Getaway to Tangier Island: Crabs, History, and the Mighty Chesapeake

Our region is in large part defined by the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  Although we in D.C. live a bit inland from the Bay itself, we still benefit from its bounty, such as blue crab feasts, seafood at the Maine Avenue Fish Market, and excursions along the shore.

But while you live in the area, it’s worth getting a total immersion into the richness and culture of the Chesapeake Bay.  To do so, take a weekend and head down to Tangier Island, located 12 miles into the middle of the Bay.  In order to get to Tangier, you must take a 1.5 hour ferry ride from either Reedville, VA or Crisfield, MD (each about 3 hours away from D.C.).  While there are day trips to the island, that option gives you only about two hours until the ferry turns around and comes back, so I’d highly recommend spending at least one night to really get a feel for the place.

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The island is comprised of about a thousand acres, only about a hundred of which are actually inhabited (the rest being marsh).  About 500 people live on Tangier, and since no cars are allowed bikes and golf carts are the main forms of transportation.

Tangier has an important place in American history.  Pocomoke Indians inhabited the island for many years before Europeans including John Smith arrived.  It is also historically significant because it served as the staging ground for British troops during the War of 1812.  And interestingly, to this day, residents speak in a dialect that linguists believe is very similar to the English that European settlers spoke when they first arrived in America.

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The best part of Tangier Island is the crabs and observing the economy and culture that has been built up around them.  According to locals, about 75 percent of our country’s soft shell crabs (those that have just molted out of their old shells and are soft and squishy all over) come from the area every year, and it also provides a significant amount of hard crabs, oysters, and even eels that are sold to markets in New York and other places around the country.  Because the economy is built around the crabbing, it has a feeling very similar to a New England fishing or lobster town, with little changed over the last century.

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One of the must-do activities during your visit is to take a tour of a “crab shanty,” the structures on the water around the edge of the island where watermen tend to and harvest soft shell crabs.  Because the crabs harden again within a few hours of molting, the watermen must immediately ready them for packaging and shipping, meaning that they work around the clock.

The island is not much built up for tourism quite yet, which is part of its appeal.  There are three bed and breakfasts (I stayed at the Bay View Inn, which was lovely), a couple of ice cream/sandwich places, and a few gift shops.  The three restaurants which are open for dinner (one of which has a last seating at 5pm) sell mostly an array of crab-based fare, including crab cakes, soft-shell crab sandwiches, and crab bisques.  It’s worth mentioning that the island is dry, so bring your own alcohol and be discreet about it.

crab roll

Other activities to do on the island include taking in the small yet chock-full Tangier History Museum, kayaking in the marshes to see the myriad of shorebirds (including glossy ibis and black skimmers), and biking to the beach to see a sunset.

Tangier Island is truly a step back in time, and a glimpse of how and why the Chesapeake Bay is so important to our region and its economy, ecology, and shared history.

To visit:  Ferry once daily from Reedville, VA (May-October) or Crisfield, MD.  Various bed and breakfasts, as well as vacation rentals.  Go during the summer, as very little is open during the winter.

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Appreciating Argentinian Cuisine in Rockville

We’ve got a lot of great Mexican and Salvadoran restaurants in DC, but not nearly as many South American hotspots.  Before you go pointing me to Fogo de Chao, let me specify—I mean non-chain, family-owned, feel-like-you’re-actually-in-Buenos-Aires type places.  (And I will say we are home to some great Peruvian restaurants).

El Patio

Nevertheless, I was excited to discover El Patio, a great Argentinian restaurant, café, and small market in Rockville.  Unassumingly located in a strip mall, El Patio serves up a wide variety of the country’s finest foods, like traditional barbeque (parrillada), carne salteada, and milanesas (friend or breaded meats).  The café in the back is the perfect place to snack on empandas, Spanish tortillas, and other baked goods.  And don’t forget a glass of malbec!

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El Patio also hosts a small market featuring foods and wines from Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay. Looking for yerba mate, alfajores, or chimcurri sauce?  This is your spot.  You can even buy a guampa and bombilla for drinking the mate (the gourd and straw, for those not in the know).

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One of the best things about visiting El Patio is observing and interacting with its local South American crowd.  On the Sunday afternoon when I visited, my group was one of the very few speaking English rather than Spanish.  This is what I like so much about Rockville, Centreville, Annandale, and other suburbs teeming with ethnic restaurants:  not only is the food great, but because they are located in cultural neighborhood centers, you really do feel like you’ve taken a step into a different city, even if just for a short time.

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To visit:  5240 Randolph Rd Rockville Maryland, Loehmanns Plaza Shopping Center‎, (301) 231-9225.  M-Th 9am-9pm, F-Sat 9am-10pm, Sun 9am-8pm.  About a mile walk from the White Flint metro stop on the red line.

