The sun is setting over the coastal marshes where mainland Georgia dissolves into muck, spartina grass and saltwater, then re-forms as barrier islands. The tide is out, and below the Jekyll Is land Club Wharf the water has receded, exposing mud and tiny oxbow rivers rushing around clumps of grass.
A shrimp boat motors past, bulging nets hanging from its arms. Birds swarm around it, circling the masts in a halo of black.
Georgia's barrier islands are low-key, devoid of high-rises and freeways. Separated from the mainland by ecologically rich marshlands, the islands are — officially or unofficially — wildlife refuges, supporting sea turtles, roseate spoonbills, marsh wrens, oysters and hundreds of other species. The sea is simultaneously friend and foe, depositing sand to form delicate dunes in one spot while viciously eating away the land elsewhere on the same island.
Each island is unique and memorable. A century or more ago, wealthy industrialists built lavish mansions, summer "cottages" and hunting lodges on some islands. Others supported plantations where slaves worked crops of sea island cotton, indigo or rice. The Georgia coast was a buffer between English settlers to the north and Spanish colonists in Florida, with many landings protected b y forts.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Today a fleet based in Brunswick works the waters around these islands, netting shrimp and other seafood. Some of the Gilded Age mansions are rotting away; others have been refurbished and are run as inns. Sapelo Island has a Gullah community, founded by former slaves. Jekyll Island has a rehabilitation center for injured sea turtles. There are luxury resorts, marine research station s, protected Indian shell mounds, wild horses, fishing piers that double as social venues and old forts that have been turned into parks.
Some of the islands along Georgia's 150-mile coastline are wildlife sanctuaries or research stations not open to the public; others are private. This tale isn't a comprehensive report but a story about seven islands, south to north, visited over 18 months.
It is New Year's Day, cold and wet, and the people getting on the ferry ahead of me are going camping. They are carrying suitcases, camping gear, at least 20 bundles of firewood, cases of bottled water and big trash bags stuffed with drinks, groceries and other goods. There is no food or anything else for sale on the island, so they bring everything they could possibly need.
Unlike the campers, my sister and I are on a day trip. We've packed only sandwiches and sweatshirts in a backpack and will be returning to St. Marys on the mainland this afternoon.
Cumberland Island, the 19th century retreat of a branch of the Carnegie family, is a national seashore managed by the National Park Service, just across the Florida state line. The only places to spend the night are the inn and the campground. There are no stores. Miss the return ferry, we're warned several times, and we'll spend the night in the open with no gear or food.
With a little over four hours to spend, we limit ourselves to the southern end of the 17-mile-long island. We'll have to skip the tiny First African Baptist church where John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessettte were married in 1996, the Plum Orchard Georgian Revival mansion built by the Carnegie family, the isolated and elegant Greyfield Inn where rooms start at $395 a night, meals included. But that will leave us time for a guided tour by a park ranger that includes the ruins of the Carnegies' Dungeness mansion, a quick hike on our own to the beach on the eastern shore where we spot a few of the island's famous wild horses and a brisk walk to the next ferry landing, about a mile north of where we first came ashore.
We start with the tour by the ranger who meets the ferry. As we walk, she fills us in on the island's history, its human residents, its plants and wildlife, the constant cycle of erosion. T his account of history and nature, peculiar to coastal Georgia, is all new to me now, but as I visit Georgia's other islands, I'll hear similar stories. Most intriguing are the accounts of the conflicts between the preservation of what is natural and the instinct to preserve our own history or to intervene in nature.
In the interests of keeping things natural, for example, the island's feral horses — estimated at 150 to 200, descendants of horses brought here in the 17th century — are not monitored, not tagged, not vaccinated or given any medical care. Some people argue that since the horses are not native to the island they should be removed; others want them left there.
Another is Dungeness, which was built in 1886 in the style of a Scottish castle, burned down in 1959 and abandoned a short time later. The National Park Service acquired most of the land on the island in 1972 (the northern end of Cumberland is privately owned). Within the park system, the guide tells us, there is debate over what should be done with the ruins: Should the buildings be allowed to deteriorate until they return to nature? Or should a significant piece of Georgia's cultural history be saved?
