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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.


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.


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.


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.


Filed under Activities, Daytripper, Local Food, Museums

Catch of the Day at the Maine Avenue Fish Market

The Maine Avenue Fish Market, a collection of seafood joints located on barges in the Potomac River, is a grimy, fun, hidden gem that features some of the most authentic food and people-watching in the District.  Open continuously since the early 1800s, the market is located under I-395 on approximately 12th and G SW.

A half-dozen vendors make up the market, such as Captain White’s, Jessie Taylor Seafood, and Evans Brothers for dessert.  The main attraction is the wholesale seafood, displayed on ice in copious quantities.  Chesapeake Bay blue crabs (of all sizes and genders) are ubiquitous, and it’s not hard to spot faves like rainbow trout, swordfish, and octopus.  More exotic catches, like gigantic freshwater shrimp and shark, can also be seen.  Be aware that only some of the seafood is local, the remainer being shipped from various other locations across the country and the world—just ask the employees, who are friendly and willing to talk your ear off about fish.

Also entertaining about the market is the fact that you can order up anything to eat right there on the harbor.  Oysters and clams on the half shell are only $1 each, or you can select crabs to be freshly steamed.  A healthy selection of sides are available to suit the non-pescetarian vegetarians amongst us, such as French fries and hush puppies.  And as would fit a true Maryland attraction, there is a comprehensive set of condiments for the seafood that includes large jars of Old Bay.  The price is right, making the market the source of some of the cheapest seafood in the area.

The Maine Avenue Fish Market, which was razed in the 1960s and nearly discontinued, is crowded and smelly, but it’s downright local.  As a friend of mine said, “it’s like Seattle’s Pike Place Market  before it was gentrified.”All different sorts of folks end up at Maine Avenue, with large families in tow on the weekends, and that diversity is the best thing about the place.

To get there:  Smithsonian or L’Enfant Plaza metros, or SW Waterfront Circulator.  Hours unclear, but generally dawn ‘til dusk.


Filed under Activities, Deals and Steals, Local Food, Restaurants

A D.C. Resident Finds Maryland Crabs in Virigina

As strange as it sounds, it’s actually pretty difficult to find Maryland’s famous hard-shell blue crabs in Washington, D.C.  Baltimore and Annapolis, of course, are a whole different ball game, but after much searching I was coming up empty-handed in terms of a great off-the-beaten path crab place in or close to our city.  Luckily, the Quarterdeck Restaurant in Arlington was suggested, and it was just what I was looking for!  Newspaper covering the tables, mallets, and pitchers of beer, this place has it all.

We spent our late summer evening sitting on the enormous patio and feasted on piping hot blue crabs dressed in Old Bay spice.  You can order them by the dozen or half-dozen, in four different sizes, or go all out for the all-you-can-eat “crab feast” for $34.95.  In addition to steamed crabs, the Quarterdeck’s menu has a healthy variety of surf and turf, including a few vegetarian items (though, fair warning, you might be scrounging a bit).   Also highly recommended is the assortment of homemade pies, from key lime to red velvet to an odd yet yummy blueberry cream.  And I would like to note that the Quarterdeck is the only restaurant in my recent memory that has draft beer cheaper than bottled beer.  There’s something to be said for that, right?!

The location of the Quarterdeck leaves something to be desired, as it is nestled between highways in the condo metropolis that is the Courthouse neighborhood, but in some ways the journey out there adds to the fun.  No views of the Bay from this establishment!

I wasn’t aware until I visited that there is actually a season for blue crabs, from April to October (or “Tax Day to Columbus Day” as the website states).  So, this post may be a bit late for the year’s catch, but if you can’t make it this summer, file it away for 2011!

To get there:  orange line to Courthouse, then a 15 minute walk (with sidewalks most of the time).  1200 Fort Myer Drive, Arlington, Virginia.  (703)-528-2722.

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Filed under Activities, Local Food, Restaurants