Exploring Virginia's Chesapeake Bay
This quiet Virginia peninsula is the Chesapeake that you fantasize about--friendly towns, crab aplenty, and history at every third mile marker
Two things make Tangier Island tick: soft-shell crabs and tourists. Three ferry services bring about 20,000 visitors each year to the self-proclaimed soft-shell capital of the world (quite a title for what's all of three square miles). A display between souvenir shops shows live crabs in tubs with placards explaining the industry. Fishermen set traps, keep an eye out for crabs about to molt--the edges of the paddle fins turn dark red--and place them in holding pens until they shed their shells. Once they're soft-shell crabs, they have to be removed immediately or their hard-shelled neighbors will eat them right up.
The island has a days-gone-by charm: Clapboard houses with white-picket-fenced yards line the shore. Golf carts are the main vehicles used to get around, though locals drive them like they're sports cars. We hop on a cart waiting by the dock for a tour by Tangier Island native Sylvia Parks of Parks Tours, a guide for 31 years. "There aren't many secrets here," Sylvia says, lead-footing it around the narrow dirt roads. "Everyone knows everyone and everything." Locals don't even pretend they're not watching your every move. Later, as Sam pets a dog, two men on a golf cart pass by and, without stopping, shout, "The dog's name is Milli--as in Milli Vanilli."
We have lunch at the Fisherman's Corner restaurant, run by three fishermen's wives. "They can be sure their catch is fresh," says the hostess. "It comes directly from their husbands, after all." I have my first-ever soft-shell crab sandwich. The two deep-fried crabs, wedged between slices of Wonder bread, look and taste as though they crawled straight from the bay into the fryer.
Sam and I walk past crab traps on the piers and stop at a bulletin board. A handwritten sign reads $1 for 10 tangier island recipes, and there's a bucket for money tacked to the frame. (Aunt Nellie's Crabmeat Casserole and Mom's Coleslaw both require generous amounts of mayo.) The Reedville ferry, which usually makes only one trip a day to Tangier, departs soon. It's a 90-minute ride to the mainland, and we get back around 7 p.m. Since things close early on the Neck, we have to make good time to get to Kinsale, 45 minutes away, in time for dinner.
- Tangier Island FerryBuzzard's Point Marina, Reedville, 804/453-2628, tangiercruise.com, round trip $25
- Fisherman's Corner4419 Long Bridge Rd., Tangier Island, 757/891-2900, soft-shell crab sandwich $9
- Parks ToursTangier Island, 757/891-2261, $5
- Reedville Fishermen's Museum504 Main St., Reedville, 804/453-6529, $5
Day 3: Kinsale to Westmoreland Park
Sam and I have signed up in advance for the 10 a.m. departure of a kayaking tour on the Potomac, at Westmoreland State Park. Our destination is Horsehead Cliffs, a section of the coast that used to be under a prehistoric sea. The area was popular with sharks, and the predators' fossilized teeth can be found in the sand. When we arrive at Fossil Beach, visitors are sifting the sand through screens and pocketing their discoveries. Park policy, surprisingly, is that you can keep whatever teeth you find--which would've been cool, if we'd found anything.
Westmoreland Berry Farm, about 15 minutes away, has a similar keep-what-you-find policy. In addition to u-pick strawberry and blueberry patches, there's a petting zoo and barn with fruit preserves and berries for sale. Instead of picking, Sam and I opt for a tour around the property on the kiddie train, which is pulled by a tractor. Sam tries to bail mid-route, claiming his spine is going to snap from all the bumps, but by the time he's about to jump off the train, the eight-minute ride is already over. A slice of fresh-baked berry pie à la mode helps speed his recovery.
On the other side of Westmoreland Park, Stratford Hall Plantation was home to several generations of Lees, the most famous being Robert E. At the visitors center, photographs and excerpts of the family's personal correspondence highlight the accomplishments of a litany of Lees, but the plantation history itself also grabs me. Stratford Hall was built after another house burned down, killing a servant. (The fire is believed to have been set by indentured servants.) We're staying the night on the property: Our simple guesthouse has Northern Neck ginger ale in the vending machine and a back patio overlooking the woods.
Before the trip, I'd heard good things about the Driftwood, a restaurant in Coles Point, 25 miles away. I order the fried oysters and a chardonnay from a local vineyard, Ingleside. I'm rewarded on both counts. The wine is sharp and satisfying, and the lightly breaded oysters from the Chesapeake are salty and slick. After coffee, Sam and I retire to the back patio of the Stratford Hall guesthouse to stargaze.