In the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island stands defiant. Its community remains strong and proud while all the other island towns in Maryland have faded away, their populations fleeing for the mainland.
Smith Island clings to a way of life that is centuries old: hard work on the water all week and then a day of rest to worship the Lord on Sunday. Many of its residents refuse to evacuate, even in the strongest of storms, even when county emergency officials beg them to go.
Visit once, and it won’t be enough. It’s not just the pull of the people, as solid and kind as you’ll find anywhere. It’s the distinct beauty of the place: the white clapboard homes, the serpentine belt of swaying marsh, the egrets standing in the road as though they understand no one’s coming.
Like its neighbor, Tangier Island, Smith remains a mystery to many in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. That began to change in 2008, when Maryland named the Smith Island Cake its state dessert. Now the eight-layer confection, which island ladies used to make for their husbands to enjoy on their long days on the water, is available at the island’s restaurants and mainland groceries. There is an island bakery, and guests often leave with one. (I was going to go with a slice of chocolate, but the island ladies recommended coconut, and it did not disappoint.)
The cake is an excellent reason to visit, as are the delicious crab cakes. But the main reason to come to Smith Island is to see the perfect if precarious balance between people and nature.
Smith Island is eroding, losing more and more of its land each year to the encroaching sea. The people who live here make their living off the water, crabbing and oystering, but they also have seen nature turn on them during powerful storms. They appreciate the Bay, though they sometimes rue it. And when they leave for mainland jobs, as many do, they yearn to return.
The town of Tylerton catches the last rays of daylight along the waterfront of Smith Island. (Dave Harp)
Smith Island is actually three towns: Tylerton, Rhodes Point and Ewell. They were once connected, but Tylerton is on an island by itself now. It has about 70 residents. Its waterfront is dotted with crab shanties, where watermen rise before dawn to tend to soft crabs. The main institution is the church, a beautiful building in the center of town.
For food, Tylerton has one option: Drum Point Market. But it’s not to be missed. Mary Ada Marshall makes the crab cakes here, and they are world famous. Many seasoned diners have said they are the best they’ve ever eaten.
Tylerton’s lone bed and breakfast, the Inn of Silent Music, also serves a gourmet breakfast and, for an extra fee, a seafood dinner. It’s worth the splurge.
Ewell is the main town, but remember, this is an island of about 270 people, not all of them full-time residents. Ewell has a beautiful and busy harbor, and just beyond it is Ruke’s, a casual restaurant, and the Bayside Inn, a more formal one. (Both are known for their crab cakes, too.) Ewell also has two bed and breakfasts, one motel and a couple of private cottages.
Less than two miles away is Rhodes Point, a lovely village that fronts the sea. It doesn’t have any restaurants or hotels, but it offers a couple of private cottages for rent.
In each town, you’ll find a mix of native islanders and second-home buyers from the mainland. Don’t be surprised if someone tries to recruit you to join the ranks. Real estate is a bargain, with waterfront homes in decent shape costing less than $150,000. There’s a reason for that: The island’s vulnerability to erosion, sea level rise, and land subsidence. But it didn’t stop several tourists on my visit from combing the island, real estate listings in hand.
Boats to Ewell/Rhodes Point leave Crisfield City Dock at 12:30 p.m. The fare is $20. There are two options: the white Island Belle, which is the mailboat, or the red Capt. Jason. I couldn’t detect any difference in terms of comfort or style.
For those going to Tylerton, there is the Capt. Jason II. It also stops in Ewell and leaves at 12:30 p.m. as well. If you are going to Tylerton, make sure you are on the correct boat.
All three boats leave Smith Island to return to the mainland at 7 a.m. This schedule is not ideal for tourists; it’s for crabs. Watermen rise early to tend to their peeler crabs, then box them up for markets in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. At 12:30 p.m., the boats return to the island to bring over more boxes so the watermen can pack the next day’s catch.
Parking your car in Crisfield is a little tricky. You can park at the municipal lot on MD Route 413 near the ferries or at the Tawes Bros, right behind the municipal lot. The Smith Island website states that someone is stationed at the lot, but I didn’t see anyone there on my two visits last summer. It costs $3 to park overnight in either place, and there is also an office across Route 413 where you can pay.
