Follow our map’s 11 stops down coastal Georgia, from Tybee Island to St. Marys https://www.atlantamagazine.com/southbound-articles/road-trip-georgia-coast/
By Kevin Benefield | October 14, 2020
Georgia’s coast has long called to visitors with its rich cultural history and world-class hospitality. From the nation’s first planned city, Savannah, known for its lush public squares and centuries-old structures; to Jekyll Island, once an enclave for America’s Gilded Age elite; to Sea Island, the only resort in the world to receive four Forbes Five Star ratings twelve years running, many of the state’s coastal destinations may well be regarded as wholly civilized. But there’s another side, a wilder side, to this 110-mile stretch of coastline and its fifteen barrier islands, which holds its own timeless appeal.
Forests of pine and magnolia, live oak and cabbage palm roll up to sweeping salt marshes bright-green with cordgrass and cut through by tidal creeks. These enchanting landscapes, along with miles of dunes and beaches, are home to an astonishing diversity of life—from hermit crabs and alligators to wild horses and armadillos. More than 300 species of birds flock to the area—migrating songbirds, wintering waterfowl, even nesting egrets and wood storks—making it a birder’s paradise. In addition to exploring the varied ecosystems and spying native wildlife, visitors to coastal Georgia will discover a bison ranch, a sea turtle hospital, and a renowned jewelry store selling wildlife-inspired pieces such as shark vertebrae necklaces and rattlesnake rib bangles.
Throughout his tenure as a professor of marine biology at Savannah State University, Dr. Joe Richardson helped local schoolteachers plan and lead field trips to the beaches of Tybee Island. When he retired a decade ago, he found himself in increasing demand as a guide. Today, he leads groups of twenty or so on walks along Tybee’s North Beach at low tide in search of live animals like sea anemones and crabs. He also nets fish and sometimes stumbles upon sea cucumbers, soft coral, and starfish that have been washed onto the beach. After the two-hour-plus tour, all animals, including the occasional stingray or squid, are released where they were found.
For forty-six years this center just east of Savannah has been connecting visitors to the natural world. More than fifty species, most native to coastal Georgia, live on the center’s 175 acres. A two-mile nature trail, which moves through maritime forest, freshwater wetlands, and salt marsh, winds past the habitats of cougars, bobcats, alligators, and foxes. Dominating the campus is the sprawling red-brick Conductor’s Home. Built in 1927 by the Order of Railway Conductors as a retirement home for its members, it houses the visitor center, classrooms, a veterinary clinic, and the gift shop.
The history of this national refuge near Townsend is arguably as diverse as the wildlife that call it home. The land was the site of Guale Indian villages for two centuries, a Sea Island cotton plantation for decades, and a training facility for fighter pilots during World War II. Since 1962, it’s been a protected habitat for hundreds of species, most notably a staggering range of birds. In fall and spring, hundreds of thousands of songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl pass through on their annual migrations along the Atlantic Flyway. During the winter, ducks congregate in the marshes and ponds. And summer sees colonies of wood storks and other wading birds nesting in the refuge, as well as painted buntings that also come for breeding season.
According to ranch owners Brian and Amy Maddern, buffalo roamed parts of Georgia as recently as 1911, when the last wild herd was eliminated in one fateful hunt. Learn about the one-ton American icon as well as the growing bison ranching industry on a guided tour of this Townsend attraction. From raised observation decks along the fence line, visitors can watch the herd of twenty-three and feed apples to some of the more outgoing animals, including the stud, Number 5, and Bernie and Ernie, a couple of high-spirited juveniles. Stop in at the general store for branded T-shirts and packages of buffalo meat.
Open Gates Bed and Breakfast Zach Rath honed his hospitality skills as a chef on small cruise ships and private yachts. His wife, Carrie, learned the ropes of running a business in the property management industry. Together, they transformed a circa-1876 mansion built by a timber baron (whose spirit is rumored to linger) into Darien’s premier historic inn. Large guest rooms with soaring ceilings and the tranquil cedar-paneled library, perfect for reading or playing cards, are major draws, but breakfast is the main event. With a bit of luck (or a request), you’ll enjoy Zach’s award-winning mascarpone-stuffed crepes topped with fresh fruit and whipped cream.
Skippers’ Fish Camp As you’d expect in a historic port town turned fishing village known for its Georgia wild shrimp, Darien is home to a standout seafood restaurant. Skippers’ sits on the banks of the Darien River, just steps from the docks where the local shrimp fleet brings in its daily catch. Start with a bottle of beer and a pound of peel-and-eat shrimp, then move on to the crispy, fresh-caught flounder with homemade onion rings and collard greens. Settle in for sunset views over Key lime pie or peach cobbler topped with vanilla ice cream.
Lady Jane Shrimpin’ Excursions Following an exhaustive refurbishment, this retired commercial shrimping trawler got new life taking passengers on ecotourism excursions in the salt marshes off the Brunswick coast. Captain Cameron and his crewmates, naturalist Jeffery Benson and John Tyre, bring decades of experience on these waters to the three-hour tours, which include three trawls. With each bringing up of the nets, expect a bounty of sea life—crabs, rays, squid, a range of fish from grouper to puffer, even baby sharks—which Benson identifies and describes before returning the creatures to the water.
Sheltered in a stand of moss-laced oaks, this lovely little inn attracts both St. Simons locals, who congregate in the cheery pub from happy hour until last call, and couples looking for a romantic getaway. A renovated 1930s beach cottage serves as the reception area, breakfast room, sitting room, and bar. The twenty-eight guest rooms wrap around the cottage beneath the boughs of stately oaks (not a branch of which was cut during the construction of the inn), lending the property a cozy, cloistered feel.
Jewelry designer Gogo Ferguson, a descendant of Thomas Carnegie, spent many childhood summers at the family’s estate on remote Cumberland Island, often searching for natural treasures with her grandmother, Lucy. She returned to the island in the late 1980s to live full time, and today she continues to seek out rattlesnake bones, boar tusks, and armadillo scales from which to create necklaces, rings, bangles, and sculptures. Fans include Hillary Clinton, Bill Murray, and the late John F. Kennedy Jr. Stop in at her boutique on St. Simons Island to pick out a piece of your own.
The only sea-turtle rehabilitation facility in Georgia, this Jekyll Island center treats sick and injured animals and offers visitors the opportunity to see their care firsthand. In addition to the chance to visit patients and watch surgeries and other medical procedures, visitors can get in on the action on ranger-led programs, including dawn and night rides with the island’s sea turtle patrol in search of nesting or injured animals.
Cumberland Island Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, Cumberland is among the state’s most remote locales and the site of some of its most pristine landscapes, from dense maritime forests inhabited by wild horses and nine-banded armadillos to expansive marshes and wide spans of beach. In addition to the wildlife, visitors enjoy ranger-led tours of the ruins of Dungeness Estate, the once-grand Queen Anne mansion built by Thomas Carnegie in the 1880s. Note: This island is only accessible by a passenger ferry operated out of St. Marys by the National Park Service; check for times and availability of seats.
This article appears in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of Southbound.