History…and Dirty Socks

I’ve long had an interest in the history of Shenandoah National Park, just a few hours west of us–and this past weekend we found a way to get up close and personal. On a last minute whim, we decided to take a quick overnight trip to Doyles River Cabin. The cabin was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936–the same year that the Park was established–and is now managed as a rental property by the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club (PATC).

IMG_3654

As you probably know, the CCC was created during the Depression as a way to provide employment, housing, and food to young men that were facing grim job prospects. CCC “enrollees” were paid roughly $30/month to built roads and bridges and cabins and more. They built a lot of structures still standing in the park (many of the original structures were removed when settlers in the park were forced out by eminent domain; more on that here).

The CCC did a lot of work across the country, including projects in Hawaii (35 years before statehood). In addition to roads and bridges and cabins, the CCC also planted trees, built flood and erosion control projects, erected fire towers, stocked trout—basically did whatever they could to improve the infrastructure of our country.

IMG_3661
The CCC built this enclosure to the spring just below Doyles River Cabin

More than three million young men enrolled in the CCC, including some that later went on to great notoriety–like baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial and Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager (I’m imagining fireside chats about curveballs at the speed of sound).

Doyles River Cabin is a primitive (no power or water) one-room structure, but it is sturdy and accommodating and in a great location. It also has a nice covered porch and a beautiful view. PATC has done a nice job maintaining it, and we were thrilled that it was available on short notice.

The hike to the cabin is just a half mile from Skyline Drive. And with such an easy hike, we figured we could carry some fancy food (shocking for us, I know). We brought a small cooler bag full of our dinner, along with some frozen water bottles to keep things cold (figuring we could drink/dump the water before heading home). We did most of the food prep ahead of time, including cracking and freezing some scrambled eggs (for Sunday breakfast) in a Nalgene bottle.

IMG_3662

We dropped our food and overnight gear at the cabin and then headed down trail another mile or so to Doyles River Falls (very pretty, despite the low-flow conditions). We shared the trail with a bunch of friendly folks, and saw quite a bit of bear scat. The black bear population is growing in the park, although we weren’t lucky enough to see one on this trip.

IMG_0545

After our hike, we spent time lounging around the cabin and soaking in the view.

For dinner, we enjoyed some nice appetizers, fried up some trout (just as the CCC might have done), made our favorite frybake French potato dish, Potato Gratin Savoyard (probably not what the CCC would have done), and enjoyed steamed mussels (definitely not what the CCC would have done).

Along the way, we discovered that dirty socks make superb oven mitts (don’t judge).

IMG_3624

As we cooked dinner, we admired the stonework and hand hewn logs that make up the cabin, as well as the beautiful view of the night sky. It’s pretty amazing to think that Doyles River Cabin has been providing cozy nights under the moonlight for 80+ years. The cabin looks fantastic for its age–which apparently is only a compliment if you are talking about a cabin (ask me how I know).

There’s something rewarding about finding an adventure close to home—and even more so when it includes a bit of history and a nice menu. And we have the mussels to prove it.

IMG_3596

Friendly, Curious, and Beautiful

We are headed out of the Faroe Islands today, are back to Scotland for a quick overnight in Edinburgh before heading back to the USA tomorrow.

We capped off our trip yesterday with a ferry out to the island of Nolsoy, about a 20 minute ride from the capital in Torshavn, where we hiked around the town and explored a bit. Later we visited a church in Sandavágur before enjoying a nice meal at a restaurant called Arrstova (“House By the Brook”) on Torshavn harbor. Arrstova is in a wooden building built in the 1600s, but the menu is decidedly modern (my favorite was the lamb tartare, and the multi-course meal was the best of our trip by far).

As is true with any adventure, we didn’t know what to expect here…even more so because we didn’t know a single person that had visited the Faroes (well, at least nobody that we had asked). What we found was a rich history and stunning natural beauty, along with more than enough tourist-oriented services and a lot of great people.

While there is not a lot of lodging (and just a handful of campgrounds), the choices are growing through new construction and through services like AirBnb. We really enjoyed our AirBnb house, and our host was super-helpful and responsive.

There’s a Faroese proverb that nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons. I’m not even sure what that means, but I can say that we’ve encountered people that are welcoming, curious, and eager to share their culture. And what a fabulous culture it is, with a deep respect for the past, optimism for the future, understandable pride, and a friendly approach to outsiders.

