72 miles S of Downtown Savannah
The fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands, Sapelo Island is filled with the diverse wildlife of the forested uplands as well as a salt marsh and a complex beach-and-dunes system. The island is reached by boat from the Sapelo ferry dock, 8 miles northeast of Darien off Ga. 99. Educational tours of this undeveloped barrier island are conducted year-round by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Taking in everything from maritime forests to marshes, the R. J. Reynolds State Wildlife Refuge encompasses 8,240 acres. Some 5,900 of these acres have been designated as the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Guale Indians, Spanish missionaries, English freebooters, and French royalists called this island home before Thomas Spalding purchased the south end of the island in 1802. In the antebellum years, Spalding (1802–51) refined the Georgia Sea Island cotton and sugar industries, and designed and constructed an octagonal tabby sugar mill in 1809 (Tabby is a mixture of equal parts of oyster shell, sand, water, and lime.)
In 1912, Howard E. Coffin purchased the island from Spalding’s heirs. Coffin undertook a complete rebuilding of South End House, Spalding’s plantation mansion, which dated from 1810. By 1928, the house was ready to entertain President and Mrs. Coolidge, and later President and Mrs. Hoover in 1932. In February 1929, Charles A. Lindbergh landed on the island and visited the Coffins. The house was purchased in 1934 by the tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds. Twenty years later, Reynolds donated the dairy complex of the farm to the University of Georgia for use as a marine research laboratory. Jimmy Carter used the mansion during his administration in 1980.
Today the island has some 400 acres of private property, concentrated in a hamlet known as Hog Hammock, whose residents are descended from slaves from Spalding’s plantation days. Interpretive programs include marsh and beach walks, bird and wildlife observation, and special historical tours. Salt-marsh vegetation includes needlerush, sea oxeye, salt grass, glasswort, and cordgrass. You’ll see osprey feeding in the Duplin River and hear the call of the clapper rail, a marsh bird. The island is inhabited by such species as raccoons, feral cows, white-tailed deer, and a variety of snakes, including the eastern diamondback rattler and the cottonmouth. Chachalacas, a Mexican species of bird introduced to the island as a game bird, might also be spotted.
A 30-minute ferryboat ride from the mainland aboard the Sapelo Queen takes visitors to the island. Guides accompany guests on the half-day bus tour, including a marsh walk. The ferry leaves Wednesday at 8:30am, returning at 12:30pm; and Saturday at 9am, returning at 1pm, throughout the year, and also Friday 8:30am to 12:30pm June through Labor Day. March to October, an extended tour is conducted the last Tuesday of each month from 8:30am to 3pm. The tour costs $15 for adults and $10 for children 6 to 12, including the boat ride (free for kids 5 and under). Reservations are required. To make a reservation, contact the Sapelo Visitors Center, Landing Road, in Meridian, Georgia, just outside of Darien, Georgia (tel. 912/437-3224; www.sapelonerr.org). The center is open Tuesday to Friday 7:30am to 5:30pm and Saturday 8am to 5:30pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.