PHOTO: Smith Island Cake. (wikipedia)
You know you’re going to love Smith Island as soon as you meet Captain Otis on the Island Belle.
Smith Island…..located 12 miles off Crisfield, Maryland, accessible only by boat, and more than 300 years in the founding. Today, almost all of the 300 residents who live on the island year round are descendants of the first five families who settled there in the 17th century, settlers from Cornwall and Wales looking for a better life. Not only did they find it here, but they’ve saved and handed down a good portion of their morals, ethics, friendship and way of life to make it a most unique spot to visit today.
Capt. Otis is a Tyler, a descendant of one of the first five families who settled on Smith. Actually, Smith Island is a combination of a couple of smaller islands, with three main towns…Ewell, the largest, Rhodes Point, a bridge away, and Tylertown, accessible once again, only by boat. Otis is Captain of the Island Belle, the official mail boat for the island who also takes packages, groceries, prescriptions, and guests along. The boat itself is unique; built on the island in 1916, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The day I arrived on Smith Island, I arrived with a brand new washing machine for one of the residents, the day’s mail, several large economy size bags of dog food, two homeward bound residents, and a bunch of boxes with unknown (to me) contents.
I arrived to stay at Susan’s B&B for a couple of nights, a trip designed to satisfy my curiosity about this very unique marshland in the Chesapeake with which, while we share the same name, has no connection to me other than sentimentality.
Capt. Otis only took a minute to secure his boat while islanders waiting on the dock happily handed off the cargo and put my suitcase on the back of Otis’ truck. (Although only accessible by boat, there are a handful of vehicles on the island, all barged over.) The Captain was taking me right to Susan’s B&B a couple of blocks away. There, with no one home, Susan had asked if he’d prepare me a glass of lemonade and some homemade chocolate chip cookies before showing me to my room. Susan is an Evans, a 13th generation of the first Evans on the Island, the second main family who settled there. Besides running a B&B, she’s a professional who works at the hospital in Crisfield, traveling on Otis’ boat for each of its two trips a day. She had left word I should make myself at home, feel comfortable, and treat her home like it was my own. Of course, the door was unlocked; I never did learn if there ever was a key to it.
You can’t see the love, care, and happiness that are all built into the house from the outside, but you can feel it as soon as you open the door, see the table set for dinner in the enclosed porch with huge windows that look out directly on the Chesapeake 500 feet across the dirt road. You feel it in the cozy living room with the coffee table overflowing with books telling the history of the island and its people. You feel it in the sparkling clean kitchen, modern by any standard in spite of the early 20th century age of the three bedroom charmer. Upstairs, you tear your eyes away from that Chesapeake view from the bedroom window to notice the natural wood windows and woodwork, the white-washed walls that set off the dark wood, the high queen-size bed dressed in complimentary brown and gold shades, and the piles of pillows bringing 21st century fashion into 17th century charm.
Susan had also left word to be sure to use one of the bikes in the front yard to ride around the island, or take a kayak from the back to follow one of the trails along the Chesapeake. I opted for the bike.
It would be another four hours before Susan would be home and prepare dinner (a $30 option worth twice the amount!) set for 7p.m. Plenty of time to unpack, enjoy that lemonade and cookies, and cycle around some of the island. The US Census records there are approximately nine square miles on Ewell and Rhodes Point; in actuality, about half of that is marshland and water. The highest point on the islands is a bit less than four foot about sea level, so while storm erosion has constantly eaten away at the island, and efforts are currently in place to preserve further erosion, the salt marshes provide safety from every day flooding. Though, admittedly, after several days of heavy rain, some of the streets at high tide reminded me of Highlands after a March storm or a nor’easter!
Over the next two days of cycling, I learned everyone on the island waves, smiles and wishes you well as you pass; drivers in pick-up trucks wait at one side of the bridge to Rhodes Point when they see you coming up to the opposite side; the bridge is too narrow for a comfortable pass of truck and bike. I learned the school has one teacher and eight students in K through 6th grades, and the older youngsters board the boat daily for higher education at Crisfield. I learned the Methodist Church steeple is the tallest structure on the island, the cemetery is a fascinating walk-through of life stories over the centuries, and the Museum is a marvelous re-telling of life on Smith Island by watermen why ply the waters for crabs, their wives and daughters who do the ‘pickin’ of the crabmeat, the church they all belong to, and the volunteer fire department and EMTs. It’s also filled with memorabilia and models of Skipjacks, the sailing vessel once used by the watermen, and the tools of the watermen’s trade on the water. I learned there are a couple of other B&Bs on the island, but none with a water view like Susan’s; only one of the two eating places on the island is open at this time of year…Memorial Day pretty well officially starts the tourism season….and the one open year round is also the local grocery store.
Back at my comfortable island home that evening, I met Susan. Tall, with a quick smile, an infectious laugh and a lot of happening exuding from her ever active self, I also learned she’s lived most of her life on the island, save for a few years when she moved to the mainland. She purchased the house when she was 19 years old and lived there with her family for several years. Now, with the family grown and gone and herself alone, she decided to convert her home into a B&B with an eye towards a comfortable retirement a few years down the road.
Seems like an excellent choice for this friendly, outgoing woman with a knack for excellence, a masterful cook whose recipe for the official state cake, the Smith Island Cake is in recipe books, and tireless energy. Breakfasts are gourmet style with plenty of fresh berries and other fruits; if you’ve never tried a Susan Omelet, you don’t know what it’s like to taste fresh crab and shrimp in your eggs in a morning. Dinners are equally gourmet; the tennis ball size crab cakes are succulent, delicious, and pure crab, with the seafood caught by a cousin, picked by her mother, and prepared by Susan!
Talking about food, that Smith Island Cake is something like you’ve never seen before. It’s comprised of ten layers, each about crepe thin and all baked individually. The layers are put together with a chocolate cream frosting. However, every Smith Island woman makes her own and there are variations in the frostings, including some with butter cream, fondant, crushed candy bars, or fruits including fig, coconut, lemon or orange.
Smith Island invites you to relax, forget a clock, and simply enjoy the view. Whether it’s a mother duck with her newly hatched ducklings walking down the middle of the street, a semi-wild (nobody claims them, but lots of neighbors feed them) cat walking nonchalantly alongside, the sun setting over the Cheseapeake, the wild goats who come close to the water to play and feed, or the variety of water craft that create the moving seascape, the key word is relaxation. For the kayaker, it’s a reasonably easy paddle around the island, for the cyclist, an easy trek the five miles round Rhodes Point and Ewell. For the birder, the shore birds are magnificent in the salt marshes, and at this time of year, the pelicans are beginning to hatch. For everyone who enjoys stepping back into a life that demands hard work and some sacrifices, it’s an eye opener into how happy people who believe in that can be.
Leaving the island in late afternoon, on Otis’ second trip of the day to the mainland, it’s memorable to look back and see an island packed with quiet excitement, natural beauty, and people who make you feel at home.