By Chris McBeath
When the temperature rises, there’s no better time to head to the coast and while there’s no denying that sun-drenched beaches beckon, coastal Georgia has so much more to explore.
With subtropical beauty and abundant wildlife, it manages to strike a balance between some of the wealthiest communities in the country and some of the most jealously protected preserves found anywhere. Until recently, large segments of the coast were in private hands and much of the region remains untouched, while other areas offer intriguing archaeological and historical sights. The marshes, wetlands and waterways -- ideal for exploring by kayak or canoe, teem with birds and other wildlife, and just offshore, you can find loggerhead sea turtles, dolphins, manatees, and extremely rare right whales which nest only off the Georgia coast.
(Phone: 912/884-5779 or 888/246-8188; www.melonbluff.com).
On land obtained with a Kings Grant in 1745, this 9,500 acre plantation has been in the same family ever since. Archeological finds and historical records suggest that this coastal plantation was the site of the first African entry into the United States and subsequently is 37 years old than St. Augustine (long considered the oldest community in the United States). Although under constant threat of development, the family is striving to preserve this historically significant and original stretch of coastland. There’s a nature center and facilities for canoeing, kayaking, bird-watching, hiking, and other outdoor activities. Choose to camp or stay at one of the three B&B inns: Palmyra Plantation, an 1850s cottage; the Ripley Farmhouse, a classic rural house with a tin-covered roof; and an old barn, renovated to contain nine guest rooms. From Melon Bluff you can visit nearby Seabrook Village, a small but growing cluster of rural buildings from an African-American historic community; Old Sunbury whose port made it a viable competitor to Savannah until the Revolutionary War ended its heyday; Fort Morris, which protected Savannah during the revolution; and Midway, an 18th-century village with a house museum and period cemetery.
BRUNSWICK & THE GOLDEN ISLES
(Phone: 800/933-COAST (2627); www.bgivb.com)
Brunswick, St. Simons and Jekyll Island are by far the most developed vacation destinations along the coast. Here, you can swim and sun, golf, hike, fish, ride horseback, and tour historic sites such as St. Simons Lighthouse (one of only five surviving lighthouses in Georgia) and the ruins of Fort Frederica. While on St. Simons, be sure to a visit to the new coastal museum at the restored 1936 Historic Coast Guard Station.
Jekyll Island is best known as the long ago winter retreat for America’s rich and famous. All through the Gilded Age up until World War II, families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockerfellers, Astors, Macy’s and the Goodyears retreated to elegant “cottages” on their wild Georgia island. It’s been said that when all the island residents were ‘in’, a sixth of the world's wealth was represented. Soon after the millionaires departed for the last time, the state of Georgia purchased the entire island in 1947 for the bargain price of $675,000. While some of the island caters to vacation activities tennis, golf, fishing and the like, it also boasts nearly 10 miles of hard-packed Atlantic beaches, and a forest-edged, intracoastal waterway with marshlands brimming with wildlife. Bicycling here is a treat.
WORTH THE EXTRA PLANNING
Accessible only by ferry or private launch, Cumberland Island, Sapelo Island, and Little St. Simons have an isolation and near-pristine ecology that have made them legendary. Because of the high demand to visit these areas, you need to make ferry reservations (passengers only) well in advance.
Cumberland Island, (877/860-6787), the largest of Georgia's coastal isles, is a national treasure and an unspoiled sanctuary of marshes, dunes, beaches, forests, lakes and ponds. Wild horses roam freely on pristine beaches while gators, sea turtles, otters and more than 300 species of birds, make the waterways and forests their home.
Sapelo Island, (912/437-3224), is a one-of-a-kind community that still bears evidence of the early Paleo-Indians who lived here some 4,500 years ago. It is home to the Geechee, direct descendants of African slaves who speak a creole of English and various African languages. They also maintain many traditional African practices, including sweetgrass basket making and the use of traditional herbal medicines.
Little St. Simons, (888/733-5774 or 912/638-7472), is a privately owned, and rustically comfortable, lodge resort that provides guests with various guided activities from horseback riding to canoe trips. You're also free to walk the seven miles of undisturbed beaches, swim in the mild surf, fish from the dock, and seine for shrimp and crab in the marshes. In summer, up to 10 non-guests per day may visit the island for a fee of $100, which includes the ferry transportation, a tour by truck, lunch at the lodge, and a beach walk.
Old Fort Jackson is the oldest standing fort in Georgia, complete with barracks and cannon ramparts. It was garrisoned in the War of 1812 and was the Confederate headquarters of the river batteries. Battle reenactments, blacksmithing demonstrations and programs of 19th-century music are among the fort’s activities.
Fort Pulaski National Monument is a must see for Civil War buffs. Built between 1829 and 1847, it was designed by Napoleon’s military engineer and named for Casimir Pulaski, a Polish count and Revolutionary War hero. The restored fortification has moats, drawbridges, massive ramparts, and towering walls as well as walking trials and picnic areas.
Mighty Eighth Air Force Heritage Museum salutes the famous World War II squadron that became the largest air force of the period. Here is where you’ll see vintage aircraft, fly a simulated bombing mission with a B-17 crew, test your skills as a waist gunner, and view interviews with courageous World War II vets.
Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation is the last remaining example of a way of life that fueled an agricultural empire. The main farmhouse, in use since the 1850s when the original house burned, is now a museum with family heirlooms accrued over five generations. Though grown over, some of the original dike works and rice fields remain, as do some of the slave quarters.
The Colonial Coast Birding Trail is a string of 18 sites along the coast from the border of South Carolina to Florida, straddling U.S. 17 and Interstate 95. Four of the sites (Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, Jekyll Island, Cumberland Island, and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge) have been designated Important Birding Areas by the Georgia Audubon Society. With more than 330 species of birds to watch for, you’ll find welcome centers along the way a good source of maps and plenty of bird-watching suggestions for both skilled and novice birders.
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