The schedule makes day trips more difficult, but they can still be done. If the ferry operators have enough people, they will make a return trip at 4 p.m. They often do that in the summer. To make sure, call Capt. Larry Laird (Captain Jason II) at 410-251-4954 or his brother, Capt. Terry Laird (Capt. Jason) at 410-422-0620.
Islanders are working with the state Department of Natural Resources on a “visioning study” to help make Smith Island viable in the future. One of the items under discussion is a more frequent ferry schedule.
Things to do
Several of the inns provide bicycles, canoes and kayaks. Ask when you reserve if yours does. If not, you can rent bicycles and golf carts at the Bayside Inn until 4 p.m.
Smith Island has several water trails around the various uninhabited islands, hummocks and marshes nearby. Find a map at www.paddlesmithisland.com. Watch the skies and check the tides before you go, and take an emergency phone number of your innkeeper or a local shopkeeper. The weather can change quickly, and people have paddled from Ewell to Tylerton and not been able to easily return.
Biking this island is a true pleasure. You can ride from Ewell to Rhodes Point and back for a vigorous, 5-mile pedal. But check the tides for that, too: The road between them often floods. I had to carry my borrowed bike quite a ways.
Golf carts are a nice way to get around, but the Bayside Inn asks renters not to drive to Rhodes Point if the tide is in the roadway.
The Methodist church is a mainstay on the island, and visitors are welcome to attend a service. It offers great insight into the islander’s faith and their resilience.
Don’t miss out on a chance to go out on the water with Capt. Tim Marshall, Smith Island’s unofficial natural historian. He’s passionate about arrowheads, spears, Indian necklaces and artifacts; he has an impressive museum full of his finds.
Marshall takes visitors out to hunt for sea glass and arrowheads, and he knows just where and when to look for treasures. The former waterman also has a sharp eye for wildlife; he’ll point out stingrays and the birds flying overhead. He’ll also go to South Point, an island with thousands of brown pelicans that will instantly transport you to the Galapagos.
Also well worth it are the sunset cruises. John Del Duco, a transplant to Ewell from New York, takes guests out on the water to enjoy a breathtaking view. Del Duco also runs a historic driving tour of the island. He also helps run the Smith Island Inn, and he volunteers at Ruke’s.
Del Duco came to Smith Island nearly a decade ago after googling “cheap waterfront real estate.” A Smith Island cottage was the second listing. While staying at one of the inns to check out the place, Delduco looked out the window at the swaying tide and said to his wife, Pam: “I could die here.”
She said, “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll live here.”
Despite Del Duco’s encouragement, I’m not ready to plunk down a deposit on my island dream home yet. But I know I’ll be coming back to Smith Island soon. I miss it already.
Travel tips for Smith Island
Smith Island runs on cash. There is no ATM. The restaurants and gift shops take credit cards; the boat captains do not.
Cell phone service is spotty. The Internet is more reliable, but it isn’t fast. If you need to be reached, it is best to give the phone number of your inn or hotel.
To prepare for a trip back in time, read Bay Journal columnist Tom Horton’s excellent book, “An Island Out of Time.” It’s a memoir of his three years living in Tylerton, beautifully written, and still relevant.
Bring bug spray, sunscreen, a topical antibiotic, Band-Aids and closed-toe shoes if you plan to muck around in the marsh. It’s rare, but people have gotten infections from going into Bay waters with open cuts or scrapes. If you have cuts or scrapes, consider staying out of the water or clean them well when you come out.
There is no doctor on the island, but you can visit the Crisfield Clinic on the mainland if you need medical attention. If it’s an emergency and you dial 911, Somerset County may decide it’s urgent enough to dispatch a Medevac helicopter to take you to the mainland emergency room.
What to do
Capt. Tim Marshall offers tours of island wildlife as well as hunting for arrowheads and sea glass. Tours cost $40 an hour for a two-hour minimum, including admission to his museum. He will take up to four people. Call 410-425-2165.
John Del Duco offers historic driving tours, sunset cruises and occasional taxi service for visitors who want to go to the Martin Wildlife Refuge. You can reach him at 410-425-2650.
Missy Evans also provides service from Tylerton to Ewell for $20 per person: 410-968-1175.
There is currently no place to rent a kayak, but you can bring your own — if your inn does not have one — for a $5 portage fee on the ferry.
Article originally published in the Bay Journal on March 16, 2015.