Southeast

Discovering Georgia’s Colonial Coast

From Hip Urban Attractions to Quiet Natural Wonders, this Coastline Invites Exploration.

Georgia’s Colonial Coast is a magnificent puzzle — an intricate maze of languid streams, acres of salt marsh, and sandy island beaches that soften the lines between earth and sea.  From elegant Savannah, the coastline wanders 100 miles southward to the raw, windswept shores of Cumberland Island — a less-than-straightforward journey that demands intriguing side trips, forays onto roads less traveled and a healthy spirit of adventure.

When John and Ginny Taylor decided to trek south in search of bone-warming sunshine this February, the Georgia coastline seemed like a means to an end – a corridor that they would quickly pass through to reach their ultimate destination: Florida.

At least that was the plan. But when the couple from Canada, actually reached the undulating contours of the Georgia coast, plans changed fast.

Georgia walk in the parkPerhaps it was the landscape: wide, sweeping acres of tawny salt marsh grasses, tall pine forests, exotic palmettos, massive live oak trees draped with delicate Spanish moss, and pockets of unspoiled beaches.

That’s when the couple — traveling with their travel trailer — decided to linger, pulling into Skidaway Island State Park, a pleasant, woodsy setting located on a 588-acre barrier island just minutes southeast of historic Savannah.

That proximity appealed to John, who was eager to devour Savannah’s storied architecture, but dedicated to staying in their trailer. Sitting in camp chairs enjoying a light twilight breeze, the couple planned their foray into the city the next morning — an easy drive from Skidaway along Georgia Highway 204, though sometimes congested in spots.

But for the moment, they might as well have been a hundred miles away from city noise, as they enjoyed the pine-scented evening in a campground that lends RVers a little elbowroom.

“We really wanted to see the architecture and the history that Savannah offers,” John explained.

“Staying in the trailer makes it economical and personal,” Greta said. “You have things set up the way you want them. It’s all yours.”

“Of course this is for people who REALLY don’t mind spending time together,” she added, with a chuckle, nodding at their smartly refurbished trailer, which sports a snug 10-foot interior cabin.

The park proved to be a good find for the couple. The affordable campsites were spacious and quiet. However, a few campers we spoke with warned visitors to bring plenty of bug spray, adding that the shifting breeze could sometimes bring the sharp aroma of a paper plant — a reminder that you’re not really in the boondocks.

The state park borders Skidaway narrows, part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, so the park is great for picnics and nature hikes — two trails wind through marshes and forest. Visitors praise its excellent birding (look for the rare Painted Bunting) and wild- life viewing; observation towers provide an excellent vantage. But campers are advised to watch out for deer along the roadways and alligators near lagoons.

Such are the extremes of life along Georgia’s Colonial Coast, a place where nature brings spectacular sunsets across vast salt marshes, along with ravenous mosquitoes and incredible birding opportunities … where vestiges of American history meet down-home barbecue stands … where signs at a boat launch advise kayakers what to do if they should meet a north Atlantic right whale … where commercial shrimp boats rocking in an evening tide are a thing of beauty, as well as a familiar local icon.

It’s a place where the local color is as rich and flavorful as a thick slice of pecan pie.

Ah, Savannah

There’s ease to the South, a laid-back quality that beckons like a warm handshake. Nowhere is that more apparent than Savannah, Georgia’s oldest city, and surely among its most quirky, likeable and vibrant.

Though famous for its sprawling crowded historic downtown district, a network of quaint-but-narrow streets laid out upon a grid of public parks and squares, this community is easy to explore, even if you’re traveling in the largest of motor coaches.

It’s simple. Make the Savannah Visitors Center your first stop.

Located in an old brick railroad depot at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Liberty Street — follow the signs— the center is open seven days a week and houses a museum and information desk loaded with regional brochures. Most important, it’s served by more than half-a-dozen tour bus/trolley services, offering trips customized to your interests, whether that is architecture, African-American heritage, literature, regional food or even moonlight ghost tours.

This is, after all, a bit of a mystical place, said to be one of America’s most haunted cities. Case-in-point: A popular paint color for residential homes actually harkens back to voodoo origins.

Hearty hikers can take off on foot, as the historic district is really only a short walk away. However a trolley ride will maximize your time.

Just park your RV in the designated space in the Visitor Center’s pay-to-park lot and step inside to get your bearings. Tour buses and open-air trolleys line up outside, where you can buy a ticket curbside and hop aboard for an excellent overview of the historic district, loaded with delicious tidbits, trivia, legend and gossip.

RV Georgia campgroundOur trolley guide, Mickey Romine, pointed out that March and April are among the best months to visit. Temperatures hover between 60 and 80 — afternoon showers are common — and flowering dogwood and azaleas team up for a brilliant show. You can catch magnolia blossoms by mid-February.

“I really consider President’s day to be the opening weekend of our busiest season,” Romine acknowledged.

Most trolleys offer some drop-off/pick-up service, so plan to spend time exploring Savannah’s Riverfront Plaza, where the ancient stone-cobbled streets are made of ballast rock that came from ships centuries ago. Parking here is insane; so don’t even attempt it with a motor coach or trailer.

Quaint shops and first-rate dining flourish on nearly every street. And don’t miss the elegance of Forsyth Park, with its massive two-tiered cast-iron fountain and 300 year-old trees.

Next, head east to Tybee Island, a low-key seaside resort affectionately dubbed “Savannah’s Beach.”

Head toward Savannah’s Riverfront, turning right onto Bay Street. Stick to the route until you can catch U.S. 80, the Island Expressway, which will take you all the way to Tybee — about a 20-minute drive. Consider a quick side-trip to Fort Pulaski National Monument, a massive brick edifice that played a noted role in the Civil War.

