Tag Archives: Barrier islands of Georgia

Discovering Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Gullah-Geechees of Hog Hammock

The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion is a key attraction on Sapelo Island, an island refuge that offers intrigue and extraordinary contrasts © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

From the moment I hear the story of Sapelo Island, I am intrigued. The 50 remaining permanent residents are all descendents of Gullah-Geechee slaves. Access to the island is limited, and once there, “outsiders” who come on their own will have difficulty getting around – you’re not even allowed to take your own bicycle onto the island.

The number of permanent residents, once as many as 800, has steadily dwindled since the end of the Civil War and Emancipation, and now the community faces a dilemma: how to instill a sustainable economy that will keep the young people from migrating away, that does not cause this idyllic island to be overrun. Already, real estate developers are chomping at the bit.

The Gullah-Geechee are descendents of slaves brought 200 years ago from Africa and the West Indies to work the plantations. Their modest community of just 300 acres – the only part of the 16,000 acre island that does not belong to the State of Georgia – is in marked contrast to the RJ Reynolds mansion that has hosted presidents from Coolidge to Carter and continues to be an inspired venue for everything from destination weddings to academic conferences. Georgia and NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) also have research facilities on the island, in fact, at the Reynolds estate.

Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island is isolated © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Sapelo Island – the fourth largest of Georgia’s barrier islands at 11 miles long and a mile wide – is owned by the State of Georgia, which uses it for research center for the state university, and a NOAA (National Oceanographic & Atmospheric Administration) research facility.

Unlike other barrier islands off Georgia – notably St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island – which have been turned into tourist havens, Sapelo Island has been insulated and almost entirely undeveloped. In fact, the only “law” governing the island is the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – there are no police.

There is limited ferry service and limited transportation on the island all of which adds to its mystery and intrigue, and limited transportation around the island. You’re not even allowed to bring your own bicycle on the ferry from Meridien, but theoretically, you can rent on the island. Because of the difficulties of getting around the island, most people who visit join one of the (few) organized tours that are available.

And this is apparently the way the “locals” – the 50 actual residents of the island – like it.

We come to Sapelo Island with Andy Hill, who owns Private Islands of Georgia, a 2,000-acre territory of these back barrier islands encompassing eight private islands including Eagle Island where we stay. He owns a half-acre of property on Sapelo, giving him (and his guests) privileges to come and he keeps a truck at the dock. He takes his guests over with his pontoon, or you can rent a boat and Eagle Island guests sometimes come with their own boats.

The 20-minute ride to the island is very scenic and interesting. We get to see an alligator, roused from winter hibernation; ballast islands; Doboy Island.

We set out in Andy’s truck and quickly discover one of the island’s charms – no street signs and few paved roads and lots of live oak dripping with Spanish moss.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are such incongruities to the island – shacks and dilapidated cars and trucks, only a couple of paved roads with the rest dirt or sand – contrasted with the splendor of the RJ Reynolds Mansion.

All of this makes the island that much more interesting: highlights of any visit include the Reynolds mansion home, the historic lighthouse (newly restored but you can’t climb it), and miles and miles of pristine beach. Nanny Goat Beach, a six-mile stretch, is among many beaches which are as private as private can get. There also are research stations operated by the state university.

And then there is Hog Hammock, which is the village established by the former slaves, where there is the beginning of a historic center.

In some ways, Sapelo Island calls to mind Cuba, the way cars and trucks are kept for an eternity and constantly repaired and the people and culture exist in isolation, and a book by Pat Conroy, “The Water is Wide,” about his experience as a teacher at a one-room schoolhouse on remote Daufuskie Island in South Carolina teaching black kids.

Reynolds Mansion

The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The Reynolds Mansion through the Live Oak, Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Start at the Reynolds Mansion, which gives context to Sapelo Island’s history, and only open for tours during specific hours.

The original Mansion was designed and built from tabby, a mixture of lime, shells and water, by Thomas Spalding, an architect, statesman and plantation owner who purchased the south end of the island in 1802. The Mansion served as the Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War.