Dungeness was once an elegant, sprawling mansion with numerous outbuildings What remains is surreal: towers, turrets, chimney and roofless walls. Wooden outbuildings have crumbled, their timbers fallen in at odd angels, lines askew. Around back is a decrepit fountain and a flat grassy area where I could imagine ladies in hats sipping tea.
It is an overcast afternoon in February, not quite time for the Victorian tea with scones and finger sandwiches that is served here daily. Out on the lawn of the exceedingly civilized Jekyll Island Club, four people dressed in white are playing croquet. Jekyll Island attracts the sort of people who should know that one doesn't wear white before Memorial Day b" this was once, after al l, the winter home of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers b" so the fashion rules must contain an exception for croquet players.
Myself, I am wearing blue — as in blue jeans — and thinking it is time for a drink at The Pub at the Jekyll Island Club. But at the locked door, a sign says The Pub opens at 5 p.m. What sort of pub doesn't open till 5? How civilized is this?
This is my second trip to Jekyll Island but my first stay at the Jekyll Island Club. It's the off-season, the weather is chilly, and a few spots are closed, but it's an enjoyable place for a getaway on a seashore that is 180 degrees different from South Florida.
On my previous visit I arrived on a hot, humid September day during the annual Shrimp and Grits Festival — live beach music, cocktails in plastic cups, vendors selling inexpensive art and costume jewelry, and the classic Low Country combination of shrimp, grits and, at the booth where I bought a bowl, spicy Andouille sausage.
That afternoon, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, behind the Jekyll Island Club, was releasing three injured sea turtles that had been nursed back to health. A small crowd on the ocean side of the island watched a young staff member walk into the surf and proudly release a terrapin named Skidaway into the waves. From where we stood, held back by yellow police tape, we couldn't see Skidaway swim away, but we knew she did because the staffer threw her hands into the air like a referee calling a touchdown. The crowd cheered.
Jekyll, now a state park, is a 7-mile-long barrier island with beaches of fine white sand, just under 1,000 residents a convention center under construction and several new hotels planned. It was once a hunting retreat for prosperous business leaders from the northeast, including William Rockefeller, William K. Vanderbilt, J. Pierpont Morgan and Marshall Field. The hotel began as a clubhouse for the group, and members built "cottages" nearby, some of which still stand. That area is now a historic district, and visitors can take trolley tours that include several of the cottage s.
The next day I drove to Clam Creek at the island's northern tip for a nature walk. The volunteer tour guide told us about how whelks lay eggs, how hermit crabs live and how mesh bags of oyster shells are piled on the sand to reduce erosion. At the end of the island is an enormous fishing pier, partly covered. Beyond it, we could see St. Simons Island, my next stop.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND
Out on the western edge of St. Simons Island at the Fort Frederica museum, two adolescent boys rummage through a pile of clothes until they find red military coats, tri-cornered hats and muskets, then run out the back door.
The boys disappear in a grid of colonial-era streets where old houses are outlined by the remains of brick walls and sometimes a stump of chimney. Signs explain that this site once held a fine house, another held a duplex. Some signs say who lived in the building in the 18th century and what is known about them. The remains of the Fort Frederica settlement, as well as the fort, built in 1736 to protect the British colony of Georgia from the Spaniards who had colonized Florida, are now a national monument.
It is fall, a school day, and the site is almost empty. Then there is a flash of red, and I spot the boys in their military dress, playing by an old cannon pointed at the Frederica River.
St. Simons Island, with between 13,000 and 14,000 residents, is the most populous of Georgia's islands. It also provides the land link to two other Golden Isles, Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island. Historically, it is important for its role in the battles between the British and the Spanish; for being home to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, as well as the Timucuan tribe. The live oaks here were used to build ships, including the USS Constitution, which was called Old Ironsides because cannonballs bounced off the hardwood planks. Later, the island was cleared of trees to make room for plantations and cotton fields.