You can let the kids burn off steam by climbing to the top of Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse and scramble about Fort Screven, headquarters of Savannah’s coastal defense until the 1920s.

Georgia sunset

Look for RV parking behind the fort; then hit the 3-mile-long beach, where you can watch pelicans dive for their dinner. Grab a bite at the north Beach Grill — a laid-back establishment located right next to the fort — where you’ll find a cold brew and crab cake sandwiches.

About the only place on the island that accommodates RVs is River’s End Campground and RV Park, open year-round offering about 100 campsites and a short walk to the beach. Call first.

100 Miles of History

History buffs will find a feast in coastal Georgia, and traveling by RV allows you to plot your own course. Stroll a live oak avenue at the Wormsloe State Historic Site, visit the nation’s First African Baptist church, and check out Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, all in Savannah.

Or just start working your way south. I-95 is faster, but U.S. 17 lets you slow down and explore.

Fort McAllister State Historic Park is a good bet for both history and camping, and earned generally good reviews from those we spoke to. Located east of Richmond Hill off Route 144, the park sits on the south bank of the Great Ogeechee River and offers 65 campsites

Fort McAllister is home to one of the best-preserved sand and mud earthwork fortifications found in the confederacy, detailed in an on-site Civil War museum. Attacked seven times by Union troops, it fell during General Sherman’s “March to the Sea.” You’ll also find nice spots here for hiking, fishing and picnics. The only drawback? It’s about 10 miles to the nearest town; so stock up before you head out.

You could also backtrack to the Richmond Hill and check out the Savannah South KOA, a pleasant, forested setting with a 35-acre fishing pond that is home to ducks, geese and swans.

Don't ForgetHistory devotees may also enjoy the Historic Liberty Trail, a driving tour that integrates history, culture and ecology. Just download the route from the Liberty Trail Map page (http://www.libertytrail.com), which will direct you to nine major historic attractions along the trail, which starts at Exit 76 of I-95.

Or just steer south on Scenic Coast Highway 17 — you’ll find yourself in a birder’s paradise. Broad road shoulders make it easy to pull off for a scenic turnout, as elegant egrets and herons perform aerial stunts over yawning seas of marsh grass.

For even better birding, hang a left at South Newport and continue for seven miles to the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, one of 20 sites that form the Colonial Coast Birding Trail.

Here, 15 miles of roadway wind through 2,824 acres of forested wetlands, meadows, salt marsh and freshwater pond habitats that serve as an important wintering ground for many migratory birds, as well as the endangered wood storks and many other wading birds. Pets are not allowed.

Bring your binoculars, a bicycle or just roll down your window to drink in an avian choir that rivals a tropical rainforest. “I just like to come out here and listen,” confessed Janet Sykes, of Atlanta.

Backtrack to U.S. 17, and you’re on your way to Darien, an angler’s paradise. Rivers and tidal creeks lure many a fisherman. And during shrimp season, fresh sweet Georgia shrimp can be purchased at local markets.

While passing through the pine forest, take the chance to poke into remnants of old river plantations, or check out Fort King George State Historic Site, a mile east of Darien. Once a southeastern military outpost for Britain’s Colonial Empire in America, a restored version marks the site of Georgia’s oldest fort.

Island Time

In no time, you’ll find yourself rolling into Brunswick, gateway to Georgia’s “Golden Isles”: St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island.

You seem to breathe a little deeper on these islands, replete with ancient moss-draped oaks, palms trees, and island-time ambiance. Take the causeway east to St. Simons and you’ll spy the Marshes of Glynn, sprawling marshland that seems to roll on forever.

Pass the elegant homes, quaint cottages and ritzy golf courses, and you’ll find Fort Frederica National Monument, the site of a colonial town and fort settled by General James Oglethorpe, marking the earliest days of the Georgia colony. We stumbled across a wonderful living history celebration at the site; hands-on living history demonstrations aren’t unusual.

Head across the island to Neptune Park, where you’ll find a bustling seaside village, complete with shopping, restaurants and a pier perfect for strolls, fishing, crabbing and watching dolphins play in the surf. It’s a great place for kids to romp and adults to simply take a load off, with picnic tables under the oaks, benches for relaxing and a bandstand, where events are held throughout the year.

Drive over to Sea Island, with its posh resort, the Cloister, or zip back to the mainland and trek to Jekyll Island, where the beauty of the natural world meets architectural remnants of the Gilded Age. Pack a bicycle to enjoy paved trails that can take you to soft, sandy beaches that routinely draw loggerhead turtles.

RV Georgia woodsFor RVs, the Jekyll Island campground is your best bet — 18 wooded acres on the island’s north end with 206 campsites, including full hook-up, pull-through sites with amenities.

Retrace your route back to U.S. 17 for the final push to St. Mary’s, where you can leave your rig and catch a 45-minute ferry ride out to the famed Cumberland Island National Seashore.

This southernmost Georgia barrier island is 17.5 miles long, known for its abundant wildlife, historic structures and relaxing, unspoiled atmosphere.

Visits are limited to 300 people a day, so reservations are strongly recommended for the ferry ride, which does not accept automobiles, bicycles, kayaks or pets and doesn’t operate December through February. Plan to bring your own food and water — the island has no stores or services. And don’t miss the final ferry back. Guests who do must make their own transportation arrangements.

But those who make the journey are rewarded in fantastic scenery and solitude, 50 miles of hiking trails, wildlife galore and a delicious lack of development — truly the jewel in Georgia’s coastal crown.

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