Sorry, Maryland, the best crabcakes come from the Chesapeake Bay all right - but the Virginia side.

They put them together by the hundreds every summer day at Hilda Crockett's Chesapeake House on Tangier Island. Hilda is no longer there to oversee their construction, having passed away, but her daughters Betty and Edna keep the faith.

Why are the Crocketts' crabcakes so good? Because they're all crab, and folks on Tangier have been collecting crabs for a living long enough to know how to pick them properly. At Crockett's you get perfect meat, no cartilage, with just enough stickum to hold it together while it's fried a light golden brown.

These cakes are served to tourists for lunch along with the following repast: fresh bread, corn pudding, clam cakes, ham, peas, pickled beets, cole slaw, apple sauce, potato salad, cake and iced tea.

Everything is very good and abundant, which is very good, because once you're on Tangier you eat at Crockett's or you don't eat. And there's not much else to do.

Tangier is one of the unlikeliest tourist attractions ever encountered. The season runs from Independence Day to Labor Day, a short span for this part of the world. From all indications, the 850 natives would just as soon have it two months shorter.

There's none of the island gaiety mainlanders come to expect. Tangier folks are dour to an extreme, and the visitor's first encounter is likely to be with a surly mopeder screeching through a line of tourists, his thumb crunching the horn button and his brakes long forgotten.

"I had a frined go over there in January to work on a construction project," said David Rowe, who lives across the Bay in Reedville, Va. "He's been there six months and he hasn't made the first friend."

Indeed, Tangier folks are known around the Chesapeake as a singularly self-centered lot. Many traces their heritage to the century after Capt. John Smith discovered the island in 1608, and many island mailboxes bear one of three last names - Crockett, Pruitt and Parks.

The natives retain an Elizabethan accent, presumably a holdover from the days of the British explorers, and they do not take kindly to jokes about their speech.

The Crocketts' brochure reads more like a warning than an introduction. It quotes from a treatise by one Sonny Forbes: "Step not lightly upon these shores nor cast light-hearted gazes upon our isle . . . Take not a dim view of our dwellings nor laugh at our narrow roads . . . Do not misunderstand our language nor make joke of our native tongue . . . Do not mock our walk or look down upon our quaint ways . . . for upon these shores have walked men of God, made of fibre woven close for age . . . "

Perhaps because of the general atmosphere, both boat lines that run cruises to Tangier have made the day ashore a short one, highlighted by lunch at Crokett's. Passenger ferries run daily from Crisfield, Md., and Reedville, and both schedule about 2 1/2 hours on Tangier. I took the Reedville boat with a couple dozen other travelers last week. We landed in Tangier just after noon, and by 2 we had gathered again on the dock, having seen enough.

We walked the narrow roads, but the real main street of Tangier is the dredged channel that runs through town.

It's a beehive, with crab boats and skiffs racing from point to point, dropping off people and catch at the crab shanties that line the shore, perched on skinny stilts.

For all its shortcomings, Tangier is a place worth seeing just for its uniqueness. And it's lovely getting there. On the trip over from Reedville we watched the huge ships from the Virginia menhaden fleet setting their purse seines off shore, saw ospreys guarding their nests on the channel markers and seagulls wheelong and crying over the open sea. We watched anglers battling bluefish from charter boats and the rustling hulks of the military target ships off low-lying Tangier.

Tina, a cafeteria worker from Richmond, was not disappointed. "I sure wouldn't want to live here," she conceded, "but I hate to go home."