Length: About 170 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: The number of daily visitors to Cumberland Island is limited, so phone ahead for information and to make reservations.
Nearby attractions: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, via Rte. 278 north of Savannah. Okefenokee Swamp Park, near Waycross. Mary Miller Doll Museum, Brunswick.
Further information: Georgia Tourism Division, P.O. Box 1776, Atlanta, GA 30301; tel. 404-656-3590, www.georgiaonmymind.org.
For 120 miles, from serene Savannah to the St. Marys River at the Florida border, nearly half a million acres of salt marsh define Georgia’s Atlantic Seaboard. This coast, however, is not a place that surrenders easily to a straightforward drive: there’s always another side trip to take, always another jaunt onto an island causeway or down an alluring byway.
A mid-1700s capital of the Georgia colony, the city of Savannah remains the elegant legacy of its original planners. Its streets are gracefully punctuated by more than 20 squares, beautified in turn with fountains, statues, and flowering shrubs. Savannah is best seen on foot, one where a stroll in most any direction rewards you with charming discoveries: elaborate cornices that adorn old mansions, marble heroes surrounded by azalea blooms and bright green lawns, the picturesque iron bridges of Factors Walk, the live oak alley leading to the fountain in Forsyth Park, and Skidaway Island—a beautiful mix of state park and residences. Amble through Savannah’s historic district, where more than 1,000 meticulously restored homes and commercial buildings reflect the antebellum years when cotton was king and this genteel city was in its prime.
2. Tybee Island
As you head east out of Savannah, follow palmetto-lined Rte. 80 over the Bull River and into a salt marsh wilderness, where the languid feeder streams of a vast estuary rise and fall to a tidal pulse and pelicans angle through the sky.
Just off the road on Cockspur Island stands Fort Pulaski National Monument, built in 1829 to defend Savannah’s sea approaches; it was pummeled into submission by Union guns in the desperate siege of 1862. The road ends at Tybee Island, where summering Savannahians recline on broad beaches, bike down sandy lanes, and sate their hunger with steamed blue crabs. Tybee’s lighthouse is Georgia’s oldest and tallest; rising from foundations that predate the Revolutionary War, it casts its beam across the harbor that long ago ensured Savannah’s prosperity.
3. Fort McAllister State Historic Park
After backtracking to the mainland, the drive heads south from Savannah on Rte. 17 past dense coastal pine forests and Melon Bluff, a private preserve of sweeping river views and moss-draped oaks. At the town of Richmond Hill, it turns east on Rte. 144 toward lovely Fort McAllister State Park near the mouth of the Ogeechee River. An intriguing nature trail and a choice scattering of sylvan campsites invite visitors to share the tranquil riverbanks with an avian population that includes strutting gallinules and rails, barred owls, and the painted bunting, the most extravagantly hued of all North American birds.
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Fort McAllister was the scene of a grim encampment during the Civil War. Here Confederate troops dug massive walls of earth to block horrific Union bombardments from the sea, only to fall to Sherman’s land attack as Savannah’s fate was sealed in the waning days of 1864. Now fully restored and surrounded by green, Fort McAllister stands guard against nothing more than the sea breeze wafting in across the wildlife haven of Ossabaw Island to the east.
4. Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge
As you continue south on Rte. 17 through Midway, consider stops at Fort Stewart Museum, the Historical Liberty Trail, and Fort Morris Historic Park. Further, at South Newport, look on your left for the sign that marks the site of the “Smallest Church in America”—a 10- by 13-foot chapel with a modest 12 seats. Nestled in a mossy glade, the church is open to wayfarers of all denominations 24 hours a day.
There is no sign on Rte. 17 pointing the way to the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. But it’s easy enough to get there: just take the next left after the church, turning onto Rte. 131 at the tiny hamlet of South Newport, and drive for some seven miles. At this extensive refuge, nature has been carefully cajoled by conservationists, creating a quiltwork of wildlife habitats. Nearly two-thirds of Harris Neck’s 2,700 acres consists of salt marsh, which is complemented by freshwater impoundments that attract herons, ibises, and migrant waterfowl such as widgeons and delicately patterned gadwalls. Deer, raccoons, opossums, and minks live here as well. Fifteen miles of paved roads snake through the refuge, including a well-marked eight-mile driving trail that leads from upland stands of live oaks garlanded with Spanish moss to shadowy swamps, where green-backed herons stalk their prey among the buttresslike roots of old cypresses.
5. Altamaha Historic Byway
Near the town of Darien, Rte. 17 passes through miles of pine forest harvested for the paper industry. For a distance, it also parallels the Colonial Coast Birding Trail—each site is marked and worth visiting. If you are hungry, stop for pork barbeque served at many local gas stations, or sample the seafood in Darien. Its wharf is crowded with shrimp boats and other fishing vessels, their salty nets drying in the sun amid the swoops and cries of gulls. A mile east of Darien stands restored Fort King George, built by the British in 1721 as a bulwark against the Spanish in Florida.
The seven-mile Altamaha Historic Byway, as Rte. 17 south of Darien is often called, weaves a long skein of social and natural history. Exhibits at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, for example, hark back to the days when rice—not cotton—was king in this part of the South.
Centuries of fortification and agriculture seem to melt away as you enter the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area, 26,000 timeless acres of hummocky marshland where the booming of an old bull alligator is as likely to pierce the air as any human sound.