Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Ferry, A Bus and a Barrier Island

Having already explored Jekyll Island and St. Simon Island in previous years Denny and I decided to check out Sapelo Island, the fourth largest barrier island in Georgia. State owned, you have to make reservations to see Sapelo and you are given a guided bus tour once you arrive on the island.

Arriving at the visitor center on the mainland, you pay your ten dollars per person fee and then are free to wander the displays at the center. There is also a small gift shop where you can purchase souvenirs and if you are lucky, a sweetgrass basket made by one of the island residents of Hog Hammock, the last community of descendants of the freed slaves of Thomas Spaulding, one of the many owners of the island. The tours are only given on Wednesdays and Saturdays during the off-season, with Friday tours during June through Labor Day. On Wednesdays you have the chance to tour the Reynolds mansion if it is not being occupied by special groups, and Saturdays you can tour the lighthouse.

Once you have wandered through the visitor center you make your way down to the ferry which leaves precisely at 9AM on Saturday. We stopped to chat with this young man who caught what he called a spot-tailed trout (I couldn't locate it as a local Georgia fish) right as we were boarding the ferry. We shared the ferry with a group of 11 year old school children who, needless to say, were very excited about the trip. Denny and I, in turn, were very excited when we discovered that the children had their own bus and tour guide once we debarked from the ferry. Heh. The ferry itself (and there is now a second sister ferry being prepared for use) brings over 60,000 to 70,000 passengers to the island every year, operating every day except for six holidays.
Sapelo Island has been owned and fought over by the French, Spanish and British people before being purchased by several different American owners. Thomas Spalding was a successful planter and landowner who grew cotton and sugar quite successfully with the help of 400 slaves. He built the Long Tabby House which now houses the island post office as well as the original plantation mansion known as the South End House. This mansion fell into ruin after the Civil War and was restored and rebuilt by Howard Collins who later sold out to R.J. Reynolds.In 1976 the National Estuarine Research Reserve was created as part of Sapelo Island Research Foundation set up by R. J. Reynolds. Most of the research is handled by the University of Georgia Marine Institution which is located on the island. The studies involve the marshlands and the barrier island ecology. Fred, the young man who heads the DNR on the island, is very proud of the fact that the island is kept as natural as possible and he has removed much of the nighttime security lighting so that one can see the stars at night. He mentioned that if you look at the Google Earth map of the US at night, you will see a black spot along the Georgia coastline and that is Sapelo Island.

The tour encompasses the southern end of the island, parts of the original Spaulding compound, the community of Hog Hammock, the lighthouse and ends at Nanny Goat Beach. From boarding the ferry to leaving it, your day trip will last 4 hours. You can pack a lunch and picnic near the lighthouse or on the beach if you can eat quickly because you have only about twenty minutes per stop due to the amount of driving and the are to be covered. You will learn about the local flora and fauna, the history of the landowners and some of the history of the inhabitants of Hog Hammock, including a story about one of the residents who would sing a song to her children in a strange language that was eventually discovered to be a funeral dirge in the language of a remote village in Sierra Leone in Africa. Fred explained how the now feral cows and hogs along with the deer population are kept under control by controlled hunts since there are no predators on the island. The time passes quickly because Fred is very involved and knowledgeable about the island and the preservation of the marshes and the island's environment.
There are seventy-seven steps leading to the top of the lighthouse. This was one of the scarier sets of lighthouse steps we've climbed, as the stairs spiraled around a central post but only had a hand rail along the brick outer wall so that trying to pass someone coming down the stairs meant you had no hand holds on a very narrow step. Which meant you had to crawl up in spots which was a bit nerve wracking.
A walk on Nanny Goat Beach was a little disappointing in that there were very few seashells and absolutely no beach glass or sharks' teeth. But it was a lovely stretch of beach for walking.
Our day trip to Sapelo Island was well worth the time and money.

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Linda in New Mexico said...

Wonderful travelogue. My cousin rents a summer house on one of the islands close to where you are. Every year she and her crew go for 6 weeks and just beach and sun and bad huh? I'm glad you are enjoying your southern tour. Be well, The other Linda

meowmomma said...

That spiral stairway photo is awesome!

Thanks for the travel guide! I think I heard a sigh of relief when the kiddo's got on a different bus... lol

Anonymous said...

I love how the trees drape the way to the plantation... just like in the movies. :-)

And yay for school buses. :-)

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