Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Smith Island - Back in Time

If you happen to live on the East Coast somewhere close by the Chesapeake Bay, you should take a trip to visit Smith Island either for a few hours or for a weekend.

You can pick up a ferry boat out of Crisfield ( we used Captain Jason) for around $20 one way per person and enjoy a nice ride across the waves, but be warned, don't be late as they don't wait for anyone. We happened to go on a day when the weather was a little rough and the waves tossed the boat a bit, enough to make me hold on tight to my seat. The captain was a hardy soul and didn't seem to mind that water was dripping from the ceiling in many points and sloshing around the deck as we plowed through the seas. It was exciting and scary for a landlubber like myself.

Once the island comes into the view of the ferry, you can see immediately that it is a waterman's island. Crab traps, boats, piers and pilings decorate the water's edge for most of the coast. Shantys dot the landscape where crab processing still goes on. Most of the wood structures have a gray weathered look and nothing seems to stand quite straight due to the storms that roll over the island every year.

We stepped off the ferry and walked to our bed and breakfast, the Smith Island Inn, one of only a few in Ewell that we knew about. Little streets lined with tall trees and old houses on either sides formed communities, although we were surprised at just how quiet everything was. Very few people were visible and since the island was tiny, there were almost no cars. Once in a while a person would pass by on a bicycle and smile and wave, but to us, the island seemed deserted,

Upon arriving at our lodgings, we were happy to see our host and a few other guests. He was quite willing to talk and fill us in on everything about the island. He mentioned that they had a few bikes for our use to tour the island a little faster than walking as well as a couple of kayaks for navigating the waterways - both of which we did. Our bedroom on the first floor was comfortable with a spacious bathroom, I loved the beautiful old wood floors covered here and there tastefully with woven rugs. Although no televisions were available, plenty of books and games were ours for the stay. Besides, we spent most of our time outside exploring.

The bikes were great for allowing us to explore the other side of the island, only about a mile away but very different and even quieter than Ewell. Everyone pays attention to the tide as roads flood over everyday during high tide and without a boat, you just have to wait for the water to subside before you can get to the other parts of the island. All the school aged children took a ferry boat to the mainland so we only saw a few in the late afternoon. Some old houses stood empty, in fact many beautiful old structures were empty, some partially rebuilt, pointing to a more prosperous time when the schools and churches were filled with a vibrant community of people.

Kayaking was pleasant on the southern side of the island where grasses stood tall and channels zigzagged through them. We saw eagles and osprey, white cranes and plenty of other birds. I imagine the bug population provided a feast for all the birds, which reminds me to recommend the strongest bug repellant you can get. Flies and mosquitoes seemed to enjoy our Deet and kept us either moving or inside. I could understand why some of the locals chose to stay inside and away from being live bait for the creatures.

Little islands were everywhere along with signs of previous inhabitants who had since long gone, leaving their homes to slowly sink into the ground, but generations of goats and turkeys still dominate the land, living wild. We found it fascinating to see herds of goats with one prominent male standing high on a leaning tree limb or rock while the rest of the flock grazed below.

Our first night was interesting as we didn't realize that the only restaurant open on the island at that time, Ruke's Seafood Deck closed at five, before we thought to plan ahead, since dinner for us was closer to seven or eight. Thankfully, we did have some sandwiches that we brought from home to tide us over. Early in the morning, before we were even thinking of waking up, we could hear men's voices calling out to each other in a brogue too hard to understand and then boat motors starting up. It seemed like almost a hundred of the watermen headed out at once, but later we found out that there were really more like twenty or thirty of them. Around three o'clock in the afternoon, they all flooded back into town and then disappeared into their homes, except for a few who came out to greet the kids that came home on the boat from school shortly thereafter.

