Did you know… there’s an island in the Chesapeake Bay that’s been so isolated, for so many years, that to this day its residents speak with an actual “relic accent?” Did you know the island is only accessible by boat? That it’s one of the oldest English-speaking settlements in the region? And, that it has its very own cake? Welp—there is. Smith Island. Right on the Chesapeake’s Maryland-Virginia border. Before we even get started, let’s have you experience the Smith Island accent. Because, if not the cake, this is what really sold me on going.
Audio Credit: Trent Swanson’s YouTube video.
How Did You Even Discover Smith Island?
So, there I was… yearning for some weeklong beach getaway. And all available accommodations were just… not inspiring me. I suppose it was that it was late in the season and a lot of places had already been booked. Or that crazy packed boardwalks and bars where all semblance of social distancing goes out the window just wasn’t getting me excited. So, I did what I do and started searching for something a little outside-the-box. That’s when I discovered Smith Island on Atlas Obscura.
The more I read, the more intrigued I was. This place is my kinda jam. For sure. An isolated island civilization with a legit Elizabethan accent just a couple hours away? Count. me. in. There’s a lot to know about this little place. A lot to do. And a lot of carefully planned logistics required to get there. So keep reading. And learn how this unusual little Chesapeake island stole my heart.
All About Smith Island
The Island Itself
Smith Island sits in the Chesapeake Bay right on the Maryland-Virginia border. For “DMV” residents (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia), it’s just north of Virginia’s Tangier Island, if you’re at all familiar with that. It’s only accessible by boat and, while you will find vehicles on the island, yours… isn’t allowed. (I’ll be honest, though, there’s really not much of a need for one, anyway.)
Smith Island has around 200 year-round residents all told. These residents live primarily in three different itty bitty towns, all located on the Maryland side of the island—Ewell (“the capital”), Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. While Ewell and Rhodes Point are connected by a road, to reach Tylerton, you’d have to go, again, by boat. Just north of the island is Maryland’s Martin National Wildlife Refuge.
The Smith Island Accent
The island was settled in the 17th century and has managed to retain its “relic accent,” attributed to the Cornwall and Dorset regions of the United Kingdom. It’s technically referred to as an “Elizabethan accent” and is super similar to North Carolina’s Ocracoke Brogue, or High Tider dialect. To me, it sounds like a mix between super rural Southern and Irish (in some instances). But I’m no linguist.
Smith Island Cake, The Official State Dessert of Maryland
Smith Island Cake is a distinctive kind of cake, and one that was eventually named the official Maryland state dessert. It’s anywhere from 8–15 layers, made with condensed milk. It also typically uses fudge frosting, instead of buttercream, since fudge held longer for watermen on autumn oyster harvest. The cake is usually a yellow cake with chocolate frosting, but comes in a plethora of flavor combinations for tourists. The #AP4L and I tried chocolate… and lemon… and coconut-pineapple…
Things To Do On Smith Island
I actually kind of feel like things to do on Smith Island could be an entire post unto itself—and maybe I’ll write one elaborating further on all the details—but, for all intents and purposes of an introductory article…
Kayak the Waterways
Smith Island is home to miles and miles of marshland waterways and kayaks can be found all over the island. Our AirBnB cottage had a couple for use free of charge, and from what I could tell in my lodging search, most rentals there offer the same. Go it alone, or hire a guide. Suggested paddles include going down to Tylerton or across the way to “Goat Island,” an island inhabited by non-indigenous, free-range goats. (Yes, there is a story there.) Find paddling maps here.
Crabbing, Oystering, or Fishing
Crabbing and oystering are the primary method of income for the residents of Smith Island. And you can hire local residents to take you out for the day. You can also support the local economy by purchasing fresh crabs for dinner or ordering them ready-made. Information on both can be found online, but you can also literally just show up to the island and ask a neighbor.
Ride a Bike to Rhodes Point
This was a super fun mini-escapade for the #AdventurePartnerForLife and I. Bike rentals (old bikes) can be made at the Bayside Inn in Ewell. You can do a whole day, of course, but we just did a couple hours. Enough to bike the two miles to Rhodes Point and back.
