Savannah makes an excellent base for journeys further along the Georgia and South Carolina coasts, returning to your lodging after local excursions, or transferring from the city to nearby points of interest.
To the north lies the quaint Southern town of Beaufort and Hilton Head Island, both part of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, where much of the romance, beauty, and graciousness of the Old South survives. Broad white-sand beaches are warmed by the Gulf Stream and fringed with palm trees and rolling dunes. Graceful sea oats, anchoring the beaches, wave in the wind. The subtropical climate makes all this beauty the ideal setting for golf and for some of the Southeast’s finest saltwater fishing.
To the south, Georgia’s barrier islands extend along the Atlantic coast from Ossabaw Island near Savannah all the way down to Cumberland Island, near Florida. Although some have been developed, others, such as Cumberland and Little St. Simons, still linger in the 19th century. Some are accessible only by boat. This 150-mile-long stretch of coast is semitropical and richly historic. The scenic Georgia portion of U.S. 17 goes past broad sandy beaches, creeks and rivers, and the ruins of antebellum plantations. The major highlights are the “Golden Isles”—principally Jekyll Island, Sea Island, and St. Simons Island.
The islands became world famous for their Sea Island cotton, grown on huge plantations supported mainly by slave labor. The last slaver, the Wanderer, (illegally) landed its cargo of Africans on Jekyll Island as late as 1858. The plantations languished and finally disappeared in the post–Civil War period. Today the Golden Isles are ideal for naturalists, with miles and miles of private secluded beaches, plus acres of ancient forests, and a temperature and climate that make the islands a year-round destination.
Exploring the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge
A 10-minute drive across the river from downtown Savannah takes you into the wild, even though you can see the city’s industrial and port complexes in the background. The Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (tel. 912/652-4415; www.fws.gov/savannah), which overflows into South Carolina, was the site of rice plantations in the 1800s and is now a wide expanse of woodland and marsh—ideal for a scenic drive, a canoe ride, a picnic, and most definitely a look at a variety of animals.
From Savannah, get on U.S. Hwy. 17A, crossing the Talmadge Bridge. It’s about 8 miles to the intersection of highways 17 and 17A, where you turn left toward the airport. You’ll see the refuge entrance, marked laurel hill wildlife drive, after going some 2 miles. Inside the gate to the refuge is a visitor center (Mon–Sat 9am–4:30pm) that distributes maps and leaflets.
Laurel Hill Wildlife Drive goes on for 4 miles or so. It's possible to bike along this trail. People come here mainly to spy on the alligators, and sightings are almost guaranteed. However, other creatures in the wild abound, including bald eagles and otters. Hikers can veer off the drive and go along Cistern Trail, leading to Recess Island. Because the trail is marked, there’s little danger of getting lost.
Nearly 40 miles of dikes are open to birders and backpackers. Canoeists float along tidal creeks, which are fingers of the Savannah River. Fishing and hunting are allowed under special conditions and in certain seasons. Deer and squirrels are commonplace; less common is the feral hog known along coastal Georgia and South Carolina. You can visit the refuge daily from sunrise to sunset. Admission is free.
14 miles east of Downtown Savannah
This small island in the south channel of the Savannah River is chiefly notable as the site of Fort Pulaski and the Cockspur Island Lighthouse, now both part of a well-maintained national monument. This was also the place where Methodist founder John Wesley first landed in America in 1736, before going on to preach in Savannah itself. A small monument commemorates the event.
The island and Fort Pulaski is an easy and clearly signposted drive from Savannah. Take U.S. 80 East all the way to Fort Pulaski Road, which marks the entrance to the National Monument; a bridge here connects the island to the mainland. There is no public transport.
Exploring Cockspur Island
The Fort Pulaski National Monument (tel. 912/786-5787; www.nps.gov/fopu) preserves one of several Civil War fortifications used to defend Savannah from Union forces, though it is chiefly notable for the manner of its defeat: the Union army used its new rifled cannon to compel the Confederate garrison inside to surrender in 1862, marking a landmark in the history of military siege tactics. The effectiveness of rifled cannon (firing a heavier, bullet-shaped projectile with great accuracy at longer range) was clearly demonstrated. The fort had been considered invincible, and the new Union weapon marked the end of the era of masonry fortifications.
Preparations on what would become Fort Pulaski began in 1827, when Robert E. Lee, the future Confederate general, was in charge of designing the first series of canals and earthworks on the island. Construction on the massive two-story fort, with walls 7 1/2-feet thick, was intermittent between 1829 and 1847, when it was finally finished. Later in the Civil War Fort Pulaski was used as a Union prison, infamously holding more than 500 Confederate prisoners (aka “the immortal 600”) during the winter of 1864. Some 13 prisoners died during their 5-month stay, mostly of dehydration due to dysentery.
Today you can explore the pentagon-shaped fort, with its galleries and drawbridges crossing the moat. You can still see shells from 1862 embedded in the walls. There are exhibits of the fort’s history in the visitor center. The site is open daily 9am to 5pm, with extended hours to 6pm June through August. Admission is $5 (ages 16 and over), with free admission for children 15 and under.