Spalding was a fairly remarkable man: he employed scientific farming techniques including crop rotation and diversification and was responsible not only for devising the formula for building tabby – a cement like construction material made from shells – but for cultivating Sea Island cotton and introducing the manufacture of sugar to Georgia. He also was elected to Congress and was an important local leader.

Spalding owned more than 350 slaves imported from Africa and the West Indies, but reportedly had misgivings about the institution of slavery, and had a reputation as “a liberal and humane master.” He utilized the task system of labor, which allowed his workers to have free time for personal pursuits. Slaves were supervised not by the typical white overseers but by black managers, the most prominent of whom was Bu Allah (or Bilali), a Muslim and Spalding’s second-in-command on Sapelo.

According to various biographies, Spalding was pro-Union (but anti abolition), and worked to win Georgia’s support of the 1850 Compromise.

Despite setbacks, Spalding’s prowess in agriculture and as a businessman (he was a founder of the Bank of Darien, advocated railroad and canal development in the region, and was active in state political affairs), enabled him to grow his plantation from 5,000-acres to eventually owning all of Sapelo Island’s 16,000-acres.

The mansion home was vandalized before and after the Civil War. After the Civil War, the former slaves, who began to earn cash for their labor, were able to buy land (that part of the story continues later when we meet Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey).

The entire island except for those communities held by the former slave families, was purchased in 1912 for $150,000 by Howard Coffin (founder of the Hudson Motor Company as well as the Cloister Hotel on Sea Island). Coffin restored the mansion, which then hosted visits of President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge in 1928, President and Mrs. Herbert Hoover in 1932, and Charles Lindberg in 1929, who landed his plane on its small airstrip.

Tobacco heir Richard Reynolds, Jr. purchased the property during the Great Depression, in 1934.

Reynolds was an early environmentalist and founded the Sapelo Island Research Foundation in 1949. He later funded the research of Eugene Odum, whose 1958 paper The Ecology of a Salt Marsh showed the fragility of the cycle of nature in the wetlands; the research Odum did at Sapelo helped launch the modern ecology movement.

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Reynolds’ widow, Annemarie Reynolds, sold Sapelo to the state of Georgia for $1 million, a fraction of its worth. The sale established the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, a state-federal partnership between the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The mansion is used today for groups – like destination weddings and conferences. The Reynolds Mansion can accommodate up to 29 guests in 13 bedrooms with 11 bathrooms. There is a minimum group size of 16 guests as well as a minimum 2-night stay.

The Mansion has marvelous architecture. The library has the original nameplates in many volumes from Reynolds’ private collection. Guests can use the Game Room’s billiards and table tennis. The ornately decorated Circus Room sports the wild animal murals of famed Atlanta artist, Athos Menaboni, whose work appears throughout the house.

The expansive grounds are particularly atmospheric with sculptures bathed in the sunlight filtering through massive live oaks.

Pathways link the Mansion’s grounds to the Atlantic Ocean where guests have use of a beachfront pavilion.

Mansion guests can explore the island on foot, bicycle, van or rented ocean kayaks. The lush forest envelopes you in a sea of green almost year round, and you are likely to sight whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, wild turkey armadillo and other animals. The rare Guatemalan Chacalaca, imported to the island as a gamebird, runs wild in the forest, as do wild hogs and cattle, descendants of livestock that escaped from the farms of Sapelo’s early settlers. Sapelo is also a birders paradise. And of course, there are miles of unspoiled beach.

(Reynolds Mansion groups and conference participants are met at the ferry landing by air-conditioned vans; the vans are also available for the group’s use during their stay. Because of the unique ecological and archeological aspects of Sapelo, visitors have to obey very stringent and specific rules. For information and reservations, visit http://gastateparks.org/SapeloIslandReynoldsMansion or call 912-485-2299.)

Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Lighthouse © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Another interesting attraction is the 80-foot tall Sapelo Lighthouse which watches over Doboy Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. The five-acre lighthouse tract was sold to the federal government for $1 in 1808 by Thomas Spalding; the original lighthouse, 65 foot tall and topped by a 15-foot whale-oil lantern, was erected in 1820 for $14,500. Damaged several times by hurricanes over the years, it was eventually replaced and then deactivated in 1933. It was renovated in 1998 including a new spiral staircase, new lantern glass and light, and the spiral-striped exterior identical to the structure’s original paint scheme.

Today, its role is symbolic, since a steel tower outfitted with modern navigation aids was erected nearby as a replacement.

One of the enormous appeals of Sapelo Island for visitors are miles and miles of beaches. The main beach, Nanny Goat, has relatively easy access and bathroom facilities. We make our way with significant difficulty over some dirt roads, to one of the more secluded beaches at Cabretta Island where there are also campsites.

Hog Hammock

The highlight of our visit to Sapelo Island comes when we stop at Hog Hammock.

In its heyday, Hog Hammock would have had 800 residents; now the community of permanent residents has dwindled to just about 50, and only six children. Once there was a schoolhouse on the island; now the children go by ferry to the mainland.

All the descendents on the island trace back to 44 slave families – Bailey, Hogg, Walker, Spalding, and so forth. Many of the families were named for the owner (like Spalding); and many of the last names of enslaved populations on plantations originated from their job assignments. For example, the Bailey’s baled tobacco; Gardner’s tended the gardens; Grovner’s tended the groves; Hogg’s tended to hogs; Walker’s walked livestock.

Hog Hammock's historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Hog Hammock’s historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We get to meet the village historian and local activist, Cornelia Bailey, who has been accumulating artifacts in a small building which will serve as a museum but which does not seem open to the general public.

Cornelia Bailey’s ancestors first arrived on Sapelo in the 1790s, she tells us, and were here when the French came over. Beginning in 1802, a lot more came over, and after Thomas Spalding purchased the island, the number of Gullah-Geechee people grew to 800.

Just 50 of the community remain today.

“Everybody is still kin,” she says. She wants to revitalize the community so that it supports 150-200 people, but that will require jobs be created on the island.

The state of Georgia owns almost all of the island; Hog Hammock consists of just 300 of the 16,000 acres.

When the Civil War came, several slaves from Sapelo Island left and walked to Millersville, some walked to Thomasville (that’s a four-hour drive today).

The famous 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment – came through here and were responsible for burning Darien. “The blacks didn’t want to burn Darien,” Cornelia says. “the officers ordered them to give a lesson. The whites in the area still hold it against us.”

Did they know when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued? “We knew immediately because we had people here who served in Union forces.”

What happened here after slavery ended? I ask. “People in the north end were more independent. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. After being slaves for so many years. Rebellious people, took up arms against whites.

After the Civil War, she says, “for 35 years they didn’t work for any white man. They were jailed for refusing to be sharecroppers.”

“They planted for themselves They formed alliance and got their produce to market without a middleman, because until federal regulations, middlemen took all the profit.”

Many of the plantation owners lost their money because they supported the Confederacy. “Some buried it. Families were destitute Wives sold land. Some of my people who worked for federal government could pay 50 cents an acre.”

After 1870 and Reconstruction, she tells us, many of the former slaves ended up owning land; a lot worked for the federal government, earning cash money. They purchased land from their former owners – apparently being given handwritten slips of paper to show their ownership.

At one time, there were five different communities in five different parts of the island.

When Reynolds bought the island, he had the idea to develop it much as Jekyll Island and Sea Island had been developed, and wanted to consolidate all the Gullah-Geechee residents in one community from the five different communities.

“He said it was for wildlife preservation. But he wanted to develop north end,” she says.

“Everyone got a deed for land here but were cheated out of land in the north [of the island],” she tells us.They claimed that because the former slaves did not have the King’s grant, they could not prove their ownership.

