Slices of life on Tangier Island
I step outside our small island bed and breakfast room to sit down and journal a bit in longhand, the old fashioned way. Various cats soon lounge nearby. They are not feral in the sense of being wild looking and fearful of humans; they are quite tame and just looking for food and company. Yet no one “owns” them, or takes them to the vet. Perhaps they are so thin from worms, my husband speculates. I soon spy a whole brood of tiger-stripped cats. Elsewhere on the island we spotted black, white, Siamese, Maine Coon—not quite as prolific with cats as the Roman Forum in Italy or Cape Charles just across the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.
I was happy to finally make it to the island that first captured my attention when I’d heard of the unique British accent that those born and raised on the island still maintain. My interest was piqued even more in the late 1990s when the mayor of Tangier Island —with majority support of the islanders—turned down a proposal to make a movie there, “Message in a Bottle.” Filmmaker/actors Kevin Costner and Paul Newman wanted to film the Nicholas Sparks novel on the tiny, one-by-three-mile island.
Most residents were opposed to the proposed sexual scenes and alcohol use in the book. I wrote about the issue in my Another Way column at the time, and received dozens of affirmative letters or emails: people who saluted the people of Tangier for not wanting it filmed there for fear it would change something about their deeply Methodist values and way of life.
The idea of visiting a Virginia island for an overnight stay always kind of intrigued me. Last year we had scheduled a trip to Tangier in late September to belatedly celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary, but the trip was cancelled when storms threatened that region. We rescheduled for July 31, 2017, and had a beautiful day to embark.
I jokingly crooned, Gilligan-Island-like to my husband, “a three hour tour.” Daytime tourists to Tangier only get about a 3 hour stop on the island, so we planned to stay overnight. (The boat ride takes about 90 minutes each way.)
Island life on Tangier in 2017 seems a fascinating mix of peaceful serenity, calm and quiet—along with the stressful logistics of always being a $20 boat ride away ($40 round trip, but only $30 if you don’t stay overnight) from the mainland (or have your own boat). Our bed and breakfast host spoke of needing to plan way ahead for her needs and purchases, and making endless lists for her husband—of what to buy and where before he commuted home every two weekends (he has to work on the mainland of Virginia).
Environmental concerns. The bigger issue just under the surface for residents of this shrinking space is when and where will repairs be made to the eastern shoreline. The western coastline was “shored up” in the 1980s to keep the encroaching sea at bay as it looses some 9-12 feet every year to the bay/ocean through climate change and erosion.
Before we visited, we had read most of a long but fascinating article from this 2016 New York Times paper on the major environmental issues it is facing. It was depressing when I read it, and with that backdrop, a visit to the island is more than just a nice ferry trip. But the few native islanders we were able to hear from (our inn hosts were originally from New Jersey) were fairly upbeat that something would be done to at least protect the shoreline to save the crabbing industry. One key paragraph in the NY Times piece says:
Tangier was not necessarily a lost cause: Schulte [a marine biologist with the Army Corp of Engineers] outlined a rough engineering plan, costing around $30 million, that involved breakwaters, pumped-in sand and new vegetation that could preserve the island. [There are, though,] immense economic and political obstacles involved in saving an obscure place from oblivion precisely when big East Coast cities were seeking hundreds of millions of federal dollars for storm-surge protection.
An interesting side note is that the island voted heavily (87 percent) for Trump in the recent election and Tangier apparently is on Trump’s radar for “saving.” Campaign signs were still visible around town, along with several “Trump for 2020” signs.
A bit of island history. But the historical aspect of the island was of special interest to both my husband and me. We spent a good hour or two in the well-kept museum. Tangier was one of several islands in the Chesapeake explored by Caption John Smith in the 1600s.
In the War of 1812, the British established Fort Albion at the beach end of the island and from there sailed up the Chesapeake Bay to sack and burn Washington D.C. Later they also unsuccessfully attacked Fort Henry up near Baltimore (which is of course where the national anthem “Star Spangled Banner” got its birth). Fort Albion was also where hundreds of escaped slaves first experienced freedom before being inducted and trained in the British Army, or relocated to Bermuda and Trinidad. Methodist camp meetings were also held on the island and its religious roots still run deep. We observed many crosses, religious signs on boats or piers, and souvenir mementos pointing to a solid Christian faith.
Island life. We were lucky to have been there during temperatures of mid to high 80s, rather than the higher 90s to 95 of a very hot and humid July, according to the inn keeper. The grounds there must be a continual upkeep challenge: boardwalk paths cover a marshy yard which needed mowing. The warped and raised boards posed a real stumbling hazard for those of us over 50—where an awkward fall can quickly twist a knee or back into years of pain or treatment.