The Faroese are also very trusting. Nobody pays attention to locking anything here, the honor system is everywhere, fancy bikes are out leaning against fences and buildings in town, and the Faroese version of a key swap is to leave the door unlocked and the key on the table.

People are also very active and fit, and many of them were pushing baby strollers up trails that we thought were challenging ourselves. And pretty much every dog in the country is a black and white border collie (ok, so I’m not sure what that has to do with culture, but it does stand out).

IMG_0330
This was our new friend Fram

Topics of conversation with the locals have spanned a huge range, including politics, energy independence, education, and the economics of tunnel building (important stuff when you live in a mountainous country made up of 18 islands).

A quick example of the differences in culture: many of the rental cars are emblazoned with huge rental car logos, which would probably alert drivers in the US to pass at the first chance and maybe give you a “hand signal” if you weren’t up to standard. In contrast, a local in the Faroes told us that he saw the logos as encouraging folks to be more understanding when a tourist drives erratically (like us), too slowly (we did), or seems lost (we were, even though there’s basically one main road through the islands).

IMG_3415Based on our experiences, tourists are greeted with patience, whether fumbling for the right coins to pay, puzzling over a road or trail sign, mangling the pronunciation of a place name, or queueing in the wrong place (not that we ever did any of that, at least not in writing).

There is explosive growth on the islands right now, and people seem realistic about what tourism might mean for their country–both good and bad. For example, the introduction of new visitor fees—some with credit card enabled turnstiles–at the more popular attractions is something that the country seems to be struggling with (at a minimum, a lot of people were talking about it). Coming from the pay-as-you-go culture of the US, it all seemed fair to us–but I’m not sure how it would feel to pay for a hike if I were local.

It says something that the people made such an impression on us, as we don’t speak Faroese–but English is commonly spoken here. And the people were friendly, were interested in our story, and live in a beautiful country. That’s a nice combination for a wayward traveler.

You can’t understand a place in four days, but the Faroes–and their people–showed itself as a world destination. And just as nobody lives in the Faroes for practical reasons, it isn’t the most practical destination from the US. But as we get closer to wheels up, we are already talking about our next visit.

Ruins and Cows

Yesterday in the Faroes we started with a visit to the historic village of Kirkjubøur, about twenty minutes drive from the capital of Torshavn. Kirkjubøur is generally considered the country’s most historically important site, with structures that go back to medieval times. We visited ruins of 14th-century Magnus Cathedral along with a beautiful 13th-century church, Olavskirkjan, and Kirkjubøargarður, an 11th century farmhouse.

Kirkjubøargarður may be the oldest wooden structure in the world that is still occupied—and the same family, the Paturrsons, has lived there for 17 generations. How a wooden structure can last a thousand years is beyond me, especially as I have a fence back home that’s falling apart after a few seasons.

The settlement of Kirkjubøur was founded in part because it was a spot that collected a lot of driftwood, which was an incredibly important commodity in a land with almost no trees. We saw a piece of driftwood on the beach during our visit and I caught myself wondering where it’d come from. If only a tree could talk…well, if a tree could talk, it probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgewise.

DSC_1436

Before the Reformation, Kirkjubøur was the center of Catholicism across all of Scandinavia, and the Bishop at the time wrote the “Sheep Letter” there in 1298. The Sheep Letter is a Constitution of sorts, and is the oldest surviving document on the islands. Kirkjubøur dwindled after the Reformation, and then was hit by a devastating hurricane in the 1600s. The Cathedral was never finished.

We followed our visit to Kirkjubøur with a drive an hour north to the village of Saksun, where we enjoyed a beautiful (and super-windy) five mile hike out to the ocean and back, passing a huge mountainside waterfall along the way. We had to watch the tides, as parts of the hike are cut off with an incoming tide, but there was good signage to help out a few foreigners.

We were blown away by–and because of–the hike. I know everybody exaggerates wind speeds, but I’m pretty confident that there were sustained winds of 30-40mph and gusts above 50. Even the locals seemed a bit winded.

From there, we drove another half hour up a narrow one-lane road to the village of Tjørnuvík, the northernmost village on the island of Streymoy and a popular destination with surfers (easy to see why, as a powerful surf pounded the beach the entire time we were there). We enjoyed a lovely lunch at the café there, and also looked out over an old Viking burial grounds.

