Visitors make their escape to Sapelo Island, Ga., on a boat from Meridian, Ga., a port town between Savannah and St. Simons Island along I-95. (exit at Darien, Ga.)
Leave the modern world, and all your cares on the dock when you board the Sapelo Island Ferry, and let the wind take them into the miles of marshland you pass, to be washed out to sea with the next tide.
Sapelo Island: Finding Treasure on Georgia’s Secret Coast
Wondering, where in the world is Sapelo Island, Georgia? You aren’t alone. This remote barrier island of Georgia welcomes day visitors, as well as a few overnight guests, but is mostly undeveloped. There is a small population of about 70 residents that live in a community called Hog Hammock, and the University of Georgia manages UGAMI, a Marine Institute on the island, but other than that, it is left for the shore birds and native wildlife. A perfect place to escape.
Visit Sapelo Island
Although visitors won’t run into many people, what they will find are unspoiled beaches, dense maritime forests, miles of undisturbed salt-marsh land, a mansion from a by-gone era, and a community of slave decedents preserving an almost forgotten culture.
There is only one way to get to Sapelo Island. Take the Sapelo Island Ferry in Meridian, Ga. To take the ferry, make reservations in advance, there are a limited number of spots, and they can fill up.
Arrive early for the ferry, and plan to spend a little time at the Sapelo Island visitor’s center learning about the island and the Geechee Island people that live there, or take a walk through the maritime forest nature trail, it’s an easy 1.1 mile loop.
Just a note about planning your Sapelo Island trip. Although it is one island, there are several different groups that manage pieces of the island. The Sapelo Island Ferry, as well as day tours are run through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources – Wildlife Resources Division. Group reservations for Reynolds Mansion or Cabretta group campground are made through Georgia Department of Natural Resources – Georgia State Parks.
The Gullah-Geechee of Sapelo Island
Georgia is part of the Gullah Geechee corridor that runs from Florida, through Georgia and the Carolinas. Brought to Georgia as slaves, the Gullah Geechee were from West Africa. Once in the states, many retained their African heritage even amid lives in bondage.
The 70 ish people that live in the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo are descendants of the Geechee. The name Geechee (or Gullah as they are called in South Carolina) was originally the term for their version of English, but has since become an ethnic identity.
If you want to know more about the Gullah Geechee, take one of the Sapelo Island tours with Cornelia Walker Bailey. Ms Bailey was born and raised on the island and has been active in preserving the Geechee island culture.
Things to do on Sapelo Island
RJ Reynolds Mansion Sapelo Island. The Georgia coast was once home to Sea Island cotton plantations. Once that era died, those plantations were replaced by gorgeous homes of America’s wealthiest tycoons. The decedents of slaves that once worked the cotton fields, now managed these estates.
Groups can stay in the period decorated Reynolds Mansion which has 13 bedrooms and 11 baths, as well as a bowling alley (if you ask nicely, they may even let your group of overnight guests play a game), film room, and circus themed children’s playroom.
If you aren’t staying at the Reynolds Mansion, you can still take a day tour. To book a day tour, contact the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Resource Division.
Sapelo Island Tours. The best way to get a feel for Sapelo Island is through a tour. Whether your interest is history or nature, there is a tour that will fit the bill, but as with everything on Sapelo Island, you’ll want to plan ahead of time. Tours do not run on a set schedule, and this really is the best way to get an overview of the island.
In addition to Cornelia Bailey’s Geechee tours, JR Grovner, also a direct descendent of slaves brought to work the plantation gives a comprehensive tour that includes Sapelo Island history, as well as points of interest. The Georgia Park service also offers tours that can be booked at the Sapelo Island Visitors Center. Ga. State Park tours vary and can include a hike or bike trip that explores the natural environment from the maritime forest to the salt marshes and the dune habitats.
Sapelo Island Lighthouse. The Sapelo Island Lighthouse has big bright stripes all the way up. The best way to learn about the lighthouse is on one of the Sapelo Island Tours. If you have a vehicle, you can visit on your own, but it’s a bit of a hike on foot, so you’ll want some form of transportation.
