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 from harvesting oysters and crabs from the bay rather than tourism. That’s what makes Tangier Island such an amazing place to see. .
Tangier Island’s ‘main street’ really isn’t on the island. It’s the channel that runs between two neighborhoods of waterman shanties held up by pilings pounded into the bay’s bottom.
Those sheds-on-stilts are international businesses — harvesting and selling 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.
“Main Street” on the island is an asphalt-paved lane just wide enough for one vehicle, more like a bike path than a street. The mile-and-a-half street circles the island.
As the tour guide says, “You can’t get lost.”
The island has few vehicles — more trucks than cars because they’re mainly for hauling. The only place to fuel up is the island marina. Residents get around mainly on golf carts, scooters, bicycles, or on 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 longways down the island. A ridge is about five feet above sea level.
If a home is even slightly off the ridge, the backyard eases into the marsh. Many of the newer buildings have short stilts to allow water to flow underneath during high tides.
The center of the island is a tidal marsh with narrow, wood bridges arching over the tidal streams to get you from one neighborhood to another.
To give you an idea of the expanse of marshland on Tangier — the island is 740 acres. A little over 80 acres is high enough to live on.
Why would someone live here? This is a way of life that’s developed over nearly 250 years. The first Colonists set down roots here in the 1770s. Traditions run deep on Tangier Island.
IS TANGIER 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 Tangier Island are only about five feet above water level, so 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.
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. That’s just one prediction. All the more reason to visit Tangier Island while we can.
What’s to See on Tangier Island?
You go to Tangier Island to experience a centuries-old way of life that’s slowly disappearing, the Waterman’s Life. Not the romantic movie version. The real way of life. It’s messy.
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.
TANGIER ISLAND ACCENT
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 because the ladies who stay behind on the island speak Maryland English for the tourists.
Click on the image below to hear how islanders speak among each other.
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 of 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 walk about 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.
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. You can change in the ferry restroom, the History History Museum when you get there, or simply wear your 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 and arrange for a later return 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
The ferry drops you off at the main business area of Tangier Island; a crossroads with a couple of restaurants and the island’s grocery store. The store shelves may be a bit bare, depending on when the last delivery was made.
A few gift and artisan shops are located near the small business area but also in the residential areas. Keep an eye out for signs. 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 a piece of 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 crabcakes because Chesapeake Bay blue crabs are smaller than ocean crabs.
Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant is known for crab cakes, flounder, stuffed shrimp, soft-shelled crab tidbits, and crab bisque.
Lorraine’s Seafood Restaurant specializes in fish platters, soft-shelled crabs, crab cakes, and cream of crab soup.
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. And, there’s a rush when ferries arrive.
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
You can’t drive to Tangier Island. The only way to get there is by boat or aircraft. 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 a 90-minute ferry ride or less depending on tide and weather.
Maryland ferry and shuttles leave from Crisfield.
The Crisfield ferry — the Steven Thomas — leaves the mainland at 12:30p, arriving in Tangier about 1:45pm. It returns to the mainland at 4pm, arriving in Crisfield at about 5:15pm. You have about two hours, 15-minutes on the island. It runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday from 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.
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 leashes.
Virginia has a ferry out of Reedville and a shuttle out of Onancock.
THE REEDVILLE FERRY: the Chesapeake Breeze leaves from Reedville, Virginia, 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.
THE ONANCOCK SHUTTLE: the Joyce Marie II, a deadrise boat, shuttles passengers May through June.
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 armchair to sit on, cold drinks from the boat’s cooler, and usually a fun time talking with the knowledgeable captain.