We closed out the day back in Kirkjubøur, where we joined a friendly rancher tending to the Paturrson family cows.

The diversity of experiences that are possible on the 500 square miles of land of the Faroes is remarkable; I’m pretty sure that this was the first day of our lives that started with medieval ruins and ended with feeding cows. (Oh, and we fed ourselves, too, with local salmon, and a nice view at our lovely AirBnB in Hoyvik).

IMG_3328
Well, this is supposed to be mostly a food blog.

A Long Way To Go For A Screen Saver

Souzz and I are into the next leg of our vacation and arrived in the Faroe Islands last night by way of Edinburgh, Scotland (one of a handful of cities that offer direct flights). The Faroes are a collection of 18 islands that are halfway between Iceland and Norway. They are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark, but they are very independent. They have their own government, their own language (Faroese), lots of services/amenities, and a very interesting culture.

DSC_1325.jpg

Less than 50,000 people live here, although there are supposedly nearly twice as many sheep. That said, it’s a very modern destination with a lot to offer–dramatic scenery as well as wonderfully friendly people.

As to how we got interested in visiting the Faroes, there’s a famous waterfall here called Múlafossur, and it popped up one day on my dad’s cable TV screensaver (doesn’t everyone get trip ideas from screensavers?).

screensaver
The screensaver shot that inspired our trip

When I saw that photo, I asked “Where is that?” As one might expect, my dad hadn’t memorized the screensaver shots; he was more interested in the Georgia Tech football game that we’d paused while we freshened up our drinks. Later, I tried (unsuccessfully) to find the location of the photo through the web. I finally took a picture of the TV screen (after waiting waiting waiting for the same image) and did a reverse photo search with Google.

It’s not the first time I’ve gotten a crazy idea for a trip in an unlikely place (see Pegman Meets Viking) and something tells me it won’t be the last.

We’ve just started our visit to the Faroes, but it’s clear that this is a special place. Cliffs plunge hundreds of feet into the ocean all around, the human history goes back to Vikings more than a thousand years ago, birds are everywhere, the roads and tunnels between islands are an engineering marvel, and the people are fantastic.

For our visit, we are basing out of an AirBnB in Hoyvik, just outside of the capital city of Torshavn. Our AirBnB host Sarah Ann has been super-helpful, and there’s a full kitchen so we have been able to pursue some local dishes. Most everything is imported from Denmark or Iceland, but the stores are full of choices.

As for the food, it’s always interesting to go grocery shopping when you are far away (much as it was in Scotland last week). The main store in Torshavn, called Miklagarður, was very well stocked, but with labels in Faroese that we couldn’t easily translate. A quick example: Toskaflak is what we cooked for dinner tonight. We’re confident that it’s fish…but we have no idea what kind.

This morning we spent some time in and around Torshavn, a vibrant town with a fabulous harbor. We really weren’t expecting so much culture here, and I felt sheepish about pre-judging this place (insert your own joke here re sheepish in the Faroes).

And with such a compact geography, we had time this afternoon to visit Múlafossur Waterfall (which inspired the trip) and to hike about five miles to a viewpoint above Sørvágsvatn. With only 500 square miles of land, everything on the road system is totally within reach. For the part of the Faroes on the road system, it’s probably only about an hour end-to-end (there are ferries to a few of the outlying islands).

All in all, we had a great time taking in the culture, hiking in the tree-less terrain, and enjoying the incredible vistas. One is never more than three miles from the ocean here, so it’s not hard to find an interesting view.

DSC_1324
The village of Bøur

It’s easy to see why this place shows up in screen savers…and travel blogs. We are here a few more days, so we are looking forward to more time in a part of the world that isn’t as well known (at least in the US) as it should be!

What’s In A Name?

Wikipedia tells me that the name Ogilvie (also commonly spelled Ogilvy) is well known in Scotland. This has been reinforced a few times during our travels, like when we introduced ourselves to our innkeeper in Nethy Bridge and she responded “aaah, Ogilvie, that’s quite the aristocratic surname (I had to look up the word aristocratic, which means I’m probably not). And then a few days later, while paddling on the River Spey, our new friend Jerry said “Ogilvie? You have your own tartan. There’s some yellow in it, right?”