The fun part was that the tide comes in midday and covers the one road over, so we cycled over through the water in our sandals, which was sometimes more than six inches deep. You could see the crabs skittering away as you biked past, but every now and then, one would bow up and throw its claws around. (Don’t worry—blue crabs are pretty small and mostly harmless.)
I’ll be honest that there’s not much to see in Rhodes Point itself (a boat graveyard at the very end of the road, some super old homes, and an interesting enough cemetery), but the marshland and birdlife on the way out is incredible.
Visit the Smith Island Cultural Center
The Smith Island Cultural Center is small, but mighty. It’s super easy to find if you’re in Ewell and definitely worth a quick tour. Learn about the incredibly interesting island history and have a chat with the locals. Keep in mind the island population is so small, all the families know each other—and have for generations—and they’re almost all descendants of the original settlers on the island. If you visit the Ewell or Rhodes Point cemeteries, you’ll see Evans, Tylers, and Whitelocks galore.
Boat Over to Tylerton
Sadly, we didn’t make it over to Tylerton during our stay on Smith island, but we did hear good things. So, someone go and report back to me! There are regularly scheduled boat rides over from Ewell, and I’m told the architecture there is pretty interesting. If you’re anything like me, you could probably wander around for a solid couple hours just photographing.
Relax On a Private Beach
Another thing we didn’t get to experience—chillin’ on a private beach. Though we were invited to by locals, so I know it’s an option. And I think there are several locations to choose from, too. Just ask someone and take a kayak. Had it not been our very first night on the island after a day of driving and boating, we probably would’ve joined them because, frankly, it sounds like a dream.
The birdlife is absolutely incredible on Smith Island. I can’t stress this enough. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “bird-watcher” and I’m certainly not an ornithologist, but I couldn’t get enough of the birds there. They’re everywhere, and they’re unafraid. On our bike ride, we got so close to massive birds before they even blinked at us. And, on our return ferry ride, I saw the most gigantic pelican. Definitely a fun find.
Mingle With The Locals
One of my favorite parts of this getaway was talking to the locals and learning all about the island and family history from folks. The family lineages go way, way back, and there’s a lot of history between the families that can be unpacked. …We even heard a little shade thrown here and there.
How To Get To Smith Island
I wouldn’t say getting to Smith Island is “difficult” per se, but I will say that there’s not that much information available online and it was just a touch tricky, so read the following details carefully.
Smith Island Ferry Departure Details
The ferry departs to Ewell and Tylerton year-round from Crisfield, Maryland. I’m finding there are also seasonal departures from Point Lookout, Maryland and Reedville, Virginia as well, but I can’t personally confirm those details.
- While there are a couple of boat options, we jumped on Captain Otis Tyler’s Island Belle II, which also happens to serve as the Smith Island mail boat. It departs the Crisfield city dock twice a day at 12:30 and 5:00 pm and takes about 45 minutes. Return ferries are 7:00 am and 3:30 pm daily.*
- The city dock is the picturesque dock at the very end of Highway 413, which is also West Main Street. I couldn’t say if the ferry docks at the same slip consistently, but there aren’t really defined slips at this dock. For us, it was just to the left on the other side of a covered sitting area. (Before the sort of big dock gazebo at the very, very end.)
- It’s $20 per person each way, and you pay in cash on the boat itself. (We saw tons and tons of boat tour offices in Crisfield that made us think we needed to pre-book tickets. You do not need to do this.) If you’re doing a roundtrip ride in a single day, it’s $30. Either way, let Captain Otis know your return plans.
- We contacted Captain Otis ahead of time each ride and they drove our cooler and bags to and from the house for us so we didn’t have to drag it down the road ourselves. (It wouldn’t have been horribly difficult to do and isn’t far anyway, but if you’ve got a big family with a lot of stuff, it might not be that awesome.)
*While the return ferry times might not seem the most convenient, we learned that chartering a private boat for the ride is in the $200–$300 range, so just suck it up.
