Darien, Georgia: Sapelo Island
Sapelo Island is carefully guarded against the encroachment of development, in a rare but encouraging twist of fortune for a small patch of land that was at various points a prize for aspiring European colonists, a pawn in the struggle between Native Americans and European settlers, a grand plantation and a refuge for captains of industry. Now most of the island is a refuge for the creatures of the marsh, forest and dunes. And for the few folks each day who are lucky enough to visit this cherished bit of paradise, it lives on in the mind as a refuge of all that’s still wild and wonderful on the Georgia coast.
Much of Sapelo’s magic comes from the natural world of the here and now. Live oaks dripping with moss arch their limbs over unpaved sun dappled roads. Pelicans patrol the surf along miles of unspoiled beaches. Stately herons stalk fish and frogs in the dense cord grass of the salt marshes and fiddler crabs wave defiant oversized claws from their muddy turf. But hints of human history provide a strange and beautiful counterpoint to the island’s wild side. Glowing white neo-classical statues that watch over the grounds of a former plantation; the crumbling tabby ruins of a once-grand 18th century estate; and ancient shell middens that hint at the lives of Sapelo’s first inhabitants thousands of years ago.
The majority of Sapelo Island is under the care of public entities devoted to studying and preserving the natural and historic heritage of Georgia’s fourth-largest barrier island, including the University of Georgia Marine Institute, the R.J. Reynolds Wildlife Refuge, and the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. Why all this intense focus on such a tiny area? The salt marshes and estuaries of this region are some of the most ecologically vulnerable, diverse and productive habitats in the world. The ebb and flow of the tides, the mixing of salt and fresh water and the bounty of decaying plant material in the marsh provide a rich feeding ground and nursery for microscopic life, shellfish, fish and birds, and scientists are just beginning to scratch the surface on how these complex systems work.
To preserve all the beautiful and fragile aspects of Sapelo Island, access to non-residents or research staff is limited to a couple dozen visitors each day (exceptions are made for those with an invitation from an island resident). The general public must take a 30-minute ferry ride from the town of Meridian, about eight miles east of Darien, which in itself is a wonderful way to enjoy the beauty of the marshes, and sometimes affords the treat of a dolphin sighting along the way.
Day visitors take part in a guided tour that hits highlights including the R,J, Reynolds Refuge and Mansion. Now owned by Georgia’s state parks, the mansion was the plantation manor built in 1810 by Thomas Spalding. After passing through a number of hands, the manor and land was purchased by tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds, who donated land and facilities to the University of Georgia marine researchers around 1950. The land is now a wildlife refuge, and the mansion operates as a lovely resort open to groups of at least 16 and no more than 29.
Another tour feature is Hog Hammock, the one small piece of Sapelo that is still under private ownership. There lives a community of about 100 African-American residents who are mainly descendants of freed slaves from Spalding’s and other local plantations, with a culture unique to the Low Country. The Gullah language is a mixture of West African and English and the Gullah/Geechee heritage reflects their connection to the land, ancestral joys and adversities, and the improbable survival of an old way of life under constant siege from time. As Sapelo native Cornelia Walker Bailey writes in her essay I Am Sapelo, “We are one, bound by the spirit of an island and Bulallah the slave. Bound by high tide, fields, gossips, smoke mullet and our faith.”
Sapelo Lighthouse charms visitors at the southernmost tip of the island. Crisply striped in red and white (a look it’s sported since 1868), the lighthouse has stood as a witness to the Civil War, hurricanes, multiple upgrades and periods of abandonment. In 1998, at 178 years old, the lighthouse received a thorough renovation and is now a well-kept and striking symbol of the many former uses of the island.
The wonder doesn’t stop at the shoreline. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is 17 square nautical miles of sandstone reef with a wealth of invertebrates, sponges, and the rich variety of fish and pelagic birds that feed on and among them. It’s also a great place to spot dolphins, loggerhead turtles and if you’re lucky, a rare North Atlantic Right Whale. Private outfitters offer fishing and diving excursions to the sanctuary.
If just a day trip leaves you hungry to experience more of Sapelo, and you aren’t visiting as part of a group staying at the Reynolds mansion, you have some limited but intriguing lodging options. There’s at least one modestly-sized privately run B&B in Hog Hammock, and for those who like to rough it, there’s “pioneer camping” available just off the beach on nearby Cabretta Island.
It may take just a little extra effort to visit Sapelo Island, but those who do are rewarded with an intimate encounter with the pure wild beauty of the Sea Islands, their creatures and their heritage. Information on lodging, transportation and all Sapelo Island activities can be found at the Visitor Center, located by the ferry dock in Meridian.