18 miles E of Downtown Savannah
For more than 150 years, Tybee Island has lured travelers who enjoy swimming, sailing, fishing, and picnicking. Pronounced Tie-bee, an Euchee Native American word for salt, the island offers 5 miles of unspoiled sandy beaches, just a short drive from Savannah.
From Savannah, take U.S. 80 until you reach the ocean. The Savannah-Tybee Beach Shuttle (tel. 866/543-6744) is a minibus that runs from Savannah Visitor Center to Tybee Island Friday to Sunday at 10am, noon, 2, and 5pm. On Tybee it stops at the Tybrisa/Strand Roundabout (30–40 min.), then Tybee Lighthouse (45 min. from Savannah). Return journeys begin approximately 45 minutes after the outward trip. Fares are $3 one-way (exact change required). Taxis from Savannah Airport charge a fixed-rate of $53.
The Tybee Island Visitor Center (tel. 877/344-3361; www.tybeevisit.com), 802 1st St., at the corner of Hwy. 80 and Campbell Avenue, provides complete information if you plan to spend more than a day on the island. It’s open daily 9am to 5:30pm.
Exploring Tybee Island
Covering just 5 square miles, Tybee was once called the “playground of the southeast,” hosting millions of beach-loving visitors from across the country. Built in 1891, Tybrisa Pavilion, on the island’s south end, became one of the major summer entertainment pavilions in the South. Benny Goodman, Guy Lombardo, Tommy Dorsey, and Cab Calloway all played here. It burned down in 1967 and was rebuilt in 1996.
Over Tybee’s salt marshes and sand dunes have flown the flags of pirates and Spaniards, the English and the French, and the Confederate States of America. A path on the island leads to a clear pasture where John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, knelt and declared his faith in the new land.
Fort Screven, on the northern strip, began as a coastal artillery station in the 1890s and evolved into a training camp for countless troops in both world wars. Remnants of wartime installations can still be seen. The Tybee Island Museum is housed in what was one of the fort’s batteries. Displayed is a collection of photographs, memorabilia, art, and dioramas depicting Tybee from the time the Native Americans inhabited the island through World War II. Across the street at 30 Meddin Ave. is the Tybee Lighthouse (www.tybeelighthouse.org), established in 1742 and the third-oldest lighthouse in America (though it’s been rebuilt many times; what you see today dates from the post–Civil War period). It’s 154 feet tall, and if you’re fit, you can climb 178 steps to the top. From the panoramic deck you get a sense of the broad and beautiful marshes.
For information about the museum and lighthouse, call tel. 912/786-5801. Both are open Wednesday to Monday 9am to 5:30pm. Admission is $9 for adults and $7 for seniors 62 and older and for children 6 to 17. Kids 5 and under enter free. The site has picnic tables, and access to the beach is easy.
Tybee Island Marine Science Center, 1509 Strand St., off the 14th Street parking lot, next to the pier (tel. 912/786-5917; www.tybeemarinescience.org), has displays on species indigenous to the coast of southern Georgia, a tidal pool touch tank that little ones will enjoy, and a small aquarium, often temporarily home to injured fish and turtles. Hours are daily 10am to 5pm. Admission is $4 for ages 4 and over; free for children 3 and under. Enlightening guided “Walks, Talks & Treks” along the coast are each an hour long and cost $10 per person (kids 4 and under are free). Reserve in advance.
Where to Stay
If you’re interested in daily or weekly rentals of a condo or beach house (one or two bedrooms), contact Tybee Beach Vacation Rentals (tel. 800/967-4433 or 912/786-0100; www.renttybee.com). Otherwise, avoid the chain hotels and opt for one of the island’s delightful B&Bs.
Strolling Around Isle of Hope
About 10 miles south of downtown Savannah is the charming community of Isle of Hope. First settled in the 1840s as a summer resort for the wealthy, it's now a showcase of rural antebellum life. To reach Parkersburg (as it was called in those days), citizens traveled by steamer down the Wilmington River or by a network of suburban trains. Today you can reach Isle of Hope by driving east from Savannah along Victory Drive to Skidaway Road. At Skidaway, go right and follow it to LaRoche Avenue. Take a left and follow LaRoche until it dead-ends on Bluff Drive.
This is the perfect place for a lazy afternoon stroll. The short path is home to authentically restored cottages and beautiful homes, most enshrouded with Spanish moss cascading from the majestic oaks lining the bluff. A favorite of many local landscape artists and Hollywood directors, Bluff Drive affords the best views of the Wilmington River.
As you head back toward Savannah, drive down Skidaway Road. On your left is Wormsloe Historic Site, 7601 Skidaway Rd. (tel. 912/353-3023; www.gastateparks.org/wormsloe). The former colonial estate of Noble Jones (1702–75), Wormsloe is mostly in ruins now, but it’s worth a look. After you enter the gates, you proceed down an unpaved oak-lined drive, and the ruins lie less than half a mile off the road. Dr. Jones was one of Georgia's leading colonial citizens and a representative to the continental Congress. Today costumed interpreters add context during programs and events. The on-site museum displays artifacts unearthed at the plantation, and screens a short film about the site and the founding of Georgia in 1733. Wormsloe is open Tuesday to Sunday 9am to 5pm. Admission is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors, $5 for children 6 to 17, and $2 for children 5 and under.