Chocolate Plantation Ruins. This is on my list for the next time I visit Sapelo. Not actually a place where chocolate was made, the plantation got it’s name from a Guale Indian village on the island of Chucalate. Visitors to the ruins must be escorted by a private land owner or a state employee, so if you’d like to see the Chocolate Ruins, be sure to schedule a tour.
Beach and Marsh Walks. I’ve visited both Nanny Goat Beach and the Cabretta Campground beach on Sapelo Island. Both are gorgeous undeveloped coastlines. Both have decent shelling, but I like finding the grey wind-whithered trees that dot the landscape even more than the shells.
Hog Hammock Community. Leave some time at Sapelo to explore the Gullah community of Hog Hammock. Get a soda or ice cream sandwich from the Country Store, don’t make any promises to the kids though, sometimes Country Store is open, and sometimes it’s not.
Eat at Lula’s. The only restaurant on Sapelo Island is Lula’s. Lula of Lula’s Kitchen opens her restaurant for groups of 10 or more that call ahead. Are you catching the theme here? Whatever you want to do, eat, or see on Sapelo Island, make sure to plan ahead.
Sapelo Island Lodging
There are no hotels or resorts on Sapelo Island, which is one reason that it’s such a joy to visit. If you’d like to stay overnight, there are a couple of options. Groups can book the Reynolds Mansion Sapelo Island or there is also Sapelo Island camping at the Cabretta campground. Both group options are managed by the Georgia State Park Service.
There are also private Sapelo Island rentals through companies like VRBO and Home Away. Sapelo Island Birdhouses is a local rental company, although I have not used them. If you are renting, be sure a vehicle comes with the rental. The island is large and walking or biking anywhere will take a long time.
Sapelo Island Camping vs. Cumberland Island Camping
We visited Sapelo Island about two weeks after camping on Cumberland Island. Although both are somewhat car camping and offer breathtaking beaches and rich history, there is a difference.
Sapelo’s Cabretta campground is reserved for groups (we went with the scouts). It’s an open campground within the maritime forest. They have a fire ring, bathrooms and hot showers. The beach is within walking distance, but you must take a bus from the ferry dock. This camping experience felt more primitive than Cumberland.
Cumberland Island camping is open to individuals. We stayed at Sea Camp, where each site was nestled among palmettos offering a nice privacy fence. The dock is only a half mile away and you can walk there. There are fire rings, as well as clean bathrooms and cold showers. The beach is right next to the campground and there are some sites that abut the dunes.
No matter what Georgia island you visit, remember to bring bug spray. We went in the somewhat cooler December/January timeframe and the bugs are certainly less prevalent then, but you do still see them.
Sapelo Island Rentals
To get around the island, you can rent bikes from the park service, or a vehicle from the Baileys. As I said before, to really see all the entire island has to offer, I’d either take a tour, or rent a vehicle.
The Town of Darien, Ga.
Darien isn’t just a place to catch the ferry to Sapelo Island. It’s a fun little destination in and of itself. Skipper’s Fish Camp is a great place to eat before you catch the ferry, and then again when you get off. The shrimp boats are docked within eyesight of the restaurant and they have some of the best fried shrimp anywhere (and the fired okra came highly recommended too). If you can, visit Darien in April during the blessing of the fleet for a unique coastal festival.
Another favorite field trip for my boys is Fort King George, which is located in Darien. You’ll want a couple of hours here, or more if your kids get into playing with the wooden guns in the replica fort.
The Fish Dock at Pelican’s Point
Reader Charlene Kail suggested the Pelican Point seafood buffet as a superb seafood meal before or after your Sapelo Island adventure. It appears since she last enjoyed the seafood buffet, the restaurant has been handed down from owner Mike Phillips to his son Charlie who has changed the name to The Fish Dock at Pelican’s Point and taken the buffet off the menu. However, a quick look at their website and I’m adding it to my must visit restaurants. The pictures at least look delicious, and how can you go wrong when they pull the seafood from the docks next to the establishment.