pm:
- The cruise boat, Twister or Chelsea Lane Tyler, large double-decker boat with an air-conditioned first level & restrooms. They leave out of Somers Cove Marina.
- The mailboat, Island Belle II, is 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.
Ferry Leaving from Point Lookout, Maryland
Smith Island Cruises has a ferry from Point Lookout State Park. It departs at 10:30am, June through August on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Shuttle to Tylerton from Crisfield
The Captain Jason II is both a passenger ferry and a freight hauler. You’ll be riding on a workboat. It leaves Crisfield City Dock daily at 12:30pm year-round.
The smaller boats are workboats 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.
The ferry out of Crisfield takes bicycles. But check on restrictions when you make reservations.
If you want more time or want to take a kayak, consider chartering a boat to Smith Island. You’ll find the captains loading their boats at the Crisfield city dock. These are working boats, transporting goods to the island, but they’ll take passengers if there’s room and time.
Some are willing to negotiate on leaving for the island earlier and returning later. You’ll get a plastic armchair to sit on, cold drinks from the boat’s cooler, and usually a fun time talking with the knowledgeable captain.
IS SMITH ISLAND SINKING?
The Chesapeake Bay is rising, by about 3.5 millimeters a year. That doesn’t seem like much. However, the high points on Smith Island are only about four feet above water level. That’s a foot lower than Tangier Island. The island appears to be sinking slowly. They’ve added protections to prevent storms from tugging away at the shoreline and to slow the island’s erosion. But if this is on your bucket list, just go and enjoy the visit.