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The Idyllic Islands of Georgia

Georgia’s historic coastal islands offer everything from haute to honky-tonk and a pristine national seashore.

 

A quirk of geography—the Atlantic seaboard’s long inward curve between North Carolina and south Florida—makes coastal Georgia a watery paradise. The beaches and coastal islands are shaped by high tides. All this water pushes inland, creating a vast, low panorama of swamp, salt marsh, tidal creeks and barrier islands. This is a stunningly pristine region; most of the islands aren’t even inhabited. Those that are offer a range of vacation styles, all within a day-trip from Savannah.

Tybee Island: What a Beach Town Used to Be

Just 12 miles from the city is Tybee Island, an old-fashioned and deliciously unpretentious beach town. There’s nothing slick—not a Starbuck’s in sight. The main drag is a jumble: old cottages and motels, newer low-rise condos, miscellaneous shops and restaurants. (People gladly stand in line at the Breakfast Club, “World Famous Since 1976,” where the spicy sausage is homemade. 1500 Butler Ave.) The quiet back streets are lined with simple cottages, many with big-screened porches, many for rent.

Beach Tours

There are five miles of broad ocean beach. On the bay side, there’s the seemingly endless world of marshes, creeks and islands—watersports heaven. A perfect way to explore it—quietly, at sea level—is by kayak through Sea Kayak Georgia. A half-day guided tour to gorgeously natural Little Tybee Island and up a tidal creek into the marsh is $55. Full-day and custom camping ventures are also offered. 1102 Highway 80. Tel. 888-529-2542. Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. www.seakayakgeorgia.com

Top Tybee Attractions

Tybee attractions include a lighthouse dating from 1773, which you can climb for a dazzling view. Oddball 19th-century Fort Screven now houses private residences, but is also the site of a local history museum.

Mostly, Tybee is a place to lay back. There are a few white-tablecloth restaurants. But the scene is more authentic on a waterfront deck where diners might arrive in bathing suits and flip-flops. Lively Cafe Loco is steps from the shrimp boats that provide its daily supply. Its owner fondly calls it “honky-tonk.” Tybee Waterfront Village. Tel. 912-786-7810. cafelocotybeeisland.com

AJ’s Dockside faces the bay and marsh, with a straightforward seafood menu, a stunning sunset view and a Margaritaville vibe. 1315 Chatham Ave. Tel. 912-786-9533. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. ajsdockingtybee.com

Sapelo Island: Living History

Reynolds Mansion

Some Georgia islands, once plantations, later became private winter playgrounds for the wealthy. The tobacco-rich Reynolds family owned Sapelo, and in the 1920s rebuilt its 1810 cotton planter’s mansion. The island, reached only by ferry, is now a state nature preserve. The 13-bedroom mansion is available for group stays or tours.

Reynolds Mansion. Tel. 912-437-3224 (tours) and tel. 912-485-2299 (lodging reservations). Mansion reservations are based on availability and require a minimum of 16 guests and a two-night stay; the mansion can accommodate up to 29 guests. Rates start at $175 per person per night, and include three meals per day. www.gastateparks.org 

Hog Hammock

Sapelo is also the site of tiny Hog Hammock, among the last remaining original Gullah communities. Gullah people (also known as Geechee) are descended from slaves who worked on island plantations. Due to the isolation on the Georgia and South Carolina islands, they retain a culture and language closer to their African roots than that of other African-Americans.

The village has a few guesthouses and eating spots, and guided tours are offered. There’s also a campground with hot showers. Expect to walk or bike on sandy lanes to explore the island’s empty beaches, haunting plantation ruins and an ancient American Indian shell ring. [Read more about Gullah culture in the South.]

Sea Island: Upscale but Understated

Manicured where Sapelo is wild, and dressy where Tybee is casual, Sea Island is a five-star private resort. It centers on the historic Cloister hotel, which was rebuilt in 2006, but without sacrificing its traditions of gentility. An array of accommodation types are offered.

Activities include tennis, golf, boating, fishing, riding, shooting, shopping and luxuriating in the spa. Sea Island is a favored destination for high-end meetings—it recently hosted a Group of Eight international summit meeting—and a place where many guests return every year. The Cloister rates start at $750 per night. 100 Cloister Drive. Tel. 866-879-6238. www.seaisland.com

Cumberland Island: Pristine Preserve

This largest and southernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands once belonged to the Carnegie family. Carnegie descendants still run the Greyfield Inn in a house built in 1901, and there are a handful of other private homes. But the island is a protected National Seashore. Most visitors come by ferry, from the mainland town of St. Mary’s, on day trips or to camp; reservations are a must. There are both developed and primitive campsites. Don’t expect any restaurants or stores; bikes can be rented.

Historic Sites

Cumberland has more than 50 miles of trails through maritime forest and sand dunes, past salt marshes and into freshwater swamps. Guided tours are offered of Plum Orchard a turn-of-the-century mansion, and ruined Dungeness, which was the Carnegies’ main house here. You can also visit a historic African-American church, and the remains of slave dwellings.

Nature in its splendor is the real draw here. Wildlife viewing—including sea turtles, alligators, wood storks, egrets and feral horses—fishing, hunting, swimming, hiking and beachcombing are the real reasons to come.



Destinations: Georgia, Savannah

Themes: Beach Vacations, Historical Vacations

Activities: Kayaking, Museums, Sightseeing, Boating


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