The Sea Islands of Georgia
The Georgia coastline--yes, Georgia has a coastline--is a many-splendored place. And the vibe changes dramatically from island to island to island
Day 1: Savannah to Tybee Island
My husband, Michael, and I land in Savannah around lunchtime. Georgia's First City, as Savannah declares itself, is architecturally awesome--and maddening for drivers. Tour buses slowly crawl around historic squares. Tourists cluster in the middle of the street to peer at the impeccably restored 18th- and 19th-century houses. We have to go through town to get to our evening's destination, Tybee Island, so our plan is to park, fortify with some food, and get on our way.
Our first attempt at finding barbecue is unsuccessful. We make do with a black-eyed-pea sandwich at B. Matthews Bakery; it's a delicious approximation of a spicy falafel. I pocket a chocolate-chip cookie for the 18-mile drive to Tybee.
Georgia's most developed island feels kind of like Atlantic City meets Coney Island--a little shabby, but that shabbiness often translates to a retro charm. The Basta family runs the Georgianne Inn, three houses in from the beach, and the adult son Nick is our enthusiastic host. We borrow two cruiser bikes, and Nick gives us 10 minutes of pointers. Tybee's tides are remarkably low, so from mid-afternoon until sunset there's at least 50 feet of packed sand to play on. The southern side of the beach, beyond a long pier, has high winds, which attract kitesurfers, kiteboarders, and old-fashioned kite fliers.
For dinner, we head over to The Crab Shack, a Tybee institution whose motto is "Where the Elite Eat in Their Bare Feet"--but which we'll always remember as the kind of establishment where patrons bring their own beer cozies. Calling it a shack is either false humility or wishful nostalgia--it's more like a Crab Complex, with cutesy signs (DRINKING TO FORGET? PLEASE PAY IN ADVANCE), Jimmy Buffett on rotation, and a Gift Shack. We put our names on the waiting list and visit the man-made Gator Lagoon, where antsy kids are poking at baby alligators with sticks.
We order salty snow crab; a low-country boil of shrimp, potatoes, and sausage; and steamed oysters, which arrive unshucked. The food is good, but I'm otherwise engaged. There's a garbage can embedded in the center of each of the tables, and for some reason this excites me. No sooner has Michael shucked an oyster than I've tossed the shell into the pail. When our waitress comes to clear, I proudly declare that I've taken care of it for her.
- Georgianne Inn1312 Butler Ave., Tybee Island, 800/596-5301, georgianneinn.com, from $65
- B Matthews Eatery325 E. Bay St., Savannah, 912/233-1319, black-eyed-pea sandwich $6
- The Crab Shack40 Estill Hammock Rd., Tybee Island, 912/786-9857, low-country boil $13
Day 2: Tybee Island to St. Simons Island
By 8:30 a.m., there are 20 people waiting for a table at The Breakfast Club, a squat stucco house two blocks from the Georgianne. Joseph Sadowsky, an alum of the Culinary Institute of America, was recruited by John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette to cater their wedding. He's pretty great on less fancy fare, too. I have a spicy homemade sausage patty with poached eggs and buttery grits. The low-ceilinged room, with sticky brown plastic tablecloths, isn't built for lingering--just as well, considering the line outside.
Highway 17, the main scenic road tracing the coast, doesn't offer much to look at until we put some distance between us and Savannah. But by the time we reach Riceboro, we're breezing under a canopy of live oaks. At South Newport, we pull off the two-lane highway to see what's billed as the smallest church in America, the Memory Park Christ Chapel. The 56-year-old nondenominational church--open 24/7 and rentable for weddings--is just 10 feet by 15 feet, with seating for only 12. A sign asks visitors to shut the door tight when leaving, which turns off the lights. I follow the instructions, perhaps too much so--the church is still rattling as we walk back to the car.
Most of the islands connect to the mainland by causeways. Getting to Sapelo Island, however, requires a 30-minute ferry from Meridian across the Intracoastal Waterway. It could just as well be a time machine. When the Civil War came, the heirs of a big plantation owner, Thomas Spalding, abandoned the island, their cotton and sugarcane plantations, and many slaves. The isolation allowed the former slaves, originally from West Africa, to sustain their own self-governing community and their own language, called Geechee. To this day, 57 descendants live on Hog Hammock, a 434-acre spread. Tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds bought the island in 1934 but didn't mess around with Hog Hammock; he breathed new life into an existing mansion and established a wildlife area that's now run by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The island also has a marine institute operated by the University of Georgia.