Most of the island's east coast abuts marshes, but near the southern end is a long, wide beach at Massengale Park. Late on a September afternoon, there are few people on the beach, and most are well over 50. A man rides a bicycle near the foamy line left by gentle waves. A few women sit in lawn chairs on the sand near their condo building. A woman plays with her dog; she seems to be afraid of the waves and wants to climb into her owner's arms. "She's only two months old and doesn't know what water is," the woman explains.
The tourist district, called the Village, is at the southern end of the island, near the St. Simons Lighthouse, which is 101 years old and open to people who want to climb its steep, narrow 129 steps. There are shops that sell fudge and beach-themed souvenirs, a coffeehouse with live music at night, a trolley tour of the southern end of the island.
The centerpiece of the Village is the pier, which was almost empty of people late in the afternoon. The tide was out, exposing a wide stretch of sand where waves had been crashing against t he sea wall the night before. Seagulls pecked at the pebbles and shells that marked the tide line. A few kids played on the swings on the nearby playground.
As sunset neared, people suddenly appeared. Men with fishing poles. Couples who looked to be in their 50s and 60s. As they strolled the pier, I realized this was an old-fashioned promenade, people coming out to take the sea air, to greet acquaintances they perhaps didn't know well enough to call on at their homes.
A shrimp boat cruised by. Men baited hooks and cast their lines. The sun was dropping, nearing the horizon, but it wasn't a showy sunset. The sun turned to gold and edged a cloud with radiant pink — but only for a moment. Friends chatted quietly. I left them that way and walked back up the street.
We're in the Spanish Lounge at the Cloister at Sea Island, where Merry Tipton, corporate communications director for Sea Island Co., is explaining how the public room was dismantled, each piece identified and stored, then carefully reconstructed after the old hotel was torn down and the new one rebuilt. The new Spanish Lounge — reopened with the rest of the hotel in 2006 — has its predecessor's delicately colored stained-glass windows in cast-stone frames, ornate fireplace carvings, pecky cypress beams and red roof tiles.
Tradition is important on Sea Island, whether it involves architectural detail, bingo games, single-malt scotch and cigars in the Smoking Room or the Gold Brick Sundae at the Beach Club. It was developed as a resort for the monied classes and remains so today. Room rates in May at the Cloister start at $395, meals not included.
The skinny, 5-mile-long resort island is lined by beaches on its Atlantic Ocean side; to the west are salt marshes and St. Simons Island, to which it is connected by a causeway, its only land access.
The original Spanish-style Cloister hotel, designed by Boca Raton architect Addison Mizner, opened in 1928 as a temporary hotel on Sea Island. Seventy-five years later, the "temporary" hotel was dismantled and rebuilt. The new hotel echoes the elegance of the old with a design inspired by Mizner. It has planks hewn from ancient logs and salvaged from old buildings, more than 600 rugs woven in Turkish villages, art from the old hotel, a restaurant with hand-painted china and jackets-required dress code, butler service, a shooting school that includes skeet and clay targets, and a dramatic three-story lobby and sitting room.
In the last decade, Sea Island also updated its three golf courses (one hosts a PGA tour event), built the 40-room Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, a 65,000-square-foot spa and the Beach Club , which with three pools is the heart of the resort's recreation program. Also on the island are about 750 private homes and condos, about 170 of them available for vacation rental.
Around the property are reminders of the 2004 G8 Summit held on Sea Island, chosen in part because access is so easily controlled (only residents, guests and staff are allowed on the island ). Not only did the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of the G8 countries — France, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and the United States — attend but also leaders from the Middle East and Africa. Today, Summit Park with G8 flags sits next to the Black Banks River. The enormous round conference table and chairs used by the G8 leaders, with small plaques marking who sat where, is available for meetings. And a guest at the Lodge might find a plaque in his room, noting that the king of Bahrain or the president of Senegal slept here.
LITTLE ST. SIMONS
It was a terrible tale of life and death that Abby Sterling told as we idly picked up shells from the beach, examined the tiny holes in them and tossed them back. Predatory snails had weakened the shells with an acidic substance they secreted, bored holes, cut the muscle that secured the mollusk to the shell and ate the now-defenseless creature inside. It sounded like a scene from a horror movie.