I’m hundreds of years (probably more) removed from anybody important, but it’s still interesting history. The name Ogilvie originally comes from the Earls of Angus, and it is derived from the Old British word Ocelfa, which means high plain. I’d rather be named for a mountaintop, but I guess high plain is better than some other options. In any case, it’s fun to visit my roots, however distant.

There are several Ogilvie castles in Scotland, and we tried to visit two of them, Airlie and Cortachy. Airlie Castle is a bit more “modern” (it was rebuilt in the late 1800s after it was badly burned in 1640; more on that later). It is often used for weddings,  events, and “lodging” (I’m not very aristocratic, so it was out of my price range for this trip).

Airlie Castle
Airlie Castle on a sunny day

Cortachy Castle dates to the 1400s and it was the private home of the 13th Earl of Airle, Lord David George Coke Patrick Ogilvy, until very recently. Lord Ogilvy served as Lord Chamberlain to the Queen, and he is one of the last surviving attendees of the Queen’s Coronation in 1937. His younger brother Angus married Princess Alexandra of Kent in 1963, so there are some interesting connections to the royal family.

I had to laugh as I learned more about Ogilvie/Ogilvy lineage for this trip, as it conjured up memories of a visit to the Ogilvie Mountains in the Yukon a few years back. The Ogilvie Mountains are named for the famous Canadian explorer William Ogilvie (a descendant of the same British family), and I tried hard to find a link to him in my family tree…but I only succeeded in figuring out that I’m related to Scottish horse thieves. I need to be careful with this ancestry stuff.

P1030886
Ogilvie Mountains, Yukon Territory, Canada

Horse thieves notwithstanding, I learned a bunch of interesting history as I researched the various castles ahead of our trip. For example, the Ogilvys had a longstanding (hundreds of years) feud with the Campbells, and the Campbells significantly damaged Airlie Castle and set it afire in 1640. There is actually Scottish folk song about it, called the Bonnie Hoose O’ Airlie, written in the 1800s.

bonnie-hoose-o-airlie
A drawing of Airlie Castle before the fire

As for the present day, we reached out to Lord Ogilvy’s assistant via email (is this a crazy world, or what?), and she told us that Airlie was not open for visits because the Ogilvy family was “currently in residence.” Cortachy Castle is never open to the public–but a few years back, my sister talked her way onto the property and even met Lord Ogilvy. So we figured we’d ask permission to walk the grounds, and we knew we could at least visit the church and cemetery at Cortachy.

While we weren’t permitted access the grounds of the castle, Lord Ogilvy’s assistant generously shared information on how we could get close to it on a neighboring property. So after a little sleuthing/exploring around Cortachy, that’s what we did. And we had a great time, even on a rainy day when we could only get within a few hundred yards of the castle.

As for the feud with the Campbells, we haven’t encountered any Campbells yet on our trip–but I’m keeping my eyes peeled, and Souzz has been watching my back. And I’m now revisiting my friendship with two close friends back home named Campbell–and I’m also totally giving up soup.

Water, Barley, and Yeast

Suzy and I left Nethy Bridge yesterday morning hoping to paddle some of the River Spey in our packrafts, which are ultralight inflatables that are quite capable in whitewater (although the Spey is super-mellow, class II). We then proceeded to get thoroughly lost on back roads looking for the put-in. We were basically giving up when we saw a van with a rack full of kayaks pass us in the other direction. So we did a quick 180 and followed them to the river.

Once at the put-in, we soon learned that river etiquette is the same in the UK as in the US–yet another thing that our countries have in common. We asked the friendly local folks from Abernethy Nethybridge Outfitters for information on the run, they sized us up (including our boats and weather-worn gear), and then our new friend Jerry offered us a shuttle from the take-out–as long as we could be ready when they were. What followed was the quickest gear throwdown in history, and then a lightning fast shuttle ride (amazed that their van could move that fast, even towing a boat rack).

The run was mellow, maybe a few rapids of class II, but very pretty. And a great way to see the Scottish countryside.

Another first for us was that the take-out was at a Speyside distillery. So naturally we followed our paddle with a tour of Cragganmore Distillery.

Both the paddle and the tour were worth doing again, and the day gave new meaning to the idea of adding barley and yeast to water.

