Drive Along Georgia’s Pristine Coast

Route Details Length: About 170 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Popular year-round. Words to the wise: The number

Route Details

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.

1. Savannah
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.

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.

6. Marshes of Glynn
Farther south, Rte. 17 swings into Brunswick, the second-largest city on the Georgia coast and the gateway to the Golden Isles, as they are known locally. Once you turn east at Brunswick onto the causeway that heads out to St. Simons Island, you are surrounded by the vast and magnificent expanse of salt grasses dubbed the Marshes of Glynn. In the words of the 19th-century poet Sidney Lanier, the marshes make up a domain where “all is still and the currents cease to run, / And the sea and the marsh are one.” The poet affectionately characterized the great marshland as “candid and simple / and nothing-withholding and free.”

The marshes simply surround you, stretching from one horizon to the other. Besides their seeming infinitude, and apart from their marvelous productivity as a foundation link in Georgia’s coastal food chain, the single most impressive aspect of this ocean of salt grasses is its color. Deeply verdant in summer, dormant brown in winter, the Marshes of Glynn span the gamut of greens when they are brought to life by the warm spring rains. Pea green, lime green, chartreuse, pastel greens shading almost to violet in the afternoon light—the spring marshes are the color green made alive and infinitely changeable.

7. St. Simons Island

At the causeway’s eastern end lie St. Simons, Little St. Simons, and Sea islands, which seem to fit together into a rounded whole like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Here ongoing development and the wild coastline mix to create a manicured middle ground. For all of their golf courses and comfortable homes on rambling lanes, these islands manage to preserve stretches of shoreline and the stands of live oaks that captivated the American naturalist William Bartram in 1774.

Near the middle of St. Simons, largest of the Golden Isles, lies Fort Frederica National Monument. Here the ruins of a fortified town, along with a film and exhibits at the visitor center, memorialize the earliest days of the Georgia Colony. At nearby Couper’s Point, a historic lighthouse is the centerpiece of the Museum of Coastal History, where maritime artifacts cast a spotlight on the area’s past.

Visitors can drive across a bridge to Sea Island, St. Simons’ neighbor to the east. This lush, green, carefully tended isle is a favorite of the well-to-do; its five-star resort, the Cloister, is visited by everyone from movie stars to presidents.

Reachable by ferry, the third island, Little St. Simons, contains another resort, where guests can ride horseback, hike through acres of virgin pine, canoe across quiet marshes that teem with wildlife, and go surf-casting for redfish.

Visitors from the Sea
On warm nights the beaches of Jekyll Island, Cumberland Island, and other spots along Georgia’s coast are visited by fleets of lumbering giants known as loggerhead turtles. Weighing from 300 to 800 pounds and measuring more than a yard long, the loggerheads crawl onto the beach, dig deep holes, and each deposit more than 100 leathery shelled eggs. When the young turtles hatch two months later, they scramble down the beach into the sea.

8. Jekyll Island

You’ll have to backtrack to the mainland and cross the marshes yet again to reach storied Jekyll Island, a link with the Gilded Age. In 1886 a few dozen captains of industry— familiar names such as Morgan, Rockefeller, Lorillard, Pulitzer, Vanderbilt, and Goodyear—bought the island and built the elegant Jekyll Island Clubhouse; it survives today as a hotel with posh sitting rooms and croquet on the lawn. They also built family “cottages” with up to 31 rooms (one had an astonishing 17 bathrooms).

The scenic island is laced with paved bicycle trails that lead to lovely picnic spots, broad sandy beaches, and secluded wildlife areas where a host of wading birds keep cautious company with the ever-watching alligators.

From Jekyll Island the drive returns to Rte. 17 and breezes through the tiny villages of Spring Bluff, White Oak, and Woodbine. At Kingsland, a turn onto Rte. 40 leads to St. Marys, where you can catch a ferry for a 45-minute voyage to serenely gorgeous environs of Cumberland Island.

9. Cumberland Island National Seashore

No vehicles are permitted on the ferry from St. Marys to Cumberland Island, where human activity is largely limited to camping and day visits, so you’ll have to get around on foot (unless you stay at the private Greyfield Inn, which is equipped with bicycles). Trails canopied with live oaks, cabbage palms, and holly lead through this pristine wilderness, roamed by such creatures as armadillos, wild pigs, wild turkeys, even wild horses. Ospreys wheel above Cumberland’s tidal creeks, alligators doze in its freshwater ponds, and loggerhead turtles lay their eggs on the sandy beaches. Among the few signs of civilization are the Dungeness Ruins, the overgrown skeleton of an 1880s Carnegie mansion located about a mile south of the ferry dock. Remember that the last boat back to the mainland leaves at 4:45—unless you’re staying here and can spend a leisurely evening lulled by the wildlife serenade.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest

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