If Georgia is on your mind, musings may be about the dynamic culture in the capital city of Atlanta or the Spanish moss-laden live oaks that cast dizzying shadows over quaint Savannah. But lesser-known islands stretch beyond the South’s Hostess City, and they’re truly this state’s old, sweet song.
Coastal Georgia’s barrier islands constitute one-third of the entire East Coast's saltwater marshes and span 150 miles along the Atlantic coast, beginning with northern-most Tybee Island, a 30-minute drive from Savannah, down to Cumberland Island above the Florida border. Visits to some can be as simple as a stop-over on a drive along the I-95 corridor, while others demand more intrepid seafaring-only means to get there.
This semitropical string of islands is rife with opportunities to enjoy the landscape at a leisurely pace – after all, you’re on island time and in the South. Though degrees of development and infrastructure vary from island to island, encountering nature on each one is a great way to find solace in a bit of solitude.
Tybee Island: Savannah’s offbeat enclave
Twenty miles east of Savannah’s historic district, Tybee Island (known by locals – or at least the ones dwelling on the mainland – as ‘Savannah Beach’) features five miles of easily-accessible public shoreline, popular to visitors from other parts of Georgia and beyond.
Enjoy surfing, kayaking, stand-up paddle-boarding or jet skiing with your own craft or rent from a local outfitter (tybeeisland.com/water-sports). The lively pier on the south end of the island is popular for picnicking and people watching – but if you prefer to peep birds and wild dolphins rather than humans, head to North Beach off Strand Avenue. You’ll also find the oldest and tallest lighthouse in the state here.
If you’re seeking seclusion and feeling adventurous, try a jaunt to Little Tybee Island. It's completely uninhabited and perfect for camping, beachcombing, birding and hiking. It’s within easy eyeshot of ‘big’ Tybee and might seem close enough to swim to, but the currents can be treacherous, so don’t attempt it. Kayak if you're experienced or look into boat charter services (visittybee.com).
McQueen's Island Trail: amble down an ex-railroad track
McQueen's Island Trail (parks.chathamcounty.org) is a hit for travelers who want to bike (bring your own), hike, or jog along what used to be a stretch of the Savannah & Atlantic Railroad Line. The scenic six-mile path is fringed with cordgrass, cabbage palms and coastal cedar trees. Terrain ranges from hard-packed dirt to pebbly crushed limestone and the western portion of the trail was recently restored due to erosion, so tread with care on this fragile turf.
Paralleling the Savannah River, the trail takes you right up to its marshy banks at some points. These are great resting areas for a deep breath of sea salt-air and a glimpse of the river’s impressive breadth, where massive ships drift out to sea. Spot native wildlife like dolphins, turtles and the occasional bobcat or alligator. A bit of island kitsch awaits at the end, where you’ll encounter an oak tree adorned with buoys, flags and trinkets. The trailhead is just off US Highway 80, 15 miles east of Savannah – keep your eyes peeled for the Fort Pulaski National Monument (nps.gov) sign and park along the road or at the fort for free. The only animals allowed are the ones who dwell here, so leave your pups at home.
Off-the-beaten-track island odysseys
Set southward to see under-the-radar islands that get overshadowed by big hitters like Tybee, St Simons or Jekyll. These tucked-away natural treasures take a little more effort to get to but their unmarred and primordial beauty is worth the trek.
Take Wassaw Island, for example. What it lacks in development is made up for by an experience of primitive grandeur while birding, hiking and biking along 20 miles of trails and seven miles of seashore. Visitors can explore diverse wildlife in their unique habitats year-round and national refuge regulation ensures all species are protected.
Wassaw’s live oak and slash pine trees converge to form canopies where rookeries of herons, egrets and other local birds dwell, and endangered loggerhead sea turtles swim ashore to lay eggs on summer nights. Ensure wildlife here continues to thrive by adhering to all signage and don't venture beyond areas marked off-limits. Wassaw is open daily from sunrise to sunset and only accessible by boat. Charter services can be booked with eco-conscious outfitters like Savannah Coastal EcoTours (savannahcoastalecotours.com) or Wilderness Southeast (naturesavannah.org).
Sapelo Island sits right in the middle of Georgia’s string of barrier islands and is well worth a visit for die-hard naturalists. Tours of the island’s extensive system of estuaries must be booked in advance through the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (SINERR) Visitors Center (sapelonerr.org) and ferry service runs from the nearby mainland town of Meridian, accessible from I-95. Camping is also available for groups of 15-25 on close-by Cabretta Island.
Other than science and research workers, the only residents on Sapelo dwell in the community of Hogg Hummock (sapeloislandga.org). Its inhabitants are the only remaining collective of the Gullah and Geechee peoples, direct descendants of the West African slaves brought to the area 1802. This remaining permanent group of around 50 people proudly carry on the unique culture, language and traditions of their forebears despite their dwindling numbers.
The Golden Isles: retreat beyond the resorts
Halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville are the popular barrier islands known as the Golden Isles, dubbed as such by Spanish explorers in search of gold over 400 years ago. Though popular for their resorts, exclusive residential communities and some of the best golfing in the state, there are alternatives for imbibing the natural beauty of these islands.
As the most developed of the Golden Isles, there’s no shortage of activities on St Simons Island. Though half of it is relegated to resorts and residential areas, the water is just fine here – head to Massengale Park for access to East Beach, the island’s best. Kayak serene marshes, bike along the coast, or catch waves on a surfboard or stand-up paddleboard. Barry’s Beach Service (stsimonskayaking.com) offers rentals and tours.
Jekyll Island, with 10 miles of splendid beaches and lush, private woodlands, was once the premier private isle for America’s elite. The massive Victorian-era Jekyll Island Club resort (jekyllclub.com) is a posh testament to that past, but sixty-five percent of the island is undeveloped and the Jekyll Island Campground (jekyllisland.com) is a great place to snooze under the stars. Rise early so you don't miss dawn on Driftwood Beach. The bare bones of ocean-washed trees create otherworldly silhouettes against the sunrise for a positively prehistoric vibe.
Cumberland Island: unwind in remote resplendence
The largest of the bunch, the stretch ends with Cumberland Island, the barrier island belle of the ball. But consider her a bit of a wallflower; this island is the epitome of pristine seclusion due to its National Park designation. Access is only available by ferry from the languid town of St Mary’s. Reserving in advance is wise and all visitors must check in 30 minutes prior to boarding. There aren't any shops or waste bins on the island, so stock up on supplies before you go and bring all trash back on your return to the mainland.
Catch a wink among the majestic live oaks at Sea Camp Campground (exploregeorgia.org) and explore the haunting Dungeness Ruins (nps.gov), the abandoned winter-getaway mansion once owned by the Carnegie family. Soak up rays along 16 miles of astonishing shoreline, where you just may find yourself all alone – save for a few wild horses.