Happy Wanderer: Tybee Island oozes with Southern charm, food

FILE -- This is the Tybee Island, Ga., Lighthouse, shown in this Feb. 2, 1996 file photo. The Interior Dept. is trying to figure out what to do with 301
Tybee Island, Ga., Lighthouse, shown in this Feb. 2, 1996 file photo. (AP Photo/Paula Williamson, Savannah News-Press) ( PAULA WILLIAMSON )



The freckle-faced boy had an ear-to-ear grin as he posed with an 8-inch long shrimp. He’d caught the crustacean with a shrimp net off Tybee Island, one of 15 barrier islands off the Georgia coast.

Think the Hamptons meet Hawaii. Just across the bridge from Savannah, Tybee’s southern flair has a funky feel, punctuated by the popularity of designer Jane Coslick’s “shabby chic” makeover of many of the island’s beach cottages. They dot both ends of Tybee, interlaced with historical sites like the Tybee Island Lighthouse and the Fort Screven National Historic District.

If you’re a Nicholas Sparks fan — you’ve probably been to Tybee through the pages of his best selling book” The Last Song.” The movie was shot here in 2009 before Miley Cyrus entered her awkward “coming of age” stage.

The Georgia coast has been on my radar since my daughter’s Oakland Girl Scout troop made a pilgrimage to founder Juliette Gordon Low’s home in Savannah in 2004. The girls came home raving about the shellfish and the beaches on four islands in particular — Jekyll, St. Simons, Sea and Tybee — the only ones accessible by car. Tybee is my favorite of the four.

“Have a seat and I’ll send someone to pick up the shrimp,” said the manager of the Tybee Island Social Club where wild gulf shrimp is served chilled or grilled and the salt spray is still on the shells.

Mealtime is a ritual on Tybee Island, and often accompanied by live music from Georgia musicians who are good enough to be picking in Nashville. Guitar and fiddle blend to create a Low Country Boil party vibe as the evening sun melts into the warm waters of the Atlantic.

Warmer than the Pacific by a good 20 degrees, the coastal waters of Georgia are like a relaxing salt bath. But you won’t be alone out there. The day I went swimming, at least two dozen pelicans were divebombing for dinner as I bobbed in the surf. They surveyed the surface, then gained altitude, pointed downward and plunged — open scoop — into the chop.

Tobacco tycoon R.J. Reynolds loved Georgia’s coastal islands and built his home on Sapelo, a 45-minute drive south of Tybee and accessible only by boat. State park-operated ferries take visitors to the sparsely inhabited island twice daily for $15 round trip — including an island tour.

Sapelo is one of the only places where you can still hear Gullah — an African America dialect that goes back to the early days of slavery. Our tour guide spoke some Gullah as she showed us the early island homes, shops and the elegant Reynolds mansion that can be rented for weddings, reunions and other special events.

Sometimes the tours include a Low Country Boil, with the shrimp and crab caught just minutes before they’re added to a spicy pot of sausage and corn and potatoes. Shellfish this fresh is nature’s best gift — served with a side of Southern charm that’s captured perfectly in the image of a wide-eyed boy holding up a wriggling gulf shrimp.


 For help planning a visit to the 110-mile Georgia coastline and barrier islands, see http://visitcoastalgeorgia.org/.

To stay in a nostalgic Officer’s Row beach cottage near Fort Screven National Historic District, see Lighthouse Inn: http://www. tybeebb.com.



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