A Wee Drive

Last night we asked our innkeeper at the lovely Birch Croit Cottage in Nethy Bridge for any recommendations to visit in the local area, and he had some great advice. “The Scottish Highlands are nice,” he said, “but go to the west coast if you can. There’s a place called the Torridon that is quite remarkable. It’s a fabulous Glen, with towering peaks. It’d be a wee drive to get there, and the last part of the road is quite narrow. But it’s supposed to be rainy tomorrow, so that might be a good time to be in a car anyway.”

Route.png

“Hmm…the road is quite narrow?” I echoed. “Will a couple of dopey Americans driving on the other side of the road be able to get there without scaring themselves silly?” I asked.

“Well, the road is not a Harley road, more of a Suzuki road,” he responded. “It’s a single lane wide for the last bit, with places to pass every few hundred yards or so–but just go 40 instead of 60 and you’ll be fine.”

IMG_2880

The more we heard, the more it sounded like an interesting adventure. Never mind that we were in a right-hand-drive car, and that we’d probably been driving 40mph on 60mph roads for big chunks of our trip already. We love to take local advice when we can, so the choice was pretty easy.

It was an interesting trip indeed. Yes, the last twenty miles were one-way with pull-outs for oncoming traffic. Yes, the driving was exciting at times. And yes, there were stretches where we had to back up our car on a narrow one-lane road to get into a pull-out to let another car past. But the locals know how to do that, and I guess we do now, too.

The last eight miles of our trip–to the spectacularly situated community of Lower Diabaig on the north Atlantic–had our undivided attention, as it was along cliffs that were exciting to navigate going forward, let alone in reverse.

Once we arrived in the seaside community of Lower Diabaig, we had the chance to enjoy a cup of coffee at the lovely restaurant there, Gille Brighde (Gaelic for Oyster Catcher).

After enjoying our coffee, we walked along the harbor, collected seashells, checked out an old shipwreck, and shared a full-on seaside picnic (from a cooler full of food that we’d brought along). That gave us a chance to puzzle over the story behind the village, the shipwreck, who/how the road was built, and more. But mostly we just looked out into the harbor and soaked in the beautiful scene.

As our innkeeper in Nethy Bridge had suggested, the Torridon is worth the visit. It has craggy peaks all around the Glen (which is what they call a wide sweeping valley here, so that’s what we call it now, too). And it was fun to be nudged into a place that we wouldn’t have chosen on our own.

On the drive back to Nethy Bridge, we took a few short side hikes before stopping through Inverness and visiting the Cathedral Church of St. Andrew and Inverness Castle.

Visiting Inverness was the cherry on top of a day when a (mostly) gas-powered adventure to the coast actually seemed like an accomplishment.

Bookends

Today we bookended one of the most touristy destinations in all of Scotland with two slices of more local culture. We started our day at the Scottish Highland Games in nearby Newtonmore, followed that with a visit to Loch Ness and Castle Urquhart, and closed things out back in Nethy Bridge at the remains of one of the oldest castles in Scotland, Castle Roy (11th century).

As for local culture, both the Highland Games and Castle Roy certainly fit the bill. We didn’t know the Highland Games were happening nearby until we saw a sign yesterday while driving. The games go on all summer, with the venue moving from town to town, and today was the day for Newtonmore.

The activities are a mix of athletics (hammer throw, high jump, trail runs, shotput, etc.), cultural activities (traditional Scottish dancing, bagpipes, children’s games), music, carnival rides, and the Scottish equivalent of funnel cakes and candy. It’s hard to go wrong with any of that.

As one might expect, the Highland Games are a very big deal to the communities that host them, in particular the athletic events. We were likely the only Americans (or at least among the few) in attendance today, and we appreciated the opportunity to experience something truly local.

The mix of athletics with music (especially bagpipes) and dancing is certainly unique–but we walked away from the Games thinking more about how alike our cultures really are. There were carnival rides, adults enjoying family outings, kids that dropped ice cream cones and burst into tears, kids that were all smiles after getting replacement cones–pretty much what you might see in a lot of places in the US.

Next, we were off to Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness, where we went from being the only Americans to being the only Americans that had attended the Scottish Highland Games that day (?), quite the trade.

