A Multi-Layered Place

A formula for at least some of our trips goes like this: never been there before + don’t know anybody that’s been there = adventure. In the case of our recent trip to Smith Island, there was an added multiplier: we had never heard of it until a few days before.

We stumbled upon Smith Island as a potential destination while we were looking into a possible trip to Tangier Island, which is Smith’s neighbor to the south. Once we “discovered” Smith and researched a bit, it looked to be quaint, off the beaten path (in the middle of the Chesapeake), and somewhat unknown to us—in other words, a perfect weekend adventure.

Smith Island is worth knowing about. The island is a collection of small watermen’s communities that aren’t really built for tourists, but that’s part of what makes this place so charming. Services are limited, but there are a handful of B&Bs and there is regular ferry service from Crisfield, Maryland. And getting to Smith is part of the adventure. It was about four hours door-to-door from Northern Virginia (including the ferry ride).

We were joined on the ferry by Smith residents that were bringing in groceries, supplies, and building materials, as pretty much everything but seafood and cake generally comes from the mainland (more about cake later). We mirrored the locals and brought along picnic-style meals ourselves (although there is a restaurant in-season that is generally open for lunch).

The island was first charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 and later named after Henry Smith, an early landowner. It was settled in the late 1600s by English farmers John Evans and John Tyler, and the 250 or so current residents live across three communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Tradition runs deep here, as crabbing, fishing, and harvesting oysters have been a way of life for generations.

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A crabber keeps his live catch in a wooden crab float, 1945. Photo credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Families on Smith today still appear to share a lot of connections (the names Evans and Tyler remain heavily represented on the island). Smith Islanders also share a dialect, sometimes called a Tidewater or Elizabethan accent, which was different enough to make us listen closely at times on our trip.

During our visit, we rode bikes, checked out the marshes and bird life, visited the Bayside Inn restaurant (great seafood, no surprise), and stopped by the local art gallery in Ewell. We also had a lovely chat with the friendly caretaker at the Smith Island Cultural Center. A lot has happened—and is happening—at Smith, ranging from Revolutionary War history to the current threat posed by erosion (the island has lost 1200 acres over the past 100 years).

We closed out the day back at our lovely B&B, the Smith Island Inn, where we watched a sunset that seemed to take a full hour.

What struck me the most about our visit was the evening quiet. Maybe it’s because watermen’s communities are ‘early to bed’ kinds of places—or maybe I’m imagining that—but the stunning quiet was something I was glad I got to hear (can you hear quiet?).

There are clearly a lot of layers to Smith, with history and nature mixed in with a dash of tourism—all on a working watermen’s island. A friend from the Eastern Shore told us recently that Smith Islanders look forward to getting their first skiff at age 14 or so, much like city kids might look forward to cars and drivers licenses. That makes sense when you are in a place where a trip to school involves a boat ride. Life clearly revolves around the bay when you are living in the middle of the bay.

And speaking of layers, we also took the opportunity to enjoy Smith’s trademark dish, Smith Island Cake. It’s typically a yellow cake with eight or more thin layers of fudge frosting that is an island specialty. Smith Island Cake dates to at least the 1800s, when it was made to take along on the autumn oyster harvest.

When we got back home, we of course were inspired to make our own version of Smith Island Cake, complete with a taste test against the real thing (by our visiting niece, who was a good sport!). I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the eight cake pans that I bought just for this recipe, but souvenirs are a part of the travel experience, right?

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Our niece was a good sport and did a taste test…and the real Smith Island Cake won, of course!

 

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