Virginia’s Tangier Island is a waterman’s island. You visit to see a way of life unique to the Chesapeake Bay.
While islanders welcome visitors, they’re still very committed to making a living harvesting oysters and crabs from the bay rather than tourism. That’s what makes Tangier Island such an amazing place to visit.
About Tangier Island
Tangier Island’s main street really isn’t on the island. It’s the channel that runs between two neighborhoods made up of waterman shanties held up by pilings pounded into the Bay’s bottom. Those sheds-on-stilts are international businesses; briny Chesapeake Bay oysters in the winter and tender blue crabs the rest of the year.
Everything on the island supports that ‘main street’.
About 700 people live on the mostly marsh island. These are middle-class working people. Islanders are proud of their heritage and happy to share their lifestyle for a bit.
The only way to get there is by boat.
The island road 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.
The island is three miles long and one-and-a-half miles wide. Homes are built on the island’s highest 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.
This is a way of life that’s developed over nearly 250 years. The first Colonists set down roots here in the 1770’s.
Is Tangier Island sinking?
The Chesapeake Bay is rising, by about 3.5 millimeters a year. But the high points on Tangier Island are only about five feet above water level, so the island appears to slowly be sinking. They’ve added protections to prevent storms from tugging away at the shoreline.
A 2015 report estimates “the Town may need to be abandoned in as few as 25 years” and the island will be lost in 50 years. All the more reason to visit Tangier Island while we can.
What’s to See on Tangier Island?
You go to Tangier to see a centuries-old way of life that’s slowly disappearing — the Waterman life.
You won’t see many watermen on the island unless you stay more than a day. They’re on the water or in the shanties working.
The islanders are famous for their Cornish accent that evolved from the original colonists from Wales, England. It’s hard to understand. But you may not hear it unless you visit the history museum, because the ladies who stay behind on the island speak Maryland-english for the tourists.
– Tangier Island History Museum
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.
Walking around the island is very easy. It’s flat and strolling the main part of the island takes about 30 minutes without stops.
There may be only a couple hours or less between the incoming and outgoing ferry, which leaves just enough time to walk about and have lunch. Most visitors have lunch first, and walkabout second, so there’s a big restaurant rush right off the ferry.
– Tangier Island Beach
The gorgeous natural beach has sparkling off-white sand due to quartz rock in the area. The water is a transparent blue-green.
The public beach is on the far side of the island. It’s about a 20-minute walk one-way or a five-minute bike ride. You may have to splash through some tidal marsh water to get there and walk over a dune created by Hurricane Sandy.
Unfortunately, if you take the ferry, you have choices to make. You don’t have enough time to sit down for lunch, tour the sites and lay on the beach. Set your priorities before you go, and pack a suit if the beach is a priority.
But be aware there are no facilities at this beach. Wear the swimsuit.
Tangier Island is popular with kayakers because of the many water trails through the marshes and the natural beauty of the island. You can bring your own kayak for an extra charge on the ferry or rent one on the island. But the turnaround time is tight if you’re on a day trip. You might consider a charter boat to take you to Tangier Island if you want time to kayak.
Kayaks are available at the island library. Here’s contact information.
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.
Getting Around Tangier Island
Mainly, you walk.
But if that’s not for you, you can rent golf carts or bicycles. Many people bring a bike with them on the ferry for a small extra fee.
You’ll find islanders sitting in golf carts near the ferry who’ll 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.
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.
Tangier Island Restaurants & Shops
This is the main business area of Tangier Island; a crossroad with a couple restaurants and the island’s market. There are a few gift shops in houses located here and there in the residential areas. There’s no downtown on Tangier Island.
All of the restaurants feature rural cooking in a homey setting. 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.
Lorraine’s specializes in 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.
Most people arriving by ferry will chose to have lunch when they get off the 12:30pm boat, which arrives 1:30pm-1:45pm. Go to whichever restaurant has space.
You can order carry-out before leaving and eat on the ferry.
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 is generally cash-based, but the restaurants accept credit and debit cards.
Be aware that you may find a shop that doesn’t take cards and the shopkeeper will then actually dash over to a restaurant to run the card.
Where to Stay on Tangier Island
Tangier Island has B&Bs if you want to spend the night or a weekend. There are also cottages for rent.
Getting to Tangier Island
The only way to get to Tangier Island is by boat. If you don’t have a boat, you take the ferry.
The island is a little more than 13 miles away from the mainland. That’s 90-minute ferry ride or less depending on tide and weather.
The Crisfield ferry — the Steven Thomas — leaves the the mainland at 12:30p, arriving in Tangier about 1:45pm. It returns to the mainland at 4pm, arriving in Crisfield about 5:15pm. You have about two-hours, 15-minutes on the island. It runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday May through mid-October.
Tangier Island Cruises also has a late afternoon run to the island. It does not return to the mainland until the next morning.
While the Reedville ferry — the Chesapeake Breeze — leaves the mainland at 10am, arriving in Tangier at 11:30am. It returns to the mainland at 2:15pm and arrives in Reedville at 4:15pm. You have two-hours, 45-minutes on the island. It runs Wednesday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday, May through mid-October.
Tangier Island Ferry has only one run a day.
Are dogs allowed on Tangier Island? The Reedville ferry doesn’t allow pets Friday through Sunday due to large crowds. Crisfield’s Tangier Island Cruises is pet-friendly, but dogs must be on leases.
If you want more time or want to take a kayak, consider chartering a boat to Tangier 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 arm chair to sit on, cold drinks from the boat’s cooler and usually a fun time talking with the knowlegeable captain.