Our innkeeper arranged for a local islander to make us a wonderful breakfast of french toast, fig jam made from local trees (which incidentally grow into massive trees with huge trunks there) delicious Smith Island Coffee and sausages, We paid attention to time and did get into the restaurant twice, once for lunch and then for dinner. For lunch we sat inside and were amazed at the antiques all around the room. The restaurant served as the antique shop for the town and everything had a little paper price tag tied to it. The servers were so friendly and the portions were huge. Of course, we tried the crabcakes and the local specialties. Our dinner was outside on a back screened in area overlooking the water where all the crabbers worked. A young boy was practicing using a hammer, securing any nails that the weather had popped out, and that was the extent of the people in our room. We sat at picnic tables and put our feet up on the benches as we waited for our dinner. Service was friendly but on island time so we just relaxed and enjoyed the quaintness of the place.

Time seemed to be at a standstill here with most of the focus on times past when there was a thriving community and before the Bay had reclaimed so much of the soil. Organizations are hard at work to keep the island from disappearing totally under water, but I recommend taking at least a day to come here and see this community before it sinks, so close to the major cities of the world but in a land far away from all the hubbub of our life as we know it. Here is a link to an article done by, The Big Picture, with amazing photography.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Windy Rincon

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Rincon, Puerto Rico for a few days Traveling there wasn't hard as it is a US territory and no passports or currency exchange are necessary. We took a flight to San Juan, rented a car and drove along the top of the island to the west coast where Rincon is located.

Now, I will mention that I don't enjoy getting hot, by which I mean anything over 78 degrees basically makes me uncomfortable and searching for a means of cooling off. So you might ask, why are you going to Puerto Rico? Well, I still love traveling and as long as there is water close by, I figure I can deal with the heat. 

Rincon was amazingly cool, at least where we stayed. The constant breezes that kick up the waves for the surfers also kept the air amazingly cool. Did I mention the waves? Rincon is a surfing town where experienced surfers come to seek the rough waters for the thrill of riding the waves. It is a quiet area where little boutique shops line the narrow roads that wind around the island. 

I happened to stay in a private residence (Caracol Che, which I highly recommend to anyone traveling in a group) that was built with open walls throughout and the breezes never stopped, keeping any bugs at bay. From there we could walk to beaches and restaurants. The walking was easy until we had to go uphill, but then we just walked a little slower. Walking gave us a chance to see the tropical plants like banana trees and coconut palms and beautiful vines that were in bloom all around. Colorful but strange birds and lizards would catch our eye and then we would be fascinated by the sightings of goats or horses or chickens that seem very common in the tropics.

We chose to cook most of our own meals which meant we got to go shopping. Their stores were filled with foods I had never seen or heard of and strangely lacking in some things I would consider a staple, like bread flour. However, I liked the challenge to work with the ingredients offered and had fun trying to correspond with the locals without speaking much Spanish. However, my favorite part of shopping was stopping at roadside stands and buying fresh fruits and vegetables and whole fish from a guy who spoke almost no English. 

We visited a few restaurants when we were tired of cooking and most were priced similar to what we were used to at home. Since fresh herbs are in abundance there, cocktails like mint mojitos were fresh and enjoyable.

One spot we found on the beach, blew all the other establishments out of my memory, the Tamboo Tavern Beach Bar. It was a beach bar with casual seating overlooking the ocean and open walls all around. Wind whipped through strong enough to blow the lighter foods off our plates but it was not irritating in any way. We could watch wind surfers playing on the waves while we ate the freshest appetizers of seafood or pork with fruits and vegetables prepared with minimal steps. Don't forget to try the tostones.

I like vacationing where I can interact with the locals as I want and eat the foods they like and Rincon gave us such a great visit. The prices of staying there were almost half of the Virgin Island's and although it is a US owned territory, I felt like we were in a different country. 

If you are a traveler that likes to venture beyond the normal American chain hotels and restaurants, I highly recommend Rincon but kind of hope that you don't go so that it can stay the quiet and laid back community that it is. I would like to say that I can't wait to go back, but I still want to visit so many other parts of the world that I haven't seen yet.

I can't write about Rincon without remembering to mention the beach glass. The waves seem to bring up shards of sand-softened colored glass, more than the usual beaches I am used to. When you feel like taking a little walk along the coast, look down and be amazed at what you might find.