Cornelia manifests the proud, independent streak of her ancestors, and is suspicious of outside developers who might come in and take over.

“Come and enjoy what we eat – seafood dishes. We’re cordial but don’t want outsiders to stay.”

Bailey wants to make the community economically viable but is not keen on promoting the obvious cash-cow, tourism, because that would mean opening the floodgates to outsiders.

Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beaches are a major lure to Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The Sapelo Island, Georgia (SIG) Community Improvement District (CID) is working to create a more walkable, bikeable and livable rural environment, and there is a Small Business Incubator which is hoping to spur the successful development of entrepreneurial companies.

I get the impression they don’t really want the outside world. Instead, her approach to economic revitalization is to revitalize agriculture.

Meanwhile, the community has been fighting back real estate development, and discourage locals from selling their property to outsiders.

Instead of opening floodgates to outsiders, Sapelo Island hosts a once-a-year festival, Sapelo Days Festival, on the third Saturday in October, when the island invites back all those who used to live here, whose families trace their roots here, and anyone else who is curious or who wants to be immersed in Gullah-Geechee culture.

Family of residents and those who have moved off the island start arriving Thursday; on Saturday, boat loads come, by 7:30-8 pm, they are gone.

“It’s a cultural day. People have their best manners, best foods,” she says, sounding like the grandmother who loves to have their grandchildren for a day and then send them back to the parents.

The festival is a fundraiser that helps support the Sapelo community.

Before we leave, we stop into Cornelia’s general store, where you can purchase a cookbook she wrote (there isn’t much else in the store). But you can see a display about Sapelo Island’s most famous resident, Cornelia’s nephew, Allen Bailey, who played for the Miami Hurricanes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Gullah-Geechee community extends from southern North Carolina down to northern Florida. The Gullahs achieved a victory in 2006 when the U.S. Congress passed the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act that provides $10 million over 10 years for the preservation and interpretation of historic sites relating to Gullah culture. The Heritage Corridor project is being administered by the US National Park Service with extensive consultation with the Gullah community.

Special Programs

Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sapelo Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The State of Georgia offers guided bus tours of Sapelo Island on Wednesdays (8:30 – 12:30) and Saturdays (9 – 1) throughout the year, Fridays (8:30 – 12:30) June 1 through Labor Day; and an extended tour on the Last Tuesday (8:30 – 3) of each month March through October. Public tour reservations can be made by calling 912-437-3224 (adults/$15; Children (6-12)/ $10; ages 5 and under/free).

The Visitors Center is open Tuesday – Friday 7:30-5:30, Saturday 8-5:30, closed on Sunday and Monday. Group tours for 10-40 people are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays (8:30-3) throughout the year, and Fridays (8:30-12:30) from Labor Day to the end of May. Those tours can be arranged by calling the Education Office at 912-485-2300. Tickets for public and group tours of Sapelo Island can be purchased at the Visitor Center. T-shirts, books, and videos are also available for purchase.

The Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve (www.sapelonerr.org) work closely together managing the island’s resources. Guided interpretive tours of the mansion, slide shows of the island, interpretive beach walks and other ecological or scientific presentations can be arranged through the Reynolds Mansion conference coordinator with advance notice. Special outings, cookouts, picnics and other group activities are also possible with advance notice when booking your reservations. (The Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, P.O. BOX 15, Sapelo Island, Georgia 31327, 912-485-2299).

Getting to Sapelo Island

One of the principal ways of accessing Sapelo Island is aboard the Georgia Department of Natural Resources ferry which serves visitors and residents alike. The $10 per person round-trip fee for the half-hour ride is paid at the Meridian ferry dock. (You are not allowed to bring bicycles, beach chairs or a host of other things.)

The mainland ferry dock, visitor center and parking areas are located in Meridian, Georgia, 8 miles east of Darien. From I-95, take exit 58 on GA HWY 57 to HWY 99.

Sapelo Island Visitors Center, 1766 Landing Rd SE, Darien, GA 31305, 912-437-3224, [email protected], www.sapelonerr.org/visitor-center.

