Slow down to visit the little Georgia isle that boasts a famous pirate, a fort, and a lighthouse as chapters in its long history.
By Kathryn Lemmon
Islands, islands everywhere. The East Coast of the United States has a bounty of small islands waiting to be explored. There’s a mystique about life on an island, even if the mainland is just a few miles away. You’re happily cut off, able to put yourself in an island state of mind.
Located at the very end of U.S. 80 just a short drive from Savannah, Georgia, Tybee Island is one such place. This little spit of land, which occupies only 2.6 square miles, will remind you of beach communities from times past, with friendly people and a slower pace.
The name Tybee comes from an American Indian word meaning “salt,” one of the isle’s resources. The place was a haven for pirates and a source of food and fresh water to mariners. It saw battles during the Civil War, as it was a strategic site for defending Savannah.
Today the locals call the hours spent in this laid-back spot “Tybee time,” and that alone provides a much-needed escape from everyday life. It may be small, but Tybee will find a place in your heart, calling you back again and again.
The white sand beaches of Tybee are lined with sand dunes stretching the full two miles of the Atlantic coast. Beachcombers might want to shuffle along the water’s edge in search of prehistoric sharks’ teeth. These are blackened relics discarded at sea thousands of years ago, and large numbers have washed ashore along the north end of the island.
The pier and pavilion at the south end of the island is a fine venue for strolling above the ocean. A salty sea breeze and swooping seagulls prove you’re not in Kansas anymore.
In the 1920s and early 1930s the Tybee Island Pier and Pavilion hosted big bands fronted by Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong. Thrilling music mingled with the sounds of the surf. The pier and pavilion that existed back then are long gone (destroyed by fire in 1967), but the new Tybrisia Pavilion II was dedicated in 1996. The venue is used for meetings, dances, musical performances, and more. It is open daily, and also has become a popular spot for fishing, with picnic tables and rest rooms available.
The water around Tybee Island is busy with working shrimp boats and port-bound container ships carrying cargo. Those, along with the antics of playful dolphins, create an ever-changing view of the ocean.
Around the other edges of the island, saltwater marshes and winding rivers offer some of the best fishing in the South. In addition to the angling opportunities, there are also spots to seine for shrimp, dig for clams, or set your trap for the local blue crabs.
In terms of architecture, you won’t find a single high-rise on the island unlike some beach towns. Many of the older homes and structures on the island’s north end were originally part of Fort Screven, a military post from 1897 to 1945. They have been restored to their original appearance.
Hikers will want to try one or all of the island’s four nature trails. Two are beachside, and two wind along the miles of marsh grass on the west side of Tybee. The North Beach Birding Trail, near the island’s lighthouse, is one possibility. While in this area, you can climb the historic lighthouse and tour its museum. The Sally Pearce Nature Trail leads you through a forest.
Bird-watchers come hoping to spot species that use the island as a stopover during migratory flights. In addition, one of the most popular winged residents is the painted bunting, a songbird said to be one of the most colorful of any in the United States. It lives on the island during the warm-weather months and spends its winters in Central America and South America.
Tybee is known for its warm tidal currents, maze of flat-water tidal creeks, and an interesting surf zone called The Triangle. Many consider it the best place on the Georgia coast for kayaking, regardless of one’s experience level. With more than 60 smaller islands and hammocks connected by a network of tidal creeks, the paddling opportunities are endless.
The sea sentinel
General James Oglethorpe, Governor of the Savannah Colony, ordered the Tybee Island lighthouse built in 1732. It has been guiding seafarers into the Savannah River for more than 270 years.
This sentinel of the sea is considered one of America’s most intact lighthouses. All of its historic support buildings are still standing. The bottom 60 feet of the lighthouse itself dates from 1773, and the top half from 1867. Along with the keeper’s house, the lighthouse was restored in a massive renovation that began in 1999.
The daymark, or exterior color pattern, painted on this beacon is a black background with a white band in the middle. This painted signature also provides assistance to mariners during daylight hours. The daymark has changed six times during the history of the lighthouse; the current one dates to 1916.
Get ready to climb 178 steps to see the First Order Fresnel lens and take in a great view of the island. You also can visit the keeper’s cottage and the Tybee Museum and gift shop. The lighthouse is open daily except Tuesday. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for seniors and children; free for kids ages 5 and under. Visit www.tybeelighthouse.org for more information, or phone (912) 786-5801.
You might hear a well-known name spoken while on Tybee Island: none other than the famous Blackbeard. This tall, fierce Englishman whose real name was Edward Teach sailed the waters on a stolen ship called Queen Ann’s Revenge. He preyed on ships that ventured near the East Coast of North America from New England to the Virgin Islands. Legend says that Blackbeard frequented the Tybee Island area, because Tybee and other islands were excellent hiding places. In addition, the islands provided a vital source of fresh water and game to replenish supplies. Hungry pirates need their nourishment.
