As we pull out of the harbor at Crisfield, Tangier Sound is pleated with waves. Gulls hoping for a handout sail alongside, suspended on air currents like objects in a child's mobile. I've hitched an early-morning ride on the mail boat to Tangier Island, Va., a place of legendary skipjack captains, watermen and age-old traditions.
I've longed to visit this place since first sailing past it years ago. Although it's called an island, Tangier is more like a dense little archipelago -- chunks of sand and salt marsh split by tidal canals called "guts" that are linked by small, arched bridges. Fishermen's cottages, Victorian houses, shops, churches and a lone school perch along the ridges, the connected strips of terra firma.
Despite its small size, there are three B&Bs on the island, which makes it easy for off-islanders to sample island life for more than just a day trip.
For 300 years, Tangier men have been pulling a living from the waters surrounding their isolated, wind-swept home. It's hard work, bound by the whims of weather and market. Added to that are diminishing harvests that have sent some of Tangier's sons off-island to make their livings on tugs, supply boats and oil rigs along the coast.
But others remain -- there are 700 year-round residents -- proudly clinging to the island and an imperiled way of life, which includes their distinctive dialect, a cross between the languid cadences of the Virginia Tidewater and the hard R's and flattened vowels that hark back to their Cornish ancestors.
Entering another world
Among Tangier's watermen, "high tide" sounds like "hoy toyed," and "firkin," an Elizabethan word for a small bucket still used by some of the older generation, sounds as if it had two or three R's in the middle. Many of Tangier's women, who now cater to the burgeoning tourist trade, have deliberately softened the accent for uninitiated ears.
Though the trip from Crisfield takes only 25 minutes, it feels as though we've entered another world as we slide into the eastern channel. On the harbor flats, several fishing boats drag triangular metal crab "scrapes."
The catch will be dumped into the soft shell crab shedding bins attached to the shacks that sit on stilts in the harbor like a small coastal village in monsoon season.
I'm staying at Shirley's Bay View Inn, whose brochure boasts that it's within walking distance of gift shops, restaurants, beach and airport (a doctor flies in and out twice a week). But on an island of barely five square miles, everything is within walking distance.
I'm met at the mail dock by Shirley's aunt, 93-year-old Ruth Clarke.
"I never tell people how old I am until after I deliver them safe and sound," Clarke later confides with a grin.
Straight-backed, with a cloud of white hair, she sits at the wheel of a golf cart, the island's transport of choice. After I climb aboard, Clarke -- "Aunt Ruth" to Tangier residents -- mashes the pedal and we whir off down one of the narrow tarmac roads between the close-packed houses.
Past meets present
Tangier is an esoteric crush of past and present. Gone are the picturesque white picket fences in the old photos, replaced by chain-link -- ugly but practical. Golf carts hooked up to battery chargers sit in clipped front yards alongside old graves, slab-covered with large headstones to keep the coffins from rising during very high tides.
We soar over the Big Gut bridge onto West Ridge and stop in front of Shirley's Bay View Inn, one of the oldest surviving houses on Tangier. Built by Clarke's father in 1904, it's set back from the beach and enjoys spectacular sunsets, which are best seen from the tall gazebo in the back yard. (Bring bug spray in case there's no breeze.)
From the gingerbreaded front porch, guests can watch the dawn splash gold over the marsh grasses on the east side. A hammock swings from two trees on the north side of the property, between the main house and a line of cottage-style rooms.
As she deposits me at the gate, Clarke invites me to stop by later.
"I'm right over on Main Ridge. Ask anyone," she says before taking off down the road.
Shirley Pruitt, the inn's owner, answers my knock and welcomes me in. She shows me to an air-conditioned upstairs bedroom with a double bed and twin bed, Victorian vanity and desk. The room's double-doored balcony overlooks a glistening expanse of the Chesapeake Bay. The TV is more ornament than amenity -- reception is almost nil.
But that's fine. Tangier is a good place for a low-tech, affordable getaway, especially for people with younger kids who still enjoy beach picnics and mucking about in reed-fringed tidal pools. To enhance the experience, several enterprising islanders rent canoes, kayaks, golf carts and bicycles.