As for Loch Ness, it gained its fame in part through the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, which dates to 1933 (at least). Regardless of the veracity of that tail, we’d heard that the Loch was beautiful and that Urquhart Castle was interesting (it was, and it is). And when you combine an historic castle (1200s) with a beautiful Loch and the story of a mysterious sea serpent, you have a recipe for a giant gift shop and an overflowing parking lot.

IMG_0055.jpg

The Loch is loved well beyond Scotland. And much of the Loch’s draw has to be that it’s hard to prove to a skeptical public that something doesn’t exist (and how ironic is that?!). Another thing that humans seem to share across cultures is that we thrive on the mystery of the unknown, whether it’s Nessie, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or Souzz’s personal favorite, Champ, the sea serpent that supposedly prowls Vermont’s Lake Champlain.

Monster or not, the sheer beauty of the Loch and Urquhart Castle are not to be discounted (and yes, I really did just type “monster or not”), And it’s a reminder that touristy things are sometimes touristy for multiple reasons. And we don’t know what’s under the surface, either.

We closed out our day at Castle Roy, an 11th century fortress built by the Clan Comyn in Nethy Bridge, and we were delighted to find that we were the only people there. While Castle Roy is not nearly as dramatic or famous as Urquhart, it is also a special place, and it reinforced to us that Scotland is a land of many different kinds of experiences.

We didn’t expect to see Nessie today, but just yesterday we hadn’t expected to go to the Highland Games or Castle Roy. That’s a pretty good day of discovery.

A Lot To Learn

Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign.” With that in mind, we are now in sunny (ok, cloudy and sometimes rainy) Scotland, on the first leg of a trip that will also include the Faroe Islands (a part of Denmark).

We flew into Edinburgh overnight last night and got right to it, driving three hours north to Aviemore and then on to the quaint little village of Nethy Bridge. While in Aviemore, we did a quick shop at the Tesco, the local super market, and it was fun just to see what was on the shelves.

Our cottage in Nethy Bridge is lovely, and it’s just a short walk into town (maybe 15 minutes). There’s not much to Nethy Bridge, just a store and a coffee shop and the Nethy Bridge Hotel, but this is one of the oldest villages in Scotland. It formerly was called Abernethy, but the name was changed in the 1800s to avoid confusion with another Abernethy in Perthshire, 50 miles to the south. The name Nethy is supposedly derived from Nevie or Navie, which is the enclosed space around a Celtic Church.

What the town of Nethy Bridge lacks in quantity, it makes up in quality. The Nethy Bridge Hotel structure dates to 1897, but there has been a hotel of some sort on that spot for more than a thousand years. In more recent times, Cary Grant, Mae West, and Lauren Bacall have all stayed here.

We started at the pub, where we enjoyed a beer served at room temperature (as is tradition). Scots have been brewing beer for 5,000 years, so we figured we’d try to learn something. Traditional Scottish “real ale” also doesn’t have a ton of carbonation. Beer geeks know this and seek it out, while tourists sometimes send back their drink and complain that it’s flat and warm (thanks to my friend Scott for schooling me on that some years ago).

Our dinner at the hotel was lovely, and we started with appetizers that included something called “haggis bon-bons” (hey, when in Rome, you eat what the Parisians eat, or something like that). I dove headlong into the haggis, even if it wasn’t fully traditional. I confess I didn’t love the idea of what it was made of, but it tasted really good, a lot going on in a small space. And clearly they put haggis in a small package for tentatively adventurous eaters (read: tourists).

IMG_2652

In a tip of the cap to my brother–who as a kid had an hours-long standoff with my mom over eating a pea, and finally ate half of a pea–Suzy ate approximately one half of one pea’s worth of haggis. She did, however, enjoy the salmon, and the fish and chips (with peas).

Afterwards she said about the haggis that she “just wasn’t wild about eating something that contained lung.” Perhaps there are foreign lands after all…or perhaps we just have more to learn.

IMG_0032
Enjoying a dram at sunset, thinking about what we might learn tomorrow

Same Dynamic

I’ve wanted to visit the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island ever since I read a travel article about it back in the 1990s. It was first charted by European explorer John Smith in 1608, and its history is completely outsized for a place that is less than 1/2 of a square mile in land mass. The human history stretches from Native Americans through the Revolutionary War and on through to the watermen of the 1800s and 1900s—and many of those same families continue to ply the bay for crabs and oysters to this day.

