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Chesapeake Bay's idyllic isle

Isolated Tangier Island has little to offer tourists except a peaceful, easy feeling. Maybe that's why going with the ebb and flow is such a cinch.

June 06, 2004|Barbara Noe | Special to The Times

Tangier Island, Va. — The vintage Capt. Eulice left tiny Onancock at 10 a.m. sharp, its polished deck dotted with a handful of locals heading home and tourists, standing out with their getaway moods and cameras strung about their necks. Destination: tiny Tangier Island in the heart of Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from shore by boat and about 90 miles southeast, as the crow flies, from Washington, D.C. -- thousands of miles away in mind and spirit.

We skimmed across the bay, seeing nothing but gray water and tacking sailboats, then a low-lying blue bulge appeared on the horizon and slowly crystallized into focus. Soon I made out white dots in a line -- houses, a sky-blue water tower, a church steeple and a pier lined with pelicans.

They took flight and glided low across the water in synchronicity, momentarily disturbed, and an osprey eyed us from his piling-top nest. Heading into the harbor on the island's east end, at what is known as tourist dock, we passed oyster-shucking and crab-picking shacks and moored alongside the proud working boats inscribed with the names of loved ones: Three Sons, Mary Elizabeth, Miss Eloise and the like.

And then we were on Tangier. An aura of peace enshrouded its New England-style cottages, white picket fences and tiny, sun-baked lanes. For centuries, watermen, the fabled hard-working men of the Chesapeake, have lived in this flat, marsh-filled hinterland, eking a living from the water -- crabbin', sharkin', eelin' and oysterin' -- "whatever you can get," said Nancy, whom I had met on the boat.

She grew up on Tangier but had since moved to Crisfield, Md., on the Eastern Shore mainland, a picturesque village and out of the way in my big-city eyes but a big change in her opinion. She was here to show her childhood stamping grounds to two friends.

A line of mutated golf carts -- many with three, four, five rows of seats and driven by women offering island tours -- greeted our boat. But I was hungry, and most people on the island will tell you there's only one place to go -- Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House, founded in 1939. It's a rambling old farmhouse, with several rooms crammed with long tables covered in white paper.

I was guided to a seat and, without further ado, white-aproned women started placing plate after plate of local fare in front of me -- clam fritters, hot corn pudding, green beans, coleslaw, potato salad, pickled beets, applesauce, slices of baked Virginia ham, homemade rolls and baked butter poundcake.

"Crab cake?" one platter-laden waitress asked.

"Does a bear go into the woods?" asked Nancy, who sat next to me at the family-style table with her friends. She insisted these were the best crab cakes in Tangier, if not all the Eastern Shore, but I was willing to bet they might be the best in all of Virginia and Maryland, if not the East Coast. Mostly made of blue crab meat, they were waterman-fresh and lightly fried to perfection.

Given the amount of food I ate, I really should have taken the 20-minute stroll around the island's 1.25-mile perimeter. Instead, for some local flair I chose the $3 golf cart tour, led by Gina. With five others in our elongated golf cart, we barreled through tiny house-lined Main Ridge, as the island's biggest community is known.

Tangier has three communities -- called ridges because they sit on ground a few feet higher than the surrounding marshland -- connected by roads that are little more than paths. As she drove, Gina honked at locals chatting in the street, who returned a sociable wave.

Throughout Main Ridge I noted personal touches -- a recipe board where I could purchase by honor system local recipes for corn pudding, shrimp-and-crab casserole and mom's coleslaw; a bench decorated with hearts and a sign that read "Rest a While." Gardens were lovingly maintained with flower patches and little girl and windmill statues. And the same balloons bedecked nearly every frontyard, avowing: "I Love Grandma" and "I Love My Grandparents."

The most disconcerting thing I spotted were the graves and coffins scattered in many frontyards -- aboveground because there's not much extra space on Tangier and the water table is so high. The white marble monuments were interesting because many are etched with the same family names you see on mailboxes and business signs all across the island: Parks, Pruitts, Dises and, the most prominent, Crockett. These are a direct link to the past.

Tangier was first charted by Capt. John Smith, who spotted the isle on his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. It is debated who the first settler was: Some say it was John Crockett and his eight sons, who came in 1686.

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