It happens all the time. Someone is wearing a T-shirt from a distant destination and I enthusiastically ask if they’ve been there. Sometimes I’ve been to the T-shirt worthy locale, so it’s a fun conversation starter – or non-starter. Case in point, after a dip in the pool a friend recently wrapped up in a towel with “Portofino” grandly displayed. “I’ve been to Portofino!” I commented.
“Where’d you stay?” she responded enthusiastically.
“Well, we didn’t go into the town. We stayed at a little bed and breakfast up on the hillside looking down. It was really beautiful.”
She looked confused. Then I noticed the small letters below the blue Portofino script on her towel – Florida.
I added meekly, “Oh, I thought it was for Portofino, Italy.”
“I wish I’ve been there!”
And so it is in the New World, with an inordinate number of cities and towns named after a city with the same name on the other side of the Atlantic. Most of these places in the United States are completely unlike their namesake. Take Tangier, for example. When John Smith landed on the island it reminded him of the region in North Africa for which he named it. The quickly shrinking island is currently nothing like Tangier, Morocco, though I have no doubt the much larger island of centuries past may have had similarly large sand dunes and scrub brush. Namesake aside, the residents of the island are proud of their heritage as watermen (crab catchers) and welcome visitors who support their one other industry – tourism.
Tangier Island gets mixed reviews because people have mixed expectations. This is no Portofino Island, Florida. There are no resorts, chain restaurants, cars (only speedy golf carts), alcoholic beverages, ATMs or even a bridge to get there. You must take the ferry or fly a puddle jumper that lands on the small airstrip. People go to Tangier Island because they’ve heard the locals speak a unique English accent, a mix of British English and American English with its own Chesapeake lilt, preserved because of their isolation from the mainland. As we strolled down the main street – a lane the width a golf cart – we did appreciate overhearing the locals engage one another in lively conversation in a tongue that seemed to be its own dialect. But one doesn’t journey to an island just to eavesdrop on people talking about the weather or last night’s hockey game. We also came to do what we usually do when exploring with kids – take a walk, look at bugs, visit a museum, find a playground, and eat. Fortunately, Tangier Island was more than obliging on all accounts, so it completely met our expectations.
After disembarking the boat, we made our way down main street to the school playground. The swings and slides were in working order, so what more could we want? When the boys let out for recess (boys and girls take recess at different times), I asked the friendly recess monitor what we should do during our few hours on the island. She recommended we visit the museum and then take the nature trail behind the museum to the water’s edge to enjoy the vista of the village. This we did. The Tangier Island museum, and most notably the short video documentary, is a must see at the beginning of a visit to the island. It greatly increased our previously limited understanding of the unique island culture, its history and its uncertain future. Even the kids appreciated the static displays and curiosities. After viewing the museum we found the aforementioned nature trail and walked past a gentle tomcat who looked like he had been mauled by a giant crab, past one of the the ubiquitously placed Tangier Island lighthouse trashcans, past a row of decorative bird houses, over a marsh and, finally, to the water’s edge. There, we enjoyed some ice cream and relaxed on new benches, while intermittently sprinting to grab hold of the shirt of a child leaning too close to the water’s edge. The water is shallow and visual treasures abound, so count on spending time peering into the salty sea.
We lunched at one of the five dining establishments, ordering a variety of fresh seafood. Soft shell blue crab was in season. Not being a native of the region, I received a quick education on crustaceans. I know crabs have hard shells, so, having never pondered the life of a crab, I just assumed some varieties also have soft shells. Why else would they be called soft shell crab? That’s not exactly how it works. Crabs molt their hard shells as they grow. When the shell comes off, the new shell underneath is still soft. Because the new shell only takes hours to a few days to harden, consuming crab during this phase is considered a delicacy. My delicacy, three soft shelled tiny critters, was served battered and deep fried on a bun.
The islanders are hospitable, welcoming folk. They all know each other and know that you are a tourist, but most are still up for a chat. As we sat in the shade of a tree by the swings, the biting flies became nearly insufferable. Noticing our constant swatting, a lady pulled up in her golf cart and handed us a bottle of bug repellant. “Yeah, the flies are really bad. We should put that in the literature so visitors are prepared with repellant.” Though we weren’t prepared in that regard, she had noticed our discomfort from afar and came to our aid. Where else does that happen? Like most locals, she wasn’t in a rush to anywhere and was happy to to chat about the island over the buzz of the flesh-eating insects. Apparently they just get more numerous and large as the season moves into summer. Did I already mention you should bring fly repellant?
Once an island of over 2,000 acres, the plot of land is now down to about 700 acres. The island is disappearing. You need to visit, if only in fifty years to be able to say “I was there.”
After visiting the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta this year, I couldn’t pass up this shot of the vending machine opposite a porcelain throne. Priceless.
Ferries to Tangier Island depart from Reedville, Virginia; Onancock, Virginia; and Crisfield, Maryland. More information can be found on the island’s official website. The website is simple without flashy banners, advertisements, and embedded drop-down menus, but everything you need is there. Kind of like the island.