See also:

Eagle Island, One of ‘Private Islands of Georgia’ Offers Rarest Luxury: Time Together


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Eagle Island, One of ‘Private Islands of Georgia’ Offers Rarest Luxury: Time Together

A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Set among the back barrier islands of Georgia is Eagle Island, offering one of the rarest experiences on the planet: the giddy feeling of being on your own private island, separated from civilization.

An experience like this is usually reserved for the rich and famous, but rather than being out of this world in terms of price, the cost puts Eagle Island well in reach (about $2900 for six-night stay for a couple or $3300 for 3-12 people).

But what you get is priceless: time, or more precisely, Eagle Time. Time to be. Time to be together.

What happens when you put people into a place where time can be made to stand still? Where all the whirring and hustle and bustle and all the pressures of society can be held at bay and all there is, is the marsh and the flat water of a meandering river, the cacophony of calls of a dozen different types of birds, where because of the very simplicity, every small thing becomes that much more magnified, more wondrous, like the rings of a cut tree….

How exquisite. How wondrous. How precious.

“I watch people come out and three days later, their face is totally different, they are relaxed and comfortable,” says Andy Hill, who owns Eagle Island and seven more barrier islands in a 2,000-acre expanse. Here, you stay together, spend time with the people you’re with. That’s what they say they remember most.”

The marshes around Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The marshes around Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You feel it as soon as you pull away from the dock at Darien, on Captain Andy Hill’s pontoon boat, and it seems the world slips away as you cruise on the meandering river, among marshes lush with birds, fish, marshes, into a place that has been hailed by the Nature Conservancy has named this area ‘One of the Top 75 Last GREAT Places in the World’ and for this precious time, is yours.

Eagle Island Lodge, on its own 10 acres of Eden, offers the exquisite thrill of being completely on your own, left to your own devices. This distinguishes the experience from renting a ski house or villa.

Eagle Island may well be the first (and to date the only) “Five Moons” lodge – a riff on “Five Star” – and its slogan (or motto) is “No agenda. No clocks. No deadlines.”

There is every luxury and comfort, and yet it is its simplicity that is most precious of all.

The Eagle Island experience depends on who you are: romantic if you are a couple; a fantastic adventure if you are with young children; if you are with friends – with each scenario the social dynamic changes. The one constant is a unique experience.

You are immersed in the environment at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
You are immersed in the environment at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Environment, atmosphere, weather, time of year – everything changes the experience, the chance spotting of a dolphin, a manatee or an eagle.

It is a recipe for laughter, for love, for connection at a time when too many of us are too disconnected and distracted from people we are close to.

When you strip away all the distractions so you focus on each other, see clearly what is important, who is important.

It’s about a 20-minute ride on Hill’s pontoon boat from the dock at Darien, a quaint, historic town (Fort King George was built in 1721 and was the southernmost outpost of the British Empire in the Americas until 1727; the town was burned by the famous 54th Massachusetts during the Civil War) on the meandering Altamaha River, flanked on both sides by marsh.

During the boat ride Andy familiarizes us with the local ecology and history.

He points to ballast stone islands – islands that have formed from the ballast pitched by ships in the 1700s as they took on the timber harvested from Georgia to bring back to Europe. Over time, soil formed on the stones, then trees grew – a clear display of interplay between nature and human activity.

A successful businessman, he realized that he was running a big business, employing hundreds of people, but wasn’t around people, wasn’t outdoors, wasn’t boating, and wasn’t doing the things he is passionate about.

Ask him what he is passionate, and he doesn’t hesitate: “It’s the water.”

He takes a slight detour to where we see an Eagle’s nest – he tells us the nests can be as large as a ton. We see two eagles on a branch, protectively watching over the babies, still in the nest. He says 60% of eagles don’t make it past their first attempt at flight.