Where To Leave Your Car In Crisfield
Parking is available in Crisfield for a nominal fee. It took us awhile to figure out where to park and how to pay, so the information in this particular section is gold. (See accompanying photos and map below.)
- You park in a grassy area in front of “JP [something] & [something] Lumber,” right at the corner of North 11th and Broad Streets. There will be a row of cars already there and, when you see the building I’m referencing, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about with the name, so don’t worry. It’s a beige building with an orange roof.
- There’s a small metal dropbox by the front door where you pay cash for parking. (It says there’s a camera, but I’m pretty sure it’s just an honor system.) It was $3 per day. So bring cash and bring some singles.
- Our car was parked there for five days and was totally fine.
Oh, you know there’s gonna be some strange info with this little island. Which is exactly why I wanted to visit it.
As mentioned before, you can’t take your car to the island. But you can rent golf carts and bikes at Ewell’s Bayside Inn. You cannot take the golf carts all the way to Rhodes Point from Ewell, unfortunately, because they’ll die, but the bikes are a free-for-all.
The bikes are old and a little janky, but there’s a small selection to choose from and they ride somewhat fine. (We both had at least one really low tire, but the #AP4L suggested it was for gripping. I’m not so sure…)
Cell Signals & WiFi Are Spotty
We never really had cell signals while there. And the WiFi at the cottage randomly crashed a few times for an hour to a couple hours at a time. Nevertheless, the #AdventurePartner was able to work remotely fairly seamlessly, I’m just not sure I’d 1000% count on it.
There Are No ATMs
There are no ATMs on the island and everything is cash-based, so do come prepared. Things you might want to spend money on while you’re there include boat tours, the ferry ride, a evening at the Bayside Inn Restaurant, fresh crabs or catering delivery, Smith Island cake (!!!), cart and bike rentals, donations for the Cultural Center, and incidentals at the itty bitty Exxon gas station.
Technically, It’s A “Dry Island”
What this seemed to mean (to me) is that, while the islanders themselves are very religious and you won’t find any alcohol being sold on Smith Island, you can bring your own and partake discreetly. The main Smith Island website plainly states this, our cottage information confirmed it, and we were even invited to a local happy hour while there. We casually enjoyed our Maryland Meadworks mead and wine and cider while there without issue. Just be aware and be respectful, check with your proprietor before bringing alcohol, and don’t make a scene.
It seems silly to say this since the island is so tiny, but it took us a while to locate the convenient store. It’s right at the Exxon station where the boats fuel up, on the back side of the building facing the water. Cash only, of course. Super small. But it has candy, sodas, some food items, and a small toiletry selection.
There Were Bugs
Lots of bugs. So bring bug spray, bring antihistamines, and bring Band-aids. They weren’t so bad out on the water, but on land, they were really unpleasant, I’ll be honest. And there was one sort of brown fly that was particularly stubborn, stupid, and persistent. I’m sure the type and quantity vary depending on the time of year, so maybe we just picked a bad time. And, if you’re spending most of your time on the water, it shouldn’t be a huge deal anyway. But come prepared.
There Are Jellyfish
Really not a big deal, but just a heads up. We never happened to see any because the rainfall had been so heavy, but there are little jellies in the Chesapeake. The locals call them “nettles.”
Respect The Marshes
Duh, right? But, seriously:
- Be safe.
- Respect the birdlife.
- Appropriately discard your litter.
- Don’t go walking around through the marshland; you can get stuck.
- Make sure you have a waterway map on you.
- And, bring water on any excursions.
Get There Soon
It’s worth mentioning that Smith Island has lost over 3,300 acres of wetland in recent years due to rising sea levels. A 50-year-long restoration project is in the works in the hopes of getting back some 2,000 acres of it.
And, as is the case with all things awesome in this world, I don’t think the island will stay a secret for very long. The neighboring Tangier Island has reportedly already been taken over by younger couples buying vacation properties and, of course, the local island flavor gets more and more depleted because of it. (So we were told.)
What this all means is you just need to get there soon to truly enjoy Smith Island in all its quirk and splendor.