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Science for Big Kids—The Koshland Science Museum

Not only does D.C. play host to many museums about uncommon topics (think the National Museum of American Jewish Military History or the National Postal Museum), many organizations located here also offer contributions of the museum variety. Take, for example, the Koshland Science Museum, which is the official museum of the National Academy of Sciences.

Koshland

One thing right off the bat—although “science museum” may conjure up happy moments of your youth where you played with magnets and looked at cells under microscopes, this museum is decidedly not for kids.  Which in my opinion actually makes it more unique, worthwhile, and interesting.  It also is a welcome refresher to the fact that many adults don’t feel comfortable in museums designed for kids, prompting one writer to allege (with statistics and other evidence) that “science museums are failing grown-ups.”

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Which brings us to the Koshland, whose mission is to “use science to solve problems.”  It is quite small, in that it just has a few exhibits.  But these exhibits are on big topics and also use super snazzy technology to pull you in.

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The biggest exhibit featured at the Koshland is on global climate change.  “Earth Lab:  Degrees of Change” focuses on the causes of climate change, environmental issues, and solutions to them.  Other exhibits include those that focus on the human body and immunology.  One of my favorite things to do at the Koshland was play around with the high-tech and flashy interactive exhibits, especially those that included videos about light pollution and dark matter.

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It’s quite notable that the Koshland is backed by and based upon the research of the National Academies.  The National Academy of Sciences (whose sisters organizations are the National Research Council, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine) was created by Congressional charter in 1863 to be an independent science advisor to the government.  This is all to say that the topics and research put forward that are presented at the museum are of some of the most rigorous and cutting-edge out there.

The Koshland is designed to expose the public to scientific research, which is useful, considering that these topics are often mired in ivory tower jargon and are fairly unapproachable.  And in an era where science is becoming increasingly politicized, it seems like this kind of place has never been more necessary.

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To visit:  525 E Street NW, (202) 334-1201, hours are 10am-6pm every day but Tuesday, adults $7.  Gallery Place/Judiciary Square/Archives metro stops, or lots of buses.

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An Understated Tribute to Sacrifice: the Women’s Titanic Memorial

D.C. is home to dozens of memorials, many bursting with grandeur and stateliness.  But some of the most poignant moments that our city offers are found in the lesser-known memorials that are more off the beaten path.

One of these is the Women’s Titanic Memorial, located along the southwest waterfront at approximately 4th and P SW.  It was erected by the female survivors of the sinking of the Titanic, to pay tribute to the men who lost their lives in order to save women and children.

The monument is comprised of a figure wrapped in a billowing shroud, with arms up and out (not unlike Kate Winslet’s iconic pose in the movie “Titanic.”)  The inscription notes that the statue is erected by the “Women of America,” and movingly, the back reads “To the young and the old/the rich and the poor/the ignorant and the learned/all who gave their lives nobly/to save women and children.”  Almost all of the 1,514 people who lost their lives in the ship’s sinking were men (1,352 altogether).

Originally located at the southern end of Rock Creek Park, it was funded and built by the Women’s Titanic Memorial Association in 1931.  It was moved to its current location in 1968 to make way for the Kennedy Center, and is one of dozens of memorials across the world to pay tribute to those killed in the disaster of the Titanic.

One of the best things about this memorial is its location.  It is located at the end of the waterfront pathway—technically the Southwest Waterfront Park—which ends just as Fort McNair begins.  It is a quiet, contemplative spot, framed by rows of trees planted when the waterfront was at its heyday as a bustling commercial center.  And the view is across an arm of the Potomac of the green and lovely Hains Point.

Although it was a British liner, the Titanic was carrying many emigrants seeking to call America their new home.  And thus, while a quiet tribute, the Titanic Memorial fits in well with the ethos of our historic city, one that honors and remembers those who helped our nation become what it is today.

To visit:  A 10-minute walk from the Waterfront metro stop, or the red line of the Circulator stops nearby.

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A Staycation at the National Harbor

Looking for a weekend getaway that’s not too far away and doesn’t require a car?  Look no further than Maryland’s National Harbor, which is tucked into the eastern shore of the Potomac River across from Alexandria, Viriginia.

National Harbor is a conglomerate of permanent condo residences, hotels, restaurants, shops, and conference centers.  One of its main economic hubs is the $870 million Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, a sprawling conference hub that plays host to dozens of large events every year. There’s nothing particularly distinctive about the businesses in the area, but its novelty and walkability nevertheless makes it a great getaway for a night.

There are also plenty of events that draw tourists and locals in, from Cirque du Soleil performances to running races to beer festivals (check the event schedule, and I’d suggest planning around one since just dining/shopping at the chain stores may get a bit dull).  A small marina caters to the boaters.

The harbor and its surrounding amenities are a recently-conceived idea (begun only in 2007), and its construction is not yet complete.  In the future, look for the National Children’s Museum, more restaurants and shops, and potentially even a casino, depending on how a local real estate battle plays out.  The Washington Post offers a tentative endorsement of the area, noting that it’s not a neighborhood in the conventional sense, and yet nearly feels like one since so many of its visitors are locals from the surrounding counties and cities.

