Remote Sapelo Island provides the perfect chance to enjoy 'island time'

features@islandpacket.comDecember 4, 2013 

The stately Reynolds Mansion was built by tobacco magnate RJ Reynolds Jr. Reynolds was the last owner of the island before it became a wildlife refuge.

PICASA — Matt Richardson, Special to the Bluffton

  • Getting There

    When you visit Sapelo Island you can choose to travel with a tour or go at your own pace by arranging transportation. Sapelo is only accessible by boat; a state-run ferry runs daily and costs $5. There are no cars available; you can rent a bike or golf cart if you choose to eschew the tours. Tour companies are owned and operated by locals, and along the way you will be regaled with historic tidbits, wildlife and nature info -- and of course the rich storytelling ways of the Gullah-Geechee culture. To book a tour or for more info, you can visit www.toursapelo.com.

    We arranged our golf carts from Maurice Bailey, 912-223-6515 or www.sapeloislandbirdhouses.com. Maurice also owns the only store on the island; it is well-stocked with bottled water, sodas and snacks. Bring cash, as it is easier to buy goods and secure additional tours and access this way.

    Overnight lodging is available. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources also offers tours and a primitive campground. For guided tour reservations, call 912-437-3224.

    From Bluffton, the ferry landing and Sapelo Island visitors center are just an hour and a half away. Take I-95 to Exit 58 and follow signs. The visitors center is at 1766 Landing Road, Darien, Ga. It is open 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30-5 p.m. Sunday. It is closed Mondays.

  • The Sapelo Island Lighthouse

    Built in 1820, the Sapelo Island Lighthouse was ideally suited to guide ships in and out of the port of Darien, Ga., or along the coast to Savannah. It is the nation's second oldest brick lighthouse.

    It was designed and built by Winslow Lewis, an engineer, sea captain and inventor. Originally lit by a lamp patented by Winslow that had reportedly impressed even Thomas Edison, the light was updated with a Fresnel lens in the mid-19th century. It survived Civil War, hurricanes and other events until finally replaced by a steel tower in 1905.

    Restored and relit in 1998, the Sapelo Lighthouse is a hidden jewel of Georgia's coast. Its remote beauty makes it a rare destination. The red and white tower casts a dramatic image against an azure autumnal sky over the wide green marsh.

    The Sapelo Island lighthouse is open to tours and adds to the mystique and wonder of visiting the island.

We had planned our journey carefully: camera equipment, hiking shoes and calls ahead to arrange travel. Yet as the ferry docked and we stepped off onto the island, we could quickly see that there was no one there to greet us. Other passengers filed onto a spacious tour bus, and we were soon left standing alone. As we pondered what had gone wrong, the salt-tinged sea air blew across the marsh and the morning sun rose above the pines. We had just entered a different world, and for the next seven hours we would be on "island time." Our adventure on Sapelo Island had just begun.

Sapelo Island is one of several emerald jewels that make up the Sea Islands of coastal Georgia. Just an hour and a half from Bluffton and a few as-the-crow-flies miles from downtown Savannah, Sapelo is a world away. Rich in cultural heritage from Native American settlements, the Geechee descendants of Africa and the days of plantation slavery, and themansions of America's Gilded Age, Sapelo Island is a window to the past.

Access to the island is restricted -- not just by design but by circumstance. The only way on or off is by boat. A public ferry is available, but in order to board you must be part of a booked tour or have arranged passage with someone on the island. Tours vary in cost and extent, but most will take you to visit the main destinations: the stately Reynolds Mansion built by tobacco magnate RJ Reynolds Jr., wide and undeveloped Nannygoat Beach, and the Hog Hammock community -- the cultural center of the island. More than 90 percent of Sapelo is owned and managed as a wildlife refuge. Hidden among the palmetto and live oak of the maritime forest are the remains of elaborate Native American shell middens and the tabby ruins of Chocolat Plantation. To gain access to these places, additional arrangements may need to be made.

After finding ourselves alone at the ferry landing, we were quickly offered a ride from a passing local. It was then that we realized that on a remote, undeveloped island we would indeed never be truly alone: there would always be a friendly face and helpful voice nearby. We connected with tour guide, Maurice Bailey, and found our golf cart. The confusion had been on our side, and our day began anew. Camera in hand, we traveled the sandy island roads where we saw bald eagles, raccoons and songbirds in the Spanish moss.

Our main destination was Sapelo's crowning spot: the red and white lighthouse. Standing against the storms of nearly two centuries, this 80-foot tower has guided ships and stands like a conical barber pole above sun-drenched marsh.

We spent the entire day on Sapelo, meeting and making new friends. Before we knew it, the last ferry had arrived, and we bade Sapelo Island farewell.

The island is a paradox: how could a place of so limited access be so alluring and irresistible to the adventurous visitor? The one feature makes the other necessary, and vice versa. In this modern age of instant information and fast travel, it is nice to find an oasis where one can truly be on "island time."

Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search on the username "greenkayak73." He can be reached at greenkayak73@yahoo.com.

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