Eager treasure hunters continue to search Tybee as well as neighboring islands in hopes of finding the pirates’ ill-gotten gains. Blackbeard bragged that only he and the devil knew where his treasure was hidden, and whoever lived longest could keep it. Apparently the devil won, since Blackbeard met a violent end in 1718 off the coast of Ocracoke Beach, North Carolina.
If you have a metal detector, it might be wise to bring it along. Will a fabulous treasure of gold and doubloons ever be found? Stayed tuned.
Science and the sea
At the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, the ocean meets the lab. Located steps from the beach by the aforementioned Pier and Pavilion, the center contains aquariums with local and tropical marine life; reptiles; numerous exhibits; a touch tank; and a gift shop. All ages can enjoy a visit to this living museum.
Beach Discovery walks are offered several times a week, where you’ll learn that there’s more to the beach than first meets the eye. In the summer you can sign up for the Science Center’s Sea Camp, or stop by for the Tuesdays at Tybee lecture series.
In addition, staff and dedicated volunteers of the center operate the Tybee Island Sea Turtle Project. Careful monitoring of nesting activities is done to preserve and protect the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. To find out more, join a Tybee Turtle Talk.
The Tybee Island Marine Science Center is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and closes at noon on Tuesdays. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for kids, and free for children under age 3. Phone (912) 786-5917 for more information or visit www.tybeemsc.org.
Fort Pulaski National Monument
Fort Pulaski National Monument is a historic site worth a visit. The fort itself is not on the island proper, but sits across the bay on Cockspur Island, which is accessible via U.S. 80, the main road to Tybee.
Fort Pulaski was named for Count Casmir Pulaski, who died defending the town of Savannah against the British during the Revolutionary War. Said to be constructed with 25 million bricks (someone took the time to count?), the walls of the massive fort were seven feet thick. Civil War buffs will know that this fort played a role in the War Between the States.
The fort was established as a national monument in 1924. Today the property includes more than 5,300 acres of pristine and scenic marshland along the coastline. For a better understanding of the fort’s place in history, ask to view the 17-minute film, The Battle For Fort Pulaski, at the visitors center.
The fort is administered by the National Park Service and is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; closing time is 7:00 p.m. in summer. Admission is $3 for adults (17 and up).
Time to eat
Everyone has to eat, so why not make it a memorable event? Restaurants on Tybee Island offer a combination of both fun and fine dining.
Dozens of casual, local spots serve the traditional “Low Country boil” a hearty mixture that usually consists of sausage, shrimp, new potatoes, onions, corn-on-the-cob, and a special blend of spices. A favored side dish is cornbread. Preparing this dish is a bit like making a pot of chili. Everyone has his or her own version, sometimes one that was established through years of trial and error. One thing is certain: you won’t go away hungry.
Restaurants also specialize in fresh oysters, peel-and-eat shrimp, and crab cakes. More recently, several upscale eateries have opened, adding to the diversity of cuisine, yet maintaining the Southern flair.
One upscale restaurant is Georges’ on Tybee. Named for its two partners, both called George, the menu features local ingredients in unexpected combinations and with international flair. Reservations are recommended for this popular spot. Other options favored by locals and visitors are The Crab Shack, Tango, and Sting Ray’s Seafood.
Because Tybee Island is 20 minutes east of Savannah, island visitors can partake of events in both towns. Each March Tybee Island celebrates St. Patrick’s Day in its own time a few days ahead of the larger town of Savannah. This is no small event, though, as even the lighthouse on the island is closed for the day. The Tybee Island celebration, which includes a parade, is set for March 12, 2005.
The downtown Savannah festivities will take place on March 17. Then, beginning March 18, Savannah holds its annual music festival, which continues until April 3. A variety of musical styles and genres typically are represented.
Tybee’s wild, annual Beach Bum Parade takes place May 27 this year, with much silliness (bring a water gun). The July Fireworks on the Beach show will be held July 3, 2005, at approximately 9:15 p.m. And each August, the Tybee Island Music and Seafood Festival fills the beach with fun.
For a complete list of events on Tybee Island, contact the visitors center listed below.
And be sure to see the small island that Savannah claims as its very own beach.
Tybee Island Visitor Information Center
802 First St.
Tybee Island, GA 31328
The only campground on the island is listed below. Many more RV parks are located in the Savannah area. Please check your favorite campground directory or the Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at www.fmca.com, for additional listings.
River’s End Campground & RV Park
915 Polk St.
Tybee Island, GA 31328