Correction to This Article
An article on Georgia's barrier islands in the May 19 Travel section incorrectly identified Charles Fraser, the original developer of Hilton Head, S.C.

Sweet Georgia Coast

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 19, 2002

It begins badly. We launch on a miserable spring day under a sky full of freezing rain. In a boat no bigger than a Volkswagen, the seas are choppy enough to paddle-ball our bottoms and drench our shoes. My cousin Randy Booker and I put in at Tybee Island, Georgia's northernmost barrier island. We're in a two-seat, 15-foot Boston Whaler that drags our faces through the sleet at 40 miles an hour behind a windshield no bigger than a sidecar's.

For the first few miles, we stutter across open ocean, hard along the edge of the Savannah River ship channel that divides Georgia and South Carolina. A few quarts of the Atlantic quickly finds its way under my collar and down to my socks. When I sit, it's like being spanked by a puddle. When I stand, the spray sandblasts my eyes and the wind freezes my hand into a red claw that grips the bucking windshield.

Well. Only a week and a hundred miles to go on our quest to small-boat the entire Georgia coast, a chain of barrier islands that begins with Tybee Island and ends with Cumberland. We're not traveling in millionaire style, of course. This tiny runabout overloaded with coolers and duffle bags wouldn't even rate as a dinghy on a true mogul's yacht. But what we're searching for is Georgia's own version of a millionaires' row.

Here's the story. Three inexorable forces have shaped Georgia's spectacular island coastline: the tides, the winds and the power of compound interest. The tides move the sands. And the winds sculpt the dunes and animate the great, shaggy live oaks. But natural forces have nothing on market forces, and the remarkably unsullied state of these islands traces just as directly to trust funds, stocks and bonds, and all of the other legs of a sound family fortune. Georgia's largely undeveloped archipelago is an antebellum panorama of palmetto and Spanish moss unlike any other stretch of coast in the country.

"Georgia's 100 miles of coastline account for something like three-quarters of the intact, undeveloped salt marsh on the entire East Coast," says Andy Meadows, a state natural resources officer and one of the half-dozen permanent residents on Ossabaw Island, just south of Savannah. "It just blows your mind. And it boils down to the fact that so many of these islands were once owned by rich Yankees."

Yes, it was the robber barons who saved the Georgia coast. And we've come to track their legacy on islands where mansions are called cottages, the descendents of slaves still cling to African ways and there are more bird- and gator-filled forests than putting greens and go-kart tracks.

You don't have to beat yourself to death to island-hop here. Perfectly comfortable ferries serve most of the larger barrier islands, and the whole coastline runs parallel to I-95 between Georgia exits 2 and 18. But after years of messing about piecemeal in these waters, we wanted to crawl down the entire chain in something bigger than a kayak (too much work) and smaller than a cruiser (too much comfort). So we borrowed my uncle's sturdy little Whaler, threw our gear aboard and set out on a winding route along the Intracoastal Waterway.

The going was smoother once we sank Tybee and