When someone mentions the violence of nature, I tend to think of hurricanes and earthquakes. But the violence that Abby, a naturalist on Little St. Simons Island, talked about was more subtle.
She explained how tiny angelwings, in shells smaller than the nail on my pinky finger, bored into wet driftwood, then died when the wood washed up on the beach and dried out. She pointed out red bay trees slowly being killed by the ambrosia beetle and tender young oak saplings that had been gnawed away by deer. And she told of the violence to the island itself: Sand washing onto the beach and being trapped in clumps of sea oats and spartina grass, the sand growing into dunes and becoming more stable, slowly widening the beach, while on the other end of the island, the sea relentlessly eats away the beach.
The ready access to naturalists is among the reasons that people pay $600 a night per couple to stay in rustic cabins on the island. The private resort, accessible only by boat and open only to guests at the lodge, began as a private hunt club for friends of Philip Berolzheimer, who owned the island around the turn of the last century. His family owns it still.
The lodge accommodates a maximum of 32 people, but day tours are occasionally available to the public, and that's how I got onto the island. For my tour, I boarded a shuttle boat at a marina on St. Simons Island for a 12-minute ride up the Mosquito River with four other guests who were spending the night.
Abby met me at the pier while the other passengers headed toward the lodge for guest orientation. We took off in a battered pickup. Abby talked about the island's eco-system as she drove — never faster than 10 mph — on a rough track between trees and shrubs that brushed the sides of the truck and formed a canopy overhead.
I saw an armadillo that scurried for cover under a saw palmetto, a small white deer hiding in the wax myrtle, an alligator whose outline was barely visible under electric-green duck weed that covered the surface of a pond and a pile of oyster shells left by Guale Indians, who came to the island to hunt.
After lunch, Abby and I got back in the truck for a walk on the beach with a couple from Alabama who were celebrating their 61st wedding anniversary. The two insisted on sitting on the benches in the truck bed. "I'm not as fragile as I look," the wife said when her husband suggested she might be more comfortable up front. When we got to the beach, the wife opened a folding chair and sat in the sun, motioning to us to go on without her. Abby talked about ghost crabs and sand dollars, but after a few minutes, the husband went back, got another chair and sat with his wife, so the y could appreciate nature in their own way.
I came to Sapelo Island primarily to see Hog Hammock, Georgia's only remaining Gullah community, inhabited by the descendants of slaves. Yet here I am in the basement of the Reynolds Mansion, ogling the bowling alley, ping pong table, bar and billiards table and wondering if I have 15 fun-loving friends who'd want to join me in renting the place for a couple nights.
The two locations are linked by history.
In the early 19th century, Thomas Spalding, who owned several hundred slaves, farmed cotton and sugarcane on the southern part of the island. After the Civil War, the former slaves formed communities on Sapelo, where they spoke their own language, Gullah. Hog Hammock is the only one remaining. It has dwindled to about 55 residents who hold the only private property on the island. The rest of the island is owned and administered by the state and the University of Georgia, which has marine research facilities here.
Spalding's mansion passed through several owners, during which time it was rebuilt, enlarged and renamed. Today the home is open to the public for tours, and can be rented by groups. In addition to the basement game room, the mansion has 13 bedrooms, a pretty solarium, a library with a small cannon, and a pool with fountain and statuary — although the pool was dry when I was there in February.
Physically getting to Sapelo isn't difficult — the Georgia State Parks Department runs a ferry from Meridian. But getting permission is another matter. You can book one of the tours offered by the parks department twice a week (three times a week in summer). You can get invited by a resident, a few of whom rent rooms and conduct private tours for a fee. Or you can rent the Reynolds Mansion. Otherwise, you won't even be allowed on the ferry. The first two tours I signed up for were canceled because not enough people registered; I made it on the third try.