Andy bought Eagle Island in 1998 and two years later, May Hall (just around the “corner” of the marsh, which Andy is restoring as a Tuscan villa) along with six other islands in a 2,000-acre enclave that he has dubbed “Private Islands of Georgia.” To prove his title, he possesses the “King of England” deed to Gen Mackintosh, 1774, which covers the marsh and high ground.

He is interested in everything, as much an archeologist and anthropologist as artist who can see form and function in what others have discarded. His excitement and appreciation for all that he surveys is infectious. Indeed, he’s constructed Eagle Lodge and May Hall out of salvaged and recycled materials, refashioned into stunning art with form and function.

The boat follows the meandering curves in the river and we get our first glimpse of the lodge he has built which will be our home for the next several days.

Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Eagle Lodge, at the center of the 10-acre private island, is his creation, designed and built largely with his own hands.

We tie up to the Eagle Island dock, climb the ramp to the pier where there is a very pleasant wood table and chairs and a hanging swing, and as you walk on the boardwalk onto the 10-acre island, you immediately sense you have come to some place special.

Andy doesn’t just repurpose. He creates art. There are flowers, and not just flowers. Flowers in crab baskets converted to planters; flowers growing out of what Andy calls a “tree pot” – a dead tree planted upside down, trunk first, into the ground, so that its roots form the planter; and artful tiki torches which we will more fully appreciate at night.

At the end of a path of oyster shells is the lodge. We climb the stairs to the wrap-around porch. Inside, it is a great room, a masterpiece of wood – at once inviting and interesting.

This will do. Yes, this will do, I think to myself.

Creature comforts abound – a kitchen stocked with everything a chef would want because preparing meals and eating together is one of the most significant activities of this place.

The dining table is a focal point for conversation, for sharing.

Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eagle Island Lodge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The great open room has a comfortable living room area, a working fireplace (there is plenty of wood already chopped and ready).

We quickly explore: Eagle Lodge sleeps 14 – there are two bedrooms on the main floor with bathroom; a loft, and a separated suite on the ground floor which is ideal for a family with a queen bed, two sets of bunk beds, bathroom, laundry room, and playroom, with ping pong table, dining table and chairs and of course, TV with play station. There is WiFi (so you aren’t really cut off from civilization, or even totally unplugged, but you have incentive to leave it alone). There is a small library with interesting books about the area, and even binoculars.

Then, there are the nooks and crannies of pure whimsy:

A shower room (imagine this) – outside the lodge, built for two.

There are hammocks and hanging swings, a hot tub on the wrap-around verandah, with beautiful views everywhere you look, and a small pond (just for show), that at night, becomes a mirror to reflect the lights from the lodge, and the firepit. If that isn’t removed enough from civilization, there is a place on the trail in the woods where you can have a campfire.

Natural and discarded objects have been repurposed into beautiful things, like a magnificent sculpture over the fireplace of Medusa fashioned from driftwood; the brick pavers on the path that came from a Civil-War era chimney from Union Island. An Adirondack boat, cut in half, becomes a cabinet.

Welcome to Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Welcome to Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Andy Hill is like the unseen diviner who creates Kismet: I can easily imagine how different what is experienced by different people who for a time get to have their own island: a couple contemplating sharing a lifetime together; a family with young children; a multi-generational family, with grandparents who can impart their wisdom and experience of fishing, bird-watching, campfire-making, star-gazing; a family reunion; a gathering of couples or friends; each with its own particular social dynamic.

Even people who arrive as perfect strangers, in this magical environment under its spell, sitting around the table or beside a campfire and sharing their special stories, come away with a bond that would otherwise take years to form.

I think of how a writer, a painter or inventor looking seeking to remove all external distractions in order to create a masterpiece would thrive here.

Before you even arrive, there are multiple interactions as Andy Hill and his Guest Services team customize your stay, whether it is an “unplugged” family vacation, a romantic couples’ getaway, a fishing trip with the guys, or a gal getaway. Typically there are three or four conversations before you come – they can arrange for a fishing trip, a guided kayaking trip with a local naturalist.