After a 3-4 inch rain the Saturday before our trip, there had been flooding. The tour boat had not even made its regular Sunday run. Into this damp setting, we arrived Monday morning. So things were not quite shipshape, no pun intended. We observed that it would be hard to grow crops on the sea level island at this point in its history; we love our sweet corn in summer picked fresh from the garden—30 minutes from garden to table. That is probably impossible on Tangier. We did see a few tomato plants and back yard raised bed gardens.
People on the island mostly bury their loved ones in small family cemeteries in their backyards, even though there are no traditional funeral homes on the island. A doctor comes to the island once a week and a physician’s assistant handles things in between at a modern clinic where simple procedures can be performed. People can be helicoptered to the mainland in an emergency.
School and children on the island. Somewhat in the center of the inhabited part of the island is a school—K-12 all in one building. The school has only about 75 students, but is a normal school (as we could see in old yearbooks in the museum) with graduations, proms, and festivities.
We saw these island kids playing late into the evening: riding bikes in the streets, making up games where children on foot chased kids on bikes, and hanging out at the ice cream shop with picnic tables and a large screen TV under a canopy. These children were approximately ages 7 and up, with no adults hovering—like kids in mainstream America used to play in the 50s. The island residents know who the island children are and would quickly recognize a stranger or tourist messing with them.
That is not to say all is idyllic on the island in terms of drugs and alcohol use, our inn keeper admitted. It is a “dry” island with no alcohol officially sold in any of its stores or restaurants. Several full fledged restaurants keep interesting schedules to accommodate the influx of daytime boat visitors: most serve lunch (the boats arrive around lunch time) but then close for the afternoon (except for two ice cream shops).
We ate at Lorraine’s with excellent food and to-die-for island cornbread; not being seafood people, we left the island without sampling the crab cakes everyone said were a “must eat.” When we cycled past Lorraine’s restaurant in the afternoon I saw a woman taking the garbage out the backend and guessing, I hollered with a smile, “Are you Lorraine?” Bingo. “Yes,” she smiled back. That smile won her two more dinner guests—since it was the only restaurant open on a Monday evening, other than one other bed and breakfast, which in addition to breakfast, also served dinner to its guests. The next day we had a decent lunch at a 50s themed shop, Spanky’s Ice Cream and also bought cones at Four Brothers, where you can also rent bikes or golf carts.
Lodging. We enjoyed our stay at the Bay View Inn which served a hearty and delicious made-to-order hot breakfast of bacon (or sausage); eggs however you like them or omelets with a long list of possible additions; toast, orange juice and coffee. The omelets and bacon were superb, and the service, very personal just like you want in a B&B. We got to hear the owner’s back story and appreciated the hard work it takes to run such an establishment on a small island where everything needs to be shipped in and picked up at the docks by golf cart.
Reflections. In a documentary we saw at the island museum, I was deeply touched by a young woman who ran a gift shop who said other women like her work hard even if they don’t earn a real living. “Island life is hard,” she said simply, but resisted moving to the mainland. We shopped in the few gift stores just to buy several items, and give people sorely needed business.
My husband had to find the hardware store, sparsely stocked, (which doubles as the place to buy gas for boats and other engines); men gathered inside chatting on a bench; the clerk there keeps running tabs for the locals on an antique desk with individual “account drawers” for such purposes. I wanted to take a photo of that desk but feared feeling intrusive and touristy.
I cannot hope to capture the essence of Tangier Island in a visit of little more than 24 hours. We listened to retired watermen chatting near the docks, even though I could barely understand or pick up most of it; one louder fellow sounded a lot like Crocodile Dundee; mostly they strung out their vowels. Here are a few samples I was able to catch.
- Out there was “owt dere”
- Just like was “jes l-i-ake”
- Go out was “gout”
- Fuel was “few-ell”
- Hear me? was “he-ear me?”
But I breathed enough island air to have new appreciation for the history, the tremendous odds it faces from the erosion of its shores, the hard work it takes for most of those who live there, the call of home for those who have never known another way of life.
If it intrigues you too, plan a visit. Just don’t wait too long. Don’t just go for a day trip; the island takes on a different feel when the daytimers leave, and just a few overnighters stroll the soggy turf and trails, pondering the history, the future, and how life was for islanders 400 years ago.
We used Tangier Island Cruises leaving from Reedville, Va., (Buzzard’s Point Marina to be exact), but you can also get to the island from Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Crisfield from Steve Thomas’s boat.
Find more information on Bay View Inn here.
Reservations and info on the boat from Reedville here.
Have you enjoyed a visit to an out-of-the-way place in your own state or province, that could use more visitors? Tell us where, and why!