The disadvantage of a bus tour is that we don't get to wander around the island. Our guide takes us to Hog Hammock, which has a small store, a bar and a gas pump but little opportunity to talk to residents; the Reynolds Mansion, which is faded but modernized; Nanny Goat Beach, where we learn about sand dunes and the evolution of the land; and the grounds of the almost 200-year-old brick Sapelo Lighthouse, although the tower is not open to the public.
It's 5 p.m. on a hot September day, the glare of the sun reflecting off the wet sand on Tybee Island. There are only a few sunbathers on the beach, couples searching for intact treasures in the wide band of crushed shells at the high tide line and one man looking for another kind of treasure with his metal detector. Up on the Tybee Pier and Pavilion on the eastern side of the island, two men are cleaning fish. As early evening breezes come up, kite surfers appear.
Two weeks after Labor Day, it's still beach weather, but vacationers have all but deserted this northernmost of Georgia's barrier islands. Hotel rates have come down, and some restaurants have cut back their lunch service to weekends only.
Locals call Tybee Island Savannah's beach — it's only 18 miles from Savannah, just south of the South Carolina state line. Most of the waterfront buildings are private homes, separated from the wide public beach by dunes and clusters of sea oats. Some are vacation homes or available for rent, but the island has a permanent population just under 4,000. Each spring, students at the Savannah College of Art and Design build sandcastles and other whimsical sculptures in a sand art festival.
The town has the ambience of Old Florida beach towns. There are no high-rise hotels and few chain restaurants or lodgings. Instead of club hopping, there are turtle talks and beach walks. W hen I ask where I can get a massage, the desk clerk at my hotel sends me halfway back to Savannah to the nearest spa.
The Marine Science Center has posted a map of active sea-turtle nests. There are 11, which they're pretty happy about, since there were only five this same time the previous year.
One highlight, I'm told, is catching the sunset, so one night I have dinner at AJ's Dockside Restaurant on the island's western edge. From my wooden table on the dock, I look across marsh and water as I eat deviled crab and salad topped with fried oysters. Boats are moored at long docks that jut out across the marsh, connecting solid land and the water. The sun sends its rays in side ways under my umbrella.
The sun still has not set by the time I've finished my dinner, but I've lingered as long as I reasonably can. A few minutes later, driving along the western edge of the island, I spot a smaller fishing pier where I can watch the sunset instead.
A young father is teaching his son, who looks about 7 or 8, how to fish, but it's clear the boy is having trouble with the patience element of angling. His casting is hurried, and he reels his line in at the slightest suggestion of a tug. The line comes back minus the shrimp he's using as bait. But the boy doesn't wait to set the hook before he starts to reel, and he never catches anything.
My own patience has paid off though. The sun is finally setting, suffusing the sky with broad streaks of soft orange and pink, like a watercolor wash. The fading light illuminates the marshes, a young boy awkwardly casting his line, a wading bird dipping his beak in the water, the silhouette of a palm tree and a boat moving slowly through the water — a perfect snapshot of the Georgian isles.
IF YOU GO:
The Georgia coast is bookended by two airports, Jacksonville and Savannah. In addition, Brunswick — with easy access to the southern islands — has an airport.
In addition to websites for individual islands, information on some or all of the islands can be found at 800-VISIT GA (847-4842), www.exploregeorgia.org; and www.visitcoastalgeorgia.com.
Information: 912-882-4336, ext. 254; www.nps.gov/cuis/.
Getting there: A walk-on ferry departs St. Marys for Cumberland twice daily. Cost: $20 adults, $14 children 12 and under, $18 seniors 65 and older. In addition, there's a $4 per person entrance fee (free to children under 16 and holders of certain passes). Reservations: 912-882-4335 or 877-860-6787. A ranger who meets the ferry gives a free tour.
Boat tours: Amelia River Cruises offers several 1 1/2 to 2-hour boat rides daily, as well as periodic special cruises, from Amelia Island, just across the border in Florida, to Cumberland Island. This is sightseeing from a distance; the boats don't dock at Cumberland. $23-$26 adults, discounts for kids and seniors. 877-264-9972 or 904-261-9972; www.ameliarivercruises.com.