You will be cooking your own meals so he provides online access to Harris Teeter, the local grocery store, so you can select what you want and Andy arranges to pick up all your supplies for you (does not charge a premium), so you have everything with you (Andy will even pick up flowers if you are celebrating something).

Andy even provides charcoal for the grill (and there is an outdoor kitchen as well as a completely equipped main kitchen), coffee (and decaf), toiletries, fine soaps and shampoos, lush robes, paper products and even ziplock bags, two cases of bottled water iced down in a chest when you arrive.

When you arrive, you will find bottled water in ice chests; charcoal and wood chips for the grill.

Andy spends a lot of time showing us around what will be our home – how things work.

You can check in as early as like on your day of arrival, and check out as late you like on the day of departure. That’s Eagle Island time.

The Luxury of Doing Nothing

When you arrive, I can almost guarantee that the first thing you will want to do is…..nothing.

You will be lured to a favorite spot on the porch – perhaps the swing, or a comfortable wicker chair, where the light and the view is most appealing for your mood, and just sit with a book. You feel yourself decompressing.

At some point, you will be lured back to the porch at the end of the boardwalk by the dock, as the sun goes lower in the sky and the light becomes more golden, then orange, then pink, and you will just gaze out to the flat water and the marshes and watch the birds sail on the wind.

Eventually, you will gather for the first activity: making a meal together.

Andy Hill shows how he prepares his famous Low Country Boil © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Andy Hill shows how he prepares his famous Low Country Boil © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

You may well try Andy Hill’s own recipe for a Low Country Boil, a regional specialty (he has the recipe on his website): made with shrimp, sausage, onions, potatoes, corn and carrots, with the Private Islands of Georgia Cajun Seasoning Blend.

What makes it spectacular is the local shrimp, literally called Georgia Wild Caught Shrimp – freshly caught (you can see the shrimp boats with their expansive nets). I will have shrimp again in my life, but I will never experience shrimp like this again: succulent, sweet with a touch of salt – they get their sweetness from feasting on the Spartina grass in these marshes. Add to that the extraordinary atmosphere as we gather around in the outdoor kitchen over commercial-sized pots.

And Andy’s famous Five Moon Oysters, another specialty that makes you swoon.

“You won’t get this in a five-star restaurant, only a ‘Five Moon’” Andy jokes. After all, the moon rises above the stars and outshines the stars. In a five star, you are looking for the manager; in a five-moon, you are the manager.”

The Low Country Boil and the Five Moon Oysters are best prepared in this unique outdoor kitchen – with a commercial fryer from a Holiday Inn which closed down – on the ground level, under the porch so even in the rain (as it does this night), we are cozy and comfortable preparing the feast, eating standing up as the oysters, steamed in a skillet are finished with the melted cheese, bacon bits, scallions and jalapenos. To die for.

A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
A firepit lights the night on Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

After dinner, you might make a fire in the fire pit beside the small pond and tell more stories.

You might put a DVD into the player, or play a board game, or enjoy a round of ping-pong.

In the morning, before you take your first cup of coffee, you might well take a hike on a trail that Andy has cut that rings the 10-acre island – you are only a matter of feet away from the lodge, but it seems far away.

Early in the morning, take the trail through the woods on Eagle Island cut by Andy – follows the edge of the island, looking out over the marshes, walk through the live oak dripping with Spanish moss. Enchanting…. A couple of areas have been cleared for camping – one with a fire pit where clearly there have been campfires.

Everything takes on special interest – the oyster shells that seem to be everywhere- some old and likely from the Indians who used to come to these barrier islands seasonally.

And you become immersed in the stereophonic cacophony of birds – squeak, squawk, twirp, chirp, screech, whoop, woo woo – less “birdsong” than a discordant orchestra.

This is a place for exploring.