Getting there is half the fun, and I will say I got quite the thrill from landing somewhere so close that felt so far without a car.  There are two options for transit sans automobile—the first is the NH1 bus from the Branch Avenue metro stop, which takes about 20 minutes and drops you right in the center of town.  The second is a water taxi from Alexandria, a journey across the river which lasts about 20 minutes (look for ospreys along the way).  A one-way ticket on the water taxi is $8, and they run every hour or so (check the schedule here).  On my visit we took the bus there, and the water taxi back, which saved us money but also allowed for both experiences.

In short, the National Harbor is a worth seeing and a perfect spot for a night of fun, providing the opportunity to get away while not ever really leaving our metro area at all.

To get there:  NH1 bus from Branch Avenue metro, or water taxi from Alexandria.  Many options for sleeping, eating, and playing.

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Savoring Senegal and the Flavors of West Africa

Our town is a veritable mecca for Ethiopian food, and I suspect many a resident has introduced family and friends to the delights of injeera and wat.  But D.C. is also home to a number of other exceptional African restaurants, including one of the few West African joints in the area, Chez Aunty Libe.

Located north of the Petworth neighborhood, Chez Aunty Libe offers “Senegambian” food, which includes influences from many West African countries like Senegal, The Gambia and Cote D’Ivoire.  Both the ambience and food are, as one reviewer put it, “straight out of Dakar.”

Dishes you may sample generally consist of stews of meat and vegetables like cassava, carrots, and cabbage.  Examples include thieboudienne (fish in a tomato-based stew), maffe (peanut or groundnut sauce), and yassa (marinated fish or meat).

Another items worth trying is the bissap, a juice made from hibiscus flowers that reminded me very much of Mexico’s “jugo de jamaica.”  And although I didn’t sample it myself, many reviews recommend the thiakry, a couscous pudding for dessert.

One of the best parts of a visit to Chez Aunty Libe is the opportunity to chat with Aunty Libe herself, also known as Liberte Ehemba.  Originally from Senegal, she arrived in the U.S. more than 20 years ago and has made her business a hub for members of the West African community in D.C.  This fact was clear early on—Libe is extraordinarily friendly, knew nearly every person who walked in the door, and had long conversations in French (and perhaps other languages) with each restaurant goers.

It isn’t often that we get the opportunity to feel like we’re on the other side of the world while still in our city, so savor it when it happens!

To visit:  6115 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-531-2561, Sunday–Thursday 11:30 a.m.–11:30 p.m. and Friday- Saturday 24 hours.  One mile from the Takoma Park metro stop, or 2 miles from Georgia Ave.-Petworth.  The 70 and 71 bus stop very close by.

 

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The Congressional Cemetery Offers a Reflective Look at DC’s More Ordinary History

Washington, DC had an interesting beginning, founded not by pilgrims or pioneers, but by an act of Congress in 1790 to establish a “federal city” that would be the seat of government.  Over time, the new city found its character, but almost entirely lost to history are the stories of the people who helped build it into a real, thriving place where everyday life occurred.  Luckily, the Congressional Cemetery preserves theses narratives, and many more.

The cemetery, tucked between the Potomac Avenue and Stadium Armory metro stations along the Anacostia River, has been called “America’s first de facto national cemetery.”  Founded in 1807 as the Washington Parish Burial Ground, the need for a close graveyard was a sign that the young capital had grown into its own.

Today, the Congressional Cemetery, which is still open for new burials, is the final resting place for approximately 55,000 individuals, who lie in 30,000 burial sites and under 14,000 headstones.  Famous figures interred at the site include J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa.  Others include Elbridge Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; Robert Mills, designer of the Washington Monument; and Belva Lockwood, who in 1884 was either the first or second woman to run for president (apparently there is debate on this topic, see here).

A number of more “ordinary” interesting characters buried at the Congressional Cemetery who have added their unique flair to DC include Mary Ann Hall, a high-end brothel owner; Marie Claire Fuller, a once famous silent film actress who died forgotten in a mental institution; and Matthew Brady, the father of photojournalism who covered the Civil War.

All of this and much more history can be learned during free Saturday tours at 11am, March through October.  Additionally, Civil War tours are held once a month on the afternoon.

In addition to the vast history that the Congressional Cemetery provides, the 35 acres of grounds are a serene haven in the midst of the bustling city.  Many nearby residents walk their dogs in the park, and birds and squirrels are easily observed in the large oak trees.

Whether you are a history buff or just curious to get a glimpse of the past, the Congressional Cemetery will offer you new insight into both our city and our nation.

To visit:  1801 E Street SE, (202) 543-0539, a few blocks from the Stadium-Armory and Potomac Avenue metro stations, and close to the 96 and other bus lines.  Open every day from dawn until dusk.

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