An Excursion to Smith Island

Isolated, quiet, friendly Smith Island is set apart from the rest of the Eastern Shore. No bridge connects it to the mainland; residents rely on boats to get to the doctor, the malls, even schools. But they're delighted to see visitors, offering a warm welcome in the distinct Smith Island accent. So go. Hop aboard one of the boats that leave around lunchtime from Crisfield on the Eastern Shore or Point Lookout on the Eastern Shore.

Go for the uniqueness of the place: modest streets with only a few cars, long shacks where "peelers" doff their shells to become the highly prized softshell crab, vistas of bay and wetlands.

Go for the food: crabs steamed the minute they land on the dock and multilayered Smith Island cake, the official state dessert.

Go to meet the Smith Islanders and hear the lyrical twist they put on their English. Listen to their stories about life in this out-of-the-way place.

Located 12 miles west of Crisfield, at the edge of Tangier Sound, Smith Island is a cluster of islands making up Maryland's largest inhabited offshore community. There are three towns. On one island is Ewell, where the cruise boats land, and Rhodes Point. Pretty Tylerton is on a second island; Martin National Wildlife Refuge is on the third.

A few notes: You can't bring a car. Plan on a stroll, or rent a bike or golf cart. There are no bars, as it's a "dry" island. But it's fine to bring your own bottle. Shops are few, but make sure to stop for a piece of cake or a jar of preserves made from the island's pomegranate, pear, or fig trees. Remember your bug repellent and sunscreen -- black flies and mosquitoes are sure to plague you, and although the streets are shady, the sun can be fierce.

One thing's for sure: If you take the ferry for a day trip, you're going to leave wishing you had at least a few more hours here.

Getting There -- The excursion boats come only in summer, but you can catch the mail boat or residents' ferry (which leave promptly at 12:30pm) if you want to visit off-season. Passenger ferryboats leave from Crisfield and from Point Lookout State Park on Maryland's Western Shore. Or you can bring your own boat.

From Somers Cove Marina in Crisfield, Smith Island Cruises (tel. 410/425-2771; sails at 12:30pm and docks at the Bayside Inn about 40 minutes later. The boat leaves for Crisfield at 3:45pm. Service runs daily Memorial Day weekend through October 15. Round-trip fare is $25 for adults and $12 for children 3 to 11. Reservations are required.

From Point Lookout, on the Western Shore, the twin-hulled Chelsea Lane Tyler makes the 1 1/2-hour trip across the Chesapeake Bay Wednesday through Sunday in summer, plus weekends in September and mid-October.

Another option is Capt. Otis Ray Taylor (tel. 410/968-2428) who goes to Smith Island year-round. His Island Belle II is the mail boat; it leaves Crisfield's City Dock at 12:30pm and departs Ewell at 4pm. Another option is Terry Laird's Captain Jason (tel. 410/425-5932 or 422-0620), which leaves from Crisfield for Ewell at 12:30pm and 5pm and returns to Crisfield at 7:30am and 3:30pm.

To get to Tylerton, call Larry Laird (tel. 410/425-4471 or 251-4951), whose Captain Jason II goes to both Tylerton and Ewell from Crisfield's City Dock. The boat departs Crisfield at 12:30 and 5pm, and leaves Smith Island at 7:30am and 4pm (3:30pm in winter).

None of these three boats requires reservations. Fare is $25 for a same-day round-trip, $40 on separate days. The Captain Jason I and II also take kayaks for a fee.

You can bring your own boat, but check the charts for shallow spots: Smith Island Harbor at Ewell can be 4 1/2 feet at low tide. Water is deeper if you come from Tangier Sound via Big Thorofare. Smith Island Marina is beside the county dock and Bayside Restaurant. The gas dock in Ewell is open Monday through Saturday from 8am to 5pm. (Avoid gassing up in late afternoon, as the watermen use the pumps then.) Smith Island Marina (tel. 410/425-4220) has transient slips, $1 a foot for overnight, $10 for daytime docking. (It is said that Ernest Hemingway once docked his boat here.)

Visitor Information -- While you are in Crisfield, stop at the visitor center at 1103 W. Main St. (tel. 410/968-1543) or visit the Tawes Museum at Somers Cove Marina, 3 Ninth St. (tel. 410/968-2501), for information.

Once in Ewell, the island's largest town (pop. 100), visit the Smith Island Center (tel. 410/425-3351), up Smith Island Road from the Bayside Inn, to get a sense of how the island is laid out, learn a little history, and see exhibits about the island. Admission is $2; from May through October, it's open daily from noon to 4pm.

Getting Around -- No cars are permitted on the island. Everything is within walking distance. You can bring your bike on the ferry or rent a bike or a golf cart next to the Bayside Inn.

Orientation -- Ewell is the largest town. It's where most cruise boats dock and has most of the island's seafood-packing houses. Rhodes Point, a mile south of Ewell and the island's center for boat repair, was once called Rogues Point because of pirates who stopped here. A marshy place, it's reachable via a wooden bridge from Smith Island or March roads. Tylerton may be the most remote place in Maryland, accessible by only one boat. The state's last one-room school was here until it closed in 1996.

Where to Stay & Dine -- Ewell has two major restaurants. Bayside Inn (tel. 410/425-2771), with its white siding and red roof, is the first spot most visitors see. Food is hearty and served family style. For my money, the best crab cakes come from Ruke's Seafood Deck (tel. 410/425-2311), located down the road in a shabby brown building. If you don't want to eat with a crowd, bypass the restaurants and pop into Harbor Side Groceries (tel. 410/968-9090) for a snack or carryout. In Tylerton, the only place to eat is the Drum Point Market (tel. 410/425-2108). These places are all open daily in season, but may close from 3 to 6pm.

B&Bs in Ewell and Tylerton offer the only overnight accommodations.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.