Admittedly it was The Cake that lured me to Smith Island. But the prospect of visiting Maryland’s only inhabited island seemed like the ideal day trip. And there would be fresh crab cakes. I mean, 8-layer cake and crab cakes: what more could you want?
While Smith Island is only about twelve miles off the coast of Maryland, once there, it’s easy to feel even more isolated. If you’re looking to escape our hectic always-on society, then a trip to Smith Island is in order.
What I ended up finding on Smith Island was a fiercely loyal and welcoming community just looking to sustain their way of life. And if that means sharing some seafood and a slice of cake, well then the more the merrier. My husband and I recently made the trip to get to know Smith Island.
Smith Island Basics
Situated in the Chesapeake Bay, Smith Island straddles the state line between Maryland and Virginia. There are three main communities on Smith Island: Ewell in the north, Tylerton in the south, and Rhodes Point on the west.
The Island is actually many smaller islands. Altogether it’s about 4.5 square miles. There’s no bridge to the mainland. During the peak season ferries run from Maryland and Virginia.
So how did such an isolated island become inhabited? The original British settlers arrived in the 17th century. Crabs and oysters have historically been the island’s main industries. The island’s isolation has allowed the population to maintain their unique accent. The Southern accent with a twist of English is referred to as the Ocracoke Brogue.
While Smith Island is a proud community, it’s disingenuous not to mention reality. Rising sea levels are causing erosion on the island. Over 3300 acres have eroded in less than the last two centuries. Similarly, natural disasters leave the island exposed. Hurricane Sandy, for example, took a toll. It’s a challenge the islanders are forced to live with. But it’s a point of contention that frustrates some as a distraction from the people who actually live there.
Cake & Crabs
But Smith Island has a lot going for it. Many visitors are attracted by the food. Smith Island Cakes, an 8-layer cake, is celebrated as Maryland’s official state dessert. Crabs — both hard and soft shell — are also a specialty of the island. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t sample both on your visit to the island.
Experiencing Smith Island
But in order to experience Smith Island, you have to get there. We sailed to Ewell with Smith Island Cruises, although other ferries are available. If you have your own boat or access to one, you can also reach the island that way.
Leaving from Crisfield in Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the boat ride was about an hour in each direction. It’s remarkable how quickly all you see is the bay. Birds chased the ship, landing on pylons along the way. My favorite part was a derelict building on stilts that had been taken over by a huge group of pelicans. The squatters simply watched us as we raced by, stretching their legs to lift their bodies over the wave from the boat’s wake once it worked its way over to them.
Visitors to Smith Island need a plan. It sounds counter-intuitive given the slower pace of life that the island proudly promotes. But with the ferry you arrive, roughly, by 1:30 in the afternoon. The return ferry is at 4 the same day. There are no other ferries for the day. So you have less than three hours to enjoy Smith Island.
The island offers plenty to do, especially for outdoor enthusiasts. But it requires some time management. There aren’t many activities, as we might consider, on the largely residential island. Smith Island isn’t a theme park or a tourist trap. And that’s part of what makes the island such a pleasure to visit. Of interest there are a couple restaurants, a bed and breakfast, a museum, a few shops and, of course, a church.
Smith Island’s dock is right out front of the Bayside Inn & Restaurant. There you can get a home-cooked meal and watch the water from their large open porch. The restaurant has a laid-back casual feel that encourages you to simply hang out and enjoy the food and the scenery. Their crab cakes were possibly the freshest I’ve ever had. The restaurant works as a good kick-off to a visit to the island.
The Epitome of Slow Travel
You can wander around the island pretty freely, strolling the narrow and largely unpaved streets. The homes are a mix of early 20th century and more modern buildings. Many seem abandoned. My visit, on a Friday in late August, was remarkably quiet.
For those looking to enjoy nature or be active, there’s plenty for you. Martin National Wildlife Refuge occupies the northwestern portion of the island. There’s lots of wildlife, especially birds, to enjoy. There’s also marked trails for kayaking. Those looking to get active may want to spend the night.
If you look across the water from the island’s marina, you might even get a glimpse of the black and white goats living wild on (what else?) Goat Island.
Smith Island’s Friendly Community
When it comes down to it, Smith Island is a warm, friendly community. As we walked throughout Ewell, a local driving a golf cart (a popular mode of transportation on the island), stopped to welcome us. It’s a friendliness you largely don’t experience elsewhere these days.
The community spirit is something Donna Smith, the floor manager at Smith Island Baking Company, shared with me before we headed across the bay. Growing up on the island she spoke of a town where everyone knows everyone else and that everything stopped on Sundays for this Methodist community. She, proudly, said no one had ever been homeless or gone hungry on Smith Island. It’s an important point to note.
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Thank you to Somerset County Tourism for hosting me! All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.