Kayaking at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Kayaking at Eagle Island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

There are two kayaks provided (one is a tandem for two people), which you can use to paddle just around the bend to May Hall, Andy Hill’s other island. May Hall island offers 20 acres to explore by walking trails that Andy has carved, but you walk over a 500-foot boardwalk Andy recently built to another, nine-acre island, Little May Hall; another boardwalk takes you to yet another of Andy’s islands, Grassie Field, with 17 acres more to explore. There is a rookery of Great Blue Heron. (Andy’s other islands are named Mick and Jagger – he is a Rolling Stones fan – and Amelia for his daughter).

You can prepare a picnic in nature (Andy hopes to build some huts on these outpost islands so people can camp out).

Andy can arrange for you to rent a boat, or better yet, bring your own boat, and the adventure just begins. The Atlantic Ocean is just beyond the trees – 15 minutes by motor boat – but there are other islands to explore.

Other activities readily at hand include fishing, birding (binoculars provided). There is also crabbing: “Blue crab: All you can catch. All you can eat,” says Captain Andy – the bait and blue crab baskets are ready for you so you can catch and enjoy the sweet taste of this Coastal Georgia favorite and the guidebook Andy provides even explains how to clean the crab.

Kayaking is particularly alluring here. If you don’t want to go out on your own, you can paddle the Altamaha River with a guide through Eagle’s Kayak Escape Package.

That’s what we did one afternoon – Danny Grissette, the guide, came with some extra kayaks, and we soon realized how easy it is to get lost if you leave the river and go into a channel.

Eagle Island is aptly named, we learn.

Eagle Island is aptly named. One seems to be bidding us goodbye as we depart the private island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Eagle Island is aptly named. One seems to be bidding us goodbye as we depart the private island © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

McKintosh County has largest eagle population in Georgia – 11 nesting pairs (we see one pair when we arrive and on way back home, an eagle is resting on a channel marker just next to us).

We paddle to Escape Island – a tiny spit of a thing that Andy also owns as part of his 2000 acres. He has cleared an area where can make a campfire or camp out, and may build a platform for camping.

These vast expanses of marsh grasses that separate barrier islands from mainland from one of the richest estuaries producing a profusion and diversity of fish and wildlife in one of greatest ecosystems on the planet.

This is a stopover for migratory birds (the best time is January-March); you can also see dolphin and manatee (best is April through November). There are rare and endangered sturgeon, wood stork. We spot an alligator, though in winter they tend to hibernate.

There are Interconnected waterways, inland water routes – in fact, it is easy to get lost, so we appreciate having Dan to guide us when we go off from where the river is marked.

137 miles long, the Altamaha River flows from the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers to the Atlantic Ocean, the third largest contributor of fresh water to the Atlantic Ocean from North America. With its tributaries, the drainage basin is about 14,000 square miles, one of the largest on the Atlantic Coast. The fact that it is undammed is why it is so rich in marine life, with one of the largest populations of sturgeon. The river has extreme tides – rising and falling 8 feet.

Here, you revel in the spectacular flat horizons which give you these glorious vistas, taking on the colors of the time of day and season – at sunset in summer, we are told, the heat produces a mist. This night, as the sun sets, it shines back on the clouds in the east setting them afire and gradually to purple. You can see why they call this area the “Golden Isles of Georgia”

I am surprised to realize that this part of the East coast is the most western inland, actually on the same longitude as Chicago, which is why they don’t get hurricanes here.

Most special of all is an outing to Sapelo Island (the subject of another story).

Getting to Eagle Island:

You get to Eagle Island from Darien, a small town on the Georgia coast. We flew to Jacksonville, rented a car for the 1 1/2-hour drive; Charleston, South Carolina is a little over two hours; you can also fly to Atlanta (more than four hours drive), or connect into Brunswick, the local airport.

Private Islands of Georgia, 202 Marina Drive, St. Simons Island, GA 31522, 912-222-0801 email [email protected], www.privateislandsofgeorgia.com.

See also:

Discovering Sapelo Island, Georgia and the Gullah-Geechees of Hog Hammock


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