If you go: Sapelo Island, Ga.
The ride from the mainland to the island takes about a half-hour, and as I step off the ferry with my tour group, I realize that it has been more than 10 years since I was last here. I wonder how much it has changed.
Turns out, not much. That’s the way of Sapelo. Only the shifting of the continents moves faster than life on this remote island.
The fourth-largest of the barrier islands, Sapelo is about 11 miles long, four miles wide and about 16,500 acres. It probably hasn’t changed much in a thousand years — it’s still unspoiled and uncrowded.
And that’s Sapelo’s appeal — its sheer isolation and remoteness. There’s only one way onto the island and one way off, by ferry or private watercraft, which leaves you completely at its mercy once you’re there. Don’t even think about cell and Internet service.
Carved out of estuaries of fresh water and the Atlantic, the island is deeply forested in canopies of pine and gnarled oaks so immense that they must have been growing since the beginning of time. Mazes of paved and unpaved roads, trails and tidal creeks curl through the island, so that from the air, it looks like a watercolor painting.
The first known residents, more than 4,000 years ago, were the Guale, a Native American tribe. The Spanish missionaries and explorers arrived in the 16th century, and the British and French came next. They were dominant until the 1800s, when most of Sapelo was purchased by Thomas Spalding, a Georgia politician and cotton and sugar-cane planter who brought in the island’s first slaves.
Howard Coffin, one of the founders of Hudson Motor Car Co., bought most of the island in 1912, except for a few scattered African American communities. Then in 1934, North Carolina tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds Jr. purchased Sapelo, living there for part of the year for 30 years. After his death, his widow sold the island — or about 97 percent of it, with the exception of a chunk of land known as Hog Hammock, where the slaves’ descendants lived — to the state of Georgia.
Seeing Hog Hammock was high on my list, but so was experiencing nature at its rawest and most splendid. Just a few minutes into our sojourn on Sapelo, I was marveling at a trio of whitetail deer. They stared at me. I stared at them. And then off into the woods they leapt, their flaglike tails waving goodbye.
Our tour bus — it’s an old school bus, really — passes by great stands of salt marsh teeming with unseen critters and birds of every sort, and I was thrilled to see a pair of wood storks startled into flight, their wings, with an amazing five-foot span, sounding pfoof-pfoof, like the blades of a slow-moving helicopter.