As we drive down Route 33 toward Tilghman Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore and cross the Knapps Narrows drawbridge, I can feel the tension in my neck ebb, my blood pressure ease back to normal.
A trip to this three-square-mile chunk of sand at the mouth of the Choptank River is like a visit to a kinder, gentler time -- especially in winter and early spring before the boating season starts.
"Tilghman's two hours and 30 years from D.C.," says David McCallum, a Washington transplant who moved to the island (pronounced "Tillman") in 1989.
Things here seem hardly to have changed in decades. Old wooden work boats and the few remaining skipjacks -- big wooden sailboats used for dredging "arsters" -- still ply the surrounding waters. At Fairbanks Tackle shop, leather-faced waterman happily swap tall tales in the distinctive Eastern Shore drawl of their forebears.
On the sand-swept main road, children balance younger siblings on their handlebars as they bicycle to and from school. The closest thing to a commute is the daily visit to the post office.
First settled in the mid-1600s, the island was eventually named for Matthew Tilghman, a member of the first Continental Congress. In the late 18th century, the island was much larger, and most of its residents farmed or made their living from the water. Today, storms have chewed away at the island's perimeter.
"My father used to pick tomatoes out there in the bay," notes Robert Lednum, pointing toward now-submerged fields. Today, only about 10 percent of the island's 2,200 residents still "follow the water" for a living.
Now, much of the business on Tilghman (residents never say "Tilghman Island") is leisure-based, as evidenced by the fleet of yachts on shore, shrink-wrapped for the winter. Several Victorian homes have been turned into charming B&Bs, and there are four restaurants within a half-mile radius.
Mike Richards, who with his wife, Carol, owns the Lazyjack Inn, takes people out for sunset cruises on Lady Patty, a 45-foot bay ketch. A few of the skipjacks have joined the tourist trade, too -- Herman M. Krentz and Mamie A. Mister are available for day cruises -- and Capt. Wade Murphy, an old salt and owner of the 110-year-old skipjack Rebecca T. Ruark, has traded full-time oystering for Thursday evening cocktail cruises, complete with hors d'oeuvres offered by the Tilghman Island Inn. Later he speaks about watermen and their vanishing way of life during dinner at the inn.
Life slows down
Most of the water-based activities start in April. Now, boats are tied up, blocked up or otherwise immobilized. Only a handful of watermen leave the narrows at dawn, trying to rake whatever is left of the oyster population from the bottom of the bay.
As we drive along, my husband, Gary, points out wood ducks, a snowy egret and a bald eagle riding an air current toward Black Walnut Point's bird sanctuary at the southern tip of the island. We pass the Naval Observation Station, whose several radar spin madly -- a reminder, perhaps, of international tensions -- and pick our way along the snow-clogged drive toward the Black Walnut Inn, a Victorian B&B that offers a panoramic view of the river and bay. In a treetop, we see the bald eagle again, now standing guard over a large nest, waiting for a meal to fly or swim past.
We ease back along Black Walnut Cove, where a startled great blue heron leaps into awkward flight. I fumble with my camera, trying to capture a close-up of his delicately painted face.
There are plenty of houses on Tilghman, but there is still open space, too. And through every gap in the trees, past every channel buoy, the only thing visible for miles is water. As a result, the island feels like a world apart -- and that makes it a great place to relax and recharge.
This sense of peaceful escape has lured a clutch of city folks to settle here. Some, like Stephanie and David Feith, who quit Fortune 100 jobs in Atlanta to open the Wood Duck Inn, sought it out. Others landed here by chance. Several years ago, Carol and Mike Richards bought a boat and outfitted it in a marina here in preparation for a two-year cruise.
"It took six months to get the boat ready," Mike Richards says with a laugh, "and by that time we had decided to stay."
Yet not every business owner on the island is a "come-here." Tilghman's biggest employers are the Harrisons, who own the Chesapeake House, a century-plus-year-old family-run hotel and restaurant that boasts the largest sport fishing fleet in the region.
While the Chesapeake House has been a popular weekend retreat for generations, it also gained fame (or maybe notoriety) under Levin Faulkner "Buddy" Harrison III, the island's unofficial mayor, for its wet T-shirt contests and other boys-will-be-boys shenanigans.
More recently, though, Buddy's son, "Buddy Jr." -- Levin Faulkner Harrison IV -- a member of the Talbot County Council, has toned down the entertainment and promotes a more family-oriented atmosphere.