Camping: Sea Camp is an improved campground and costs $4 per person per day; backcountry camping also available for $2 per person per day. www.nps.gov/cuis/.
Greyfield Inn: Three-story colonial mansion was built in 1900, converted to an inn in 1962; 16 rooms (not all have private baths) in the main building and cottages. Rates are $395-$595, wit h a two-night minimum, and include meals, bicycles and fishing equipment, tours and outings, and ferry transportation.
Eating there: There are no stores or restaurants on the island.
St. Marys: A number of chain motels are located at the St. Marys exit from Interstate 95, and the historic downtown — where the ferry for Cumberland Island docks — has several inns and B&Bs , as well as restaurants and the St. Marys Submarine Museum. www.stmaryswelcome.com/
Getting there: Drive to the island, which is about 12 miles off Interstate 95 at the Brunswick exit and across a causeway.
Where to stay: The Jekyll Island Club, a National Historic Landmark, opened in 1888. It has 157 rooms in the main hotel, the annex, and several cottages; rooms from $199. 371 Riverview Dr.; 800-535-9547; www.jekyllclub.com. Days Inn and Suites is one of the nicest Days Inns I've stayed in. It's on the island's east side, with boardwalks over the dunes to the beach; 124 rooms; rates from $92. 60 S. Beachview Dr.; 888-635-3003; www.daysinnjekyll.com. Jekyll Island has five other hotels and construction of two more is planned as part of the new convention center complex, information at www.jekyllisland.com.
Camping: There's a campground at the northern tip of the island (1197 Riverview Dr., 866-658-3021) with rates ranging from $21 for a primitive tent site for $25 for an RV space with full hook-ups.
Where to eat: Latitude 31 is on the historic wharf across from the Jekyll Island Club (370 Riverview Dr.; 912-635-3800; www.coastaldining.com). Shrimp, crab, oysters, grouper as well as chicken and beef; entrees $12.95-$26.95. An outdoor "Rah Bar" serves shellfish, Low Country Boil and sandwiches and offers live music many evenings. SeaJays Waterfront Cafe & Pub, next to the Jekyll H arbor Marina (1 Harbor Road; 912-635-3200; http://seajays.com) is casual and offers seafood dishes (including a Low Country Boil buffet) and ribs, entrees $15.95-$27.95.
What to do: The Tidelands Nature Center offers daily nature walks (912-635-5032; www.tidelands4h.org; adults $5, children 8-18 $3. Georgia Sea Turtle Center (214 Stable Rd.; 912-635-4444; w ww.georgiaseaturtlecenter.org; $6 adults, $5 seniors, $4 children 4-12; free children 3 and under) is open daily.
—ST. SIMONS ISLAND
Getting there: Drive to the island, which is about 17 miles from Interstate 95 at the Brunswick exit.
Where to stay: St. Simons Inn by the Lighthouse, 609 Beachview Dr.; 912-638-1101; www.saintsimonsinn.com. Two blocks from The Village, 34 rooms. Rooms from $139, includes breakfast. The Kin g and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, 201 Arnold Rd.; 800-342-0212 or 912-638-3631; www.kingandprince.com. Hotel on the National Register of Historic Places offers golf, tennis, spa. Rooms from $153; from $174 effective May 27.
Where to eat: Iguana Seafood, 303 Mallery St.; 912-638-9650. Casual, known for its fried shrimp. Most entrees $16-$18. Palm Coast Coffee , 318 Mallory St.; 912-634-7515. Sandwiches, main dish salads, a few Greek dishes, as well as coffee and pastries. Live music some nights. Most entrees under $10.
