By Henrylito D. Tacio
“The river is wide, the water fresh, and from the key of the town you can see its whole course to the sea, with the island of Tybee which forms the mouth of the river,” wrote British General James Oglethorpe in 1773.
Three years later, John Wesley came to the same place. The founder of Methodism recorded: “We cast anchor near Tybee Island where groves of pines running along the shore made an agreeable prospect, showing as it were, the bloom of spring in the depth of winter.”
Drive 20 minutes east of Savannah, Georgia, through a few kilometers of wide sky and salt marshes. This is where you’ll find Tybee Island, described by many as
“perhaps the most laid-back place on the southeastern coast” in the United States.
Most historians believe “Tybee” derives from the Native American Indian word for “salt” (“duh bee” in the old Euchee tongue), which was one of many natural resources found on Tybee. That was what the island was known in the past. But today, the name brings to mind words such as “sun,” “surf” and “fun.”
After all, this small barrier island boasts a wide, five-mile long beach that’s backed by sea oat-covered sand dunes. The beaches are made mostly of tiny grains of granite, washed from the Appalachian Mountains. The sand is easy to walk on and, at low tide, to bike on.
The most famous is the Tybee Beach, which has been a favorite spot for vacationers and tourists since the late 1800s. The beach is wide and clean, with warm, gentle waves. This is where my aunt Aida and I used to come on weekends to swim.
At the mouth of the Savannah River is the North Beach, an ideal vantage point to see ships from around the world, on their way to and from one of America’s busiest ports. It is perfect for sunbathing, people-watching and frolicking in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Commented one resident, “On this uniquely charmed island, nature lovers mingle with movie stars, bird watchers with good old boys. Pirate raids are regular occurrences. There are parties of epic proportions and barefoot-in-the-sand weddings.”
But there’s more to Tybee Island than beaches. Fishing opportunities abound on the island, from the beach, from piers, and by charter boat. Catch your fill of fresh crabs, bass, flounder, grouper, redfish, mackerel and more. Unlike in the Philippines where you can always go fishing in any beaches, here you have to get a fishing license before doing this fun thing.
Far from the beaches, you can do kayaking and surfing. In kayaking, you can paddle some of Georgia’s most unspoiled waters, visit the Little Tybee nature preserve and see more species of coastal wildlife than you’re likely to see anywhere else.
For the southeastern coast, the waves here can be pretty good. The best are along the south shore. Surfing is suitable for long or short board, beginner to more experienced surfers. Several surf shops on the island rent equipment.
There are more to do in Tybee Island. One brochure I took from the information center gives this tip: “Days are as active, or lazy, as your mood demands. Even on rainy days, options abound. You can board a dolphin cruise or a casino boat. Galleries, shops and eateries (fancy and casual, featuring fresh local seafood) offer changes of pace and taste. You can even buy same-day seafood on local docks, for the freshest of feasts.”
Those with a love of history won’t be disappointed when visiting Tybee Island. It offers: Fort Screven, Fort Pulaski National Monument, Tybee Island Light Station, and Cockspur Beacon.
Built in 1885 as part of America’s coastal defense, Fort Screven was the site of troop training during the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II. In 1947, the government sold the fort to the town of Tybee. Part of it (the former gun batter) now houses the Tybee Museum.
Just west of Tybee is Fort Pulaski which was built between 1829 and 1844. One of the engineers of the project was a young West Point graduate named Robert E. Lee. Later, General Lee’s Confederate soldiers held the fort for a year. Union forces on Tybee (in what is now Battery Park) staged a 30-hour siege using powerful, new “rifle cannons” on Fort Pulaski, damaging it severely. If you have the opportunity of coming to the place, you will still see the holes from that long-ago bombardment.
The Tybee Island Light Station is one of America’s most intact having all of its historic support buildings on its more than five-hectare site. Here, you can climb the 178 steps to the top of the recently restored lighthouse, which dates to 1773. Still a functioning navigational aid, its light can be seen more than 20 kilometers out to sea.
The Cockspur Beacon sits on an islet off the southeastern tip of Cockspur Island and marks the South Channel of the Savannah River. (The islet, covered by high tide, is comprised of oyster shells, and marsh grass.) Built in 1854, the illuminated beacon survived the bombardment of Port Pulaski, despite being directly in the line of fire. It was heavily damaged by an 1881 storm, which destroyed the keeper’s residence, but kept shining until 1909. Relit in March 2007, the beacon is best viewed from Fort Pulaski’s Lighthouse Overlook Trail.
In the past, the French were drawn to Tybee in search of Sassafras roots which at the time were considered by Europeans to be a miracle cure. The Spanish would fight the French in a naval battle just off shore to Tybee to regain control over the area.
History records showed that for many decades, pirates visited the island in search of a safe haven and hiding place for treasure. Tybee and remote islands like it would also be a source for fresh water and game to replenish supplies.
Tybee is served by the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, 45 minutes away by car. From Savannah, take Bay Street east until it ends at the President Street extension. Turn left and go east for more than 20 kilometers. President Street becomes the Islands Expressway, which merges with US 80 East, which takes you straight onto Tybee.
Yes, life here is more than a beach. — ###