There has been an explosion of interest in Tangier in the past few years, primarily because it is eroding into the bay at an alarming pace. About two thirds of the island has disappeared since the 1850s, and the rate of loss is now accelerating. Whether the cause is climate change or a natural cycle is a subject of some debate–but one thing that most residents can agree on is their desire to preserve the island.

Our weekend overnight visit wasn’t motivated at all by erosion; quite to the contrary, we were drawn by the sameness of the place. Tangier is disconnected and isolated from the mainland by ten miles of open water, so “conventional” change has been slow to come. And that is definitely a strong part of its draw.

We headed to Tangier on the ferry out of Crisfield, Maryland, on a scorching hot Saturday with our good friends Lou and Kay. We shared our boat with a big group of day-trippers from nearby Dorchester County (maybe 100+ people, very friendly, from two local churches). 

Once at the dock in Tangier, we watched as folks streamed into the few restaurants and the nearby ice cream shop, overwhelming the town and swelling its population by 20% (from 400 to 500+) for a few very busy hours.

IMG_2397
Main street during a peak in visitors

While our fellow travelers enjoyed lunch and bought a souvenir or two, we headed to the south end of the island to spend some time on the beach. And when we got back to town, most had already left for Crisfield on the 4pm boat.

The islanders are friendly and patient, and they clearly benefit from tourism. But I caught myself thinking that it could get old to be looked on as a curiosity, especially when big groups of tourists overrun the place. So we tried to be mindful of that as we made our way through town. After all, we were tourists, too.

Anyway, once the big group was gone, it felt like we got a truer glimpse of Tangier. The restaurants weren’t packed, the streets were quiet, and the locals were still friendly and patient—but with a bit more time to share, and at a pace that one resident described as “island time.”

As for the town itself, there are a few places to eat, a handful of shops, bike and golf cart rentals, and a few B&Bs–including the Bay View Inn and its wonderful hosts, Maureen, Jim and David. The Bay View Inn’s owners treated us like family from the start, even though tourists on Tangier are often called “come-heres” in local parlance. Lou and I took their cue about family and began teasing each other like teenage brothers, which culminated in a breakfast haiku contest that probably isn’t fit for a family blog. But what’s a weekend without a little combat haiku?

As one would expect, things are simple on the island, and there aren’t a lot of amenities. There’s almost no cell reception, and you need to be willing to get a little wet and a little hot and maybe fight a few bugs to really explore the place. Tangier is a beautiful island in the middle of a bay–but it’s not Nantucket, and by all indications it doesn’t aspire to be.

In addition to the excellent sea kayaking (kayaks are available at no charge from the Bay View Inn), a highlight of our visit was a tour of a crab shanty in the main harbor. Ookire Eskridge, a life-long waterman and the town’s mayor, was our tour guide. He was very friendly and very patient (and funny) as he explained what has been his livelihood for decades. The amount of time and effort that it takes to harvest a soft-shell crab is astounding, and I’ll never eat another one again without thinking of Ookire and his shanty.

It’s impossible to understand any place, especially one as complex as Tangier, in a simple overnight trip–but we really enjoyed the opportunity to try. We found the islanders to be kind, independent, resourceful, and proud, and there is a very strong sense of community. A few quick examples: there is a list on the church bulletin board of residents that are “shut-ins” (to encourage regular visits), there was amazing teamwork moving supplies at the dock, and looking for Ookire to arrange our tour involved (unsolicited) help from at least five people.

This is also a community that cares a lot about their island. Many (most? all?) are eager for a sea wall that can help to keep the bay at bay (one resident jokingly asked me to bring two buckets of dirt the next time that I visited). A sea wall is a complicated question these days, but there’s no doubt that Tangier is a treasure.

Sunday afternoon–and our ride home–came too quickly, despite the heat and a little bit of sunburn. These trivial things were just a hint of the challenges and the hard work that it takes to make a living on Tangier–and that doesn’t even take into account the many moods of the open water on the bay. 

When people can somehow stay the same in an ever-changing world, it sets them apart, and not always in a good way (I think of my cousin’s fanny pack, or Aunt Angela’s tube top). But in Tangier’s case, it’s a good thing, and Tangier is an extremely unique place.

My brother is a great writer and he tells me that there are not “degrees of uniqueness,” that something is either unique or it isn’t. But he’s never been to Tangier.

IMG_2331