What to do: Fort Frederica, 6515 Frederica Rd.; 912-638-3639; www.nps.gov/fofr/. Open daily; admission $3 adults, free children 15 and under. St. Simons Lighthouse and museum, 101 12th St.; 912-638-4666; www.saintsimonslighthouse.org/. built in 1872, open daily. Admission: Various packages available, but basic adult admission is $6, or $10 for the Lighthouse Museum and adjacent Maritime Museum. Trolley tours, leave from the Pier at 117 Mallery St.; 912-638-8954; www.stsimonstours.com/. one 90-minute tour daily at 11 a.m.; admission $22 adults, $10 children $4-$12, free for children under 4. Drive into Brunswick, see the shrimp fleet at Mary Ross Waterfront Park, and the historic Ritz Theatre at the heart of the historic district; www.brunswickgeorgia.net.
Getting there: Drive over a causeway from St. Simons Island. However, only residents, guests and staff at the resort have access.
Information: 866-879-6238; www.seaisland.com
Staying there: Rooms at the Cloister and the Lodge start at $395; limited time special offer for Florida and Georgia residents starts at $375.
—LITTLE ST. SIMONS
Getting there: Access is only via boat. A shuttle from the resort picks up guests at a marina on St. Simons Island. Information: 888-733-5774 or 912-638-7472; www.littlestsimonsisland.com.
Staying there: Doubles start at $600 per night; two-night minimum may apply. Includes meals, activities, use of bicycles and skiffs, shuttle to island. The resort occasionally offers day tours for $75, including lunch.
Getting there: Access is only via boat. A walk-on ferry leaves daily from the Sapelo Visitor's Center in Meridian, but visitors must be on a tour, be invited by an island resident, or have reservations at a campground or the Reynolds Mansion. Public tours cost $10 (ferry included) and are conducted Wednesday and Saturday mornings; June through Labor Day, an additional tour is conducted on Friday mornings; a longer tour is conducted the last Tuesday of the month.
Information: 912-437-3224; www.sapelonerr.org/visitorcenter.htm or www.gastateparks.org/SapeloReynolds.
Where to stay: The Reynolds Mansion can be rented by a group of 15-29 people, with a two-night minimum, $150-$180 per person per night, meals included. Groups of 15-25 may stay at Pioneer Campground; cost starts at $18 per person. Information for both: 912-485-2299. In addition, some residents rent rooms or houses; information available from the Visitors Center. On the mainland, Blue Heron Inn Bed & Breakfast (1346 Blue Heron Ln. SE in Darien; 912-437-4304; www.blueheroninngacoast.com/) has four rooms, $110 to $146 per night and is located 1.5 miles from the Visitors Center an d can also arrange private tours.
Where to eat: There are no restaurants on Sapelo and a tiny store carries only a small supply of nonperishables. In Darien, Skippers Fish Camp (85 Screven St.; 912-437-3474; www.skippersfis hcamp.com) specializes in locally caught fish and seafood; entrees $12.99-$28.99. The Purple Pickle (Screven and Broad Street; 912-437-2391) serves creative but casual American cuisine, most sandwiches and main-dish salads under $10.
What to do: Information on private tours available from the visitors center.
Getting there: Drive there from Savannah.
Where to stay: DeSoto Beach Hotel ( 212 Butler Ave.; 912-786-4542; http://desotohotel.com/) is a pleasant beachfront hotel; rooms equipped with mini-fridges, coffeemaker, and in some cases microwaves. Rooms from $160.
Where to eat: AJ's Dockside Restaurant, 1315 Chatham Ave.; 912-786-9533, http://ajsdocksidetybee.com/. Casual outdoor dining overlooking the Back River, emphasis on local seafood. Entrees $ 14.95-$32.95. Marlin Monroes Surfside Grill, 404 Butler Ave.; 912-786-GRIL; http://marlinmonroessurfsidegrill.com/. Outdoor dining on a deck overlooking the beach.
What to do: Tybee Marine Science Center (1510 Strand Ave.; 912-786-5917 or 866-557-9172; http://tybeemarinescience.org/) has small exhibits and offers beach discovery walks. Fort Pulaski National Monument (912-786-5787, www.nps.gov/fopu/) is on U.S. Highway 80 East, between Savannah and Tybee Island and offers living history programs, guided tours, musket firings, fishing, bird-watching, hiking and other activities. Open daily; admission $5 adults, free for children 15 and under.