Tilghman is barely an island, separated from the Eastern Shore of Maryland only by Knapps Narrows, a slender passage between Harris Creek, the mouth of the Choptank River and the Chesapeake Bay. The passage is covered by a drawbridge, which rises frequently as the motorized sailboats signal they’re chugging through.
Tilghman (pronounced “tillmun”) was once an important fishing and oystering center. The Tilghman Packing Co., opened in 1897 and closed in 1975, once employed 15 oyster shuckers. Originally called Great Choptank Island, Tilghman took on a succession of names. The Tilghman family was the last to acquire the island in 1752, and it has been officially Tilghman Island since.
There’s not much on the island now, and the three-mile drive from the drawbridge down to Black Walnut Point is a brief one. But there’s fishing and sailing expeditions and birdwatching, a country store, a book shop, a lovely watermen’s museum, a newly renovated hotel, a couple of good restaurants and that tranquil repose you can only find on an island on a summer’s afternoon.
An entrepreneur named John Flannigan bought Harrison’s Chesapeake House last fall, renovated the property, built in 1898 as a boarding house, and renamed it Wylder Hotel Tilghman Island. He opened its 54 rooms in April, some in the original building and some in what he calls “bungalows,” but which are actually large, pleasant motel rooms. Public spaces are airy with lots of comfortable, attractive seating. There’s an outdoor salt water pool, a wide expanse of lawn, a boccia court and a dock for sail and motor boats.
Wylder’s restaurant, called Tickler’s Crab Shack, is worth the trip and there’s a parade of small boats docking for dinner at sundown. It’s the place to indulge fabulous hard-shelled crabs, deliciously spicy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside. The crabs are steamed fresh as orders come in. Local fish is another specialty, which often sells out quickly on weekend evenings.
There’s a competent flat-iron steak and a chicken dish, as well as salads and sandwiches (including a crab cake sandwich), but it’s the crabs, shrimp and seafood which hungry diners hear calling. In the summer, lunch and dinner are served at picnic tables in a large covered area adjoining the dock. When summer ebbs, the restaurant moves inside to a dining room.
A continental breakfast is served in the Mambo Bar (included in the tab for overnight guests) and the highlight of the breakfast buffet is a basket of warm croissants baked in house each morning. They’re buttery, flaky, absolutely delicious and on a par with the best that Paris has to offer. Parisian croissants on the Eastern Shore. Who knew? Mambo Bar offers a nightly dining special, too.
The executive chef behind Wylder’s fine cooking is Sean Wheaton, originally from San Diego, who came to Washington to work with Todd Gray at Equinox. He also worked for Jose Andres and has extensive catering experience. At Wylder’s, he has 10 chefs working for him in the kitchen. His vision is to present the best of American Mid-Atlantic cuisine, but since the hotel and restaurant are new, his menus are expanding slowly.
There’s a restaurant at the Narrows, on the island side of Highway 33 as it crosses on the drawbridge. Umbrellas provide splashes of color at Characters Bridge Restaurant, inviting boats to dock for clams on the half shell or smoked blue fish, hot and cold sandwiches, a prime rib and shrimp salad, and a variety of burgers. A plump soft shell crab sandwich was perfectly prepared, crisp outside and tender inside. Dinner can mean all manner of fish, and a variety of chicken, pork and beef dishes.
But man cannot live on oysters and crabs alone, though there’s a temptation to try. So the Tilghman Island Watermen’s museum is a small and unexpected delight in a carefully maintained old building. It celebrates the heritage, traditions and culture of the island’s watermen and their families. The collection includes a number of models of a Bay skipjack, a working sailboat with a sharply raked mast and a long boom used for dredging oysters, and workmen’s boats, tools, fishing gear, photographs and paintings by Tilghman Island artists. It’s open on weekends and an island volunteer is eager to show a visitor through.
There are two special events on the island each year, both under the auspices of the volunteer fire department. The Summer Festival on the third Saturday in July that’s the one coming up features food, live music, a crab race, crafts, children’s activities and a flea market. Tilghman Island Day, on the third Saturday in October, includes crab picking and oyster-shucking contests, boat-docking competitions, live music and an abundance of crabs, oysters and barbecue. And drowsy afternoons on the porch, of course.
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.
Tickler’s Crab Shack
Wylder Hotel Tilghman Island
21551 Chesapeake House Drive
Characters Bridge Restaurant
6136 Tilghman Island Road