100 Miles of Spectacular Fun
By Hope S. Philbrick
If the word ‘coast’ brings to mind only the image of blue waves tumbling onto white sand, a visit to the Georgia Coast will expand your understanding. While the Atlantic Ocean does hit sandy beaches at several points, the region boasts rich bio-diversity.
The westernmost coast on the nation’s eastern seaboard (on the same longitude as Cleveland, Ohio), the 100-mile Georgia Coast includes a dozen barrier islands, 1,600 back barrier islands and houses one-eighth of the East Coast’s and one-twelfth of the nation’s total marshland.
In the marshes the distinctions between water and solid surfaces blur: Earth and sea mingle to create a muck that houses dozens of creatures and plants that in turn nourish dozens more. The Georgia tide pushes in with more strength than anywhere south of Maine, causing a six- to ten-foot variance in a complex network of creeks, rivers, estuaries and sounds. Each incoming and outgoing tide churns the water, shifts the current and alters the scenery. Thick with tree cover, some islands appear to rise out of the marsh, their live oaks dripping with grey Spanish moss and their tall pines harboring bird nests. Sightings of blue herons, egrets and bald eagles plus otters, alligators, dolphins and deer are common.
From the state’s oldest city of Savannah to its secluded private islands, the Georgia Coast offers a diverse range of tourism experiences: historic sites to outdoor adventures, remote retreats to popular city streets, golf courses to national wildlife refuges and more. Play as hard as you desire or just sit and watch waves. Then sleep easy: Accommodation options include upscale modern hotels, historic inns, quaint bed and breakfasts, lodges and campsites. Choose one or mix it up over the course of several days.
It’s possible to drive from Savannah to St. Marys (or vice versa) in mere hours, but even if you explore the Georgia Coast over ten days with a busy itinerary like I did, there isn’t enough time to see and do everything. (Among the activities I missed: kayaking in the marsh, hiking through nature reserves, and boating over to Cumberland Island…but these omissions give me a great excuse to visit my home state’s coast again!)
Among the many ways to experience the Georgia Coast are these memorable standouts:
What To Do…
Entertainment recommendations are alphabetized by city or town, which are listed from north to south.
Savannah is a place like no other. Magnificent live oak trees draping in Spanish moss bow and curtsey over streets to greet visitors. Historic architecture shoulders up to trendy boutiques, celebrated restaurants and contemporary hotels. Ornate ironwork, elaborate fountains and cobblestone streets lend distinctive charm. And a festive vibe lingers in the humid air like applause. Boasting 22 green squares and more than 1,600 historic and architecturally significant structures within a 2.5 square-mile area, Savannah houses the nation’s largest registered Urban Historic Landmark District. Founded by General James Oglethorpe in 1733 to help protect the English-held South Carolina from Spanish settlers in Florida, America’s first planned city is today home to tasty coastal culinary creations like low country boil, shrimp and grits, Brunswick stew and sweet pecan pralines. Not to mention memorable adventures, seasonal festivals and world-class entertainment options. Lace up your walking shoes and jump in.
Old Town Trolley Tours
Ride through Savannah’s streets with the option to jump off at any of the 14 stops to explore a site or neighborhood in greater depth at your own pace. When you’re finished just board the next trolley that rolls by and continue the tour. A free map helps you keep track of where you are along the route and review the tourist options available at each stop. ***Odds are that you’ll definitely see children on the bus, but you’ve got the option to hop off and board a different bus if necessary.
Relax and enjoy riverfront views aboard a 600-passenger boat that sails several times a day and offers multiple tour themes. Dinner cruises promise live musical entertainment, a dance floor, an extensive buffet and photogenic sunsets. ***Odds are good that you’ll encounter children, but the boat is big enough to find a quiet place to sit and take in the view.
Segway of Savannah
Why walk when you can roll? After quickly learning how to safely operate the segway, you can either join a guided tour around Savannah at a leisurely pace or spin off on a self-guided exploration. Either way, segways offer a fun journey that’s as much about the ride as the destinations. ***Segway riders must be age 15 or older.
Walking Scary Ghost Tour
Learn the fact-based stories that earned Savannah its reputation as America’s most haunted city. Get a close look at reputed haunted locations such as the Pirates House, Colonial Park Cemetery with two mass graves, the Mercer House murder site, and the Hampton-Lillibridge House which has been exorcised twice. Bring a camera and, chances are, you’ll see orbs invade your photos.
Any trip to the coast warrants a day at the beach. Just 20 minutes from Savannah’s Historic District, Tybee Island offers wide stretches of sand plus a laid-back vibe. Lounge near the sea or get up off that towel and discover what else Tybee Island has to offer.
Explore salt marsh ecology on a chartered tour of wildlife refuges that house dozens of birds, turtles, dolphins, alligators, crabs and other creatures. Tours are customized, so focus on collecting shells, bird watching, fishing or whatever floats your boat. *****Odds of encountering children: Zero aboard the chartered boat, unless you bring your own.
Tybee Island Light Station
Climb 178 steps to the top of the lighthouse that has guided sailors into the Savannah River since 1732. Want more to explore? The five-acre site boasts all of the historic support buildings.
Fort Pulaski National Monument
Brick forts were once a primary defense against overseas enemies. Many considered Fort Pulaski’s 7.5-foot solid brick walls unbreachable until a two-day battle during the Civil War proved otherwise.
With a population under 800, this town is genuinely remote.
Founders Jim and Pat Bacote established Geechee Kunda to showcase African-American (especially the regional Gullah-Geechee) cultures. Currently undergoing construction and expansion, the site holds much promise for future exhibits. Meanwhile, interactive classes, workshops, demonstrations, lectures, performances and festivals are compelling reasons to visit.
Darien is a sleepy community about an hour from Savannah, and its lack of sky-rise hotels and common kitsch is precisely why it’s so appealing. But this small town is far from boring: The second-oldest planned city in Georgia (after Savannah) boasts beautiful views, historic sites, Gullah-Geechee culture, nature-based activities, cozy accommodations and more. One key appeal for foodies is that it’s adjacent to one of the world’s largest estuarine systems, which means the seafood on local menus is usually the freshest possible—in fact, it may well have been plucked from local waters by the burly dude seated at a table near yours, since many seafood industry professionals call Darien home.
This seafood capital, located midway along Georgia’s coastline, houses one of the largest shrimp fleets on the East Coast. A worthy destination in its own right, the adorable town serves as a gateway to Sapelo Island.
Altamaha Coastal Tours
Kayak the stunning tidal forest near Darien, where a stunning mix of cypress, pine, oak and chestnut trees, wild rice fronds, marsh grasses, various vines rise from the black water.
Fort King George
The southernmost outpost of the British Empire in North America from 1721 to 1738 today boasts a nature trail and several buildings including a museum with exhibits about the various peoples who have populated the area.
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge
One of seven refuges that comprise the Savannah Coastal Refuge network, this 2,824-acre property (a former World War II airbase) offers breathtaking landscapes that attract an impressive variety of marsh and wading birds, waterfowl, migratory birds and other wildlife.
Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site
A nature trail passes live oaks draped with Spanish moss, abandoned rice fields, and structures dating from the antebellum period. A museum details site history with an informative film and exhibits of family heirlooms.
The state hosts half-day tours on Wednesdays and Saturdays of this island that can be reached only by ferry. Guided tours highlight the Gullah-Geechee community, University of Georgia Marine Institute, Reynolds Mansion and Sapelo Island Lighthouse built in 1820. This barrier island can be reached only by ferry; guests limited thus reservations required.
Brunswick & The Golden Isles
Brunswick is the port city gateway to four barrier islands—St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island—and draws tourists year-round. Georgians routinely debate the merits of their personal favorite among these destinations, but exploring the unique vibe of each one is most fun.
Lady Jane Shrimp Boat / Credle’s Adventures
Sail through the marshes of Glynn County aboard a refurbished 49-passenger shrimp boat. Observe the shrimping process and help sort through the netted catch, which may include blue crab, horseshoe crab, puffer fish, amberjack, whiting, skate, shark and other creatures that will be released back into the water. Odds of sharing the boat ride with children are high, but go anyway or you’ll miss out on informative fun.
Fort Frederica National Monument
St. Simons Island
By the time you leave this place you’ll understand why so many Georgia sites are named after James Edward Oglethorpe and why the state was founded in the first place.
Georgia Sea Turtle Center
All five species of sea turtles that nest in Georgia are threatened or endangered, and this is the hub of research, education and rehabilitation efforts to save them. Tour informative exhibits, meet scientists and visit shelled patients at the state-of-the-art marine clinic.
Wheel Fun Bike Rentals
Pedal part or all 20 miles of the paved trails that loop through Jekyll Island’s beaches, marshes, forests and historic sites. The most challenging part of your journey may be choosing between the unique surrey-, coupe-, sport-and traditional style bikes available for rent since they’re all fun to ride.
St. Simons Island Lighthouse Museum & Heritage Center
St. Simons Island
Built in 1872, the lighthouse and keeper’s residence are Glynn County’s oldest surviving brick structures. Exhibits provide a snapshot of history while climbing the 129 steps to the top yields panoramic views.
Maritime Museum at the Historic Coast Guard Station
St. Simons Island
This museum showcases the natural assets, maritime and military history of the Georgia Coast. Seven galleries are linked by “Ollie,” a fictional character that helps bring history to life.
The small town gateway to Cumberland Island is a worthy destination in its own right, with quaint shops and a spectacular waterfront park with views of Amelia Island, Florida.
Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum
912-882-4336, ext. 229
Exhibits describe the island ecology, the former Timucuuan Indians inhabitants, and history, including the last battle of the War of 1812.
In this rural Georgia town many little boys’ outdoor play includes taunting alligators, which makes it a marvelous wonder that they manage to grow up at all.
Up to 70 trains pass through Folkston each day, earning the depot a worldwide reputation as an ideal train-watching platform among railroad enthusiasts.
This ranch serves as a luxurious reminder that pioneers settled the South long before getting wild in the West. Learn to ride horseback, trot down trails through wilderness, help herd cattle, take a buggy ride, play horse shoes, go fishing or just relax in the gazebo. Upscale cabins are available for rent as overnight accommodations, just in case you aren’t looking to exactly replicate the cowboy fireside camping experience.
Float across glistening black swamp water on a Southern safari in search of alligator, black bears, otters, crane, osprey, snakes and other critters lurking near cypress trees and water foliage. This primitive wetland is designated as a National Wildlife Refuge and guides are experts on alligator biology, wetland ecology and Okefenokee cultural history. So you will learn something if you can shift focus way from those alligators’ eyes. Odds are you’ll share the tour boat with children, but you’ll feel like a kid yourself on this great American safari.
Brunswick & The Golden Isles
Okefenokee Chamber of Commerce
St. Marys Tourism Board
Tybee Island Tourism Council
1-877-SAVANNAH or 912-944-0455
-Photo Credits: Kayaks, riverboat, house and live oaks courtesy Visit Savannah; trolley courtesy Old Town Trolley Tours; segway photo by Lisa Logan; bird, lighthouse courtesy Visit Tybee; Lady Jane Shrimp Boat by Patrick Saylor; alligator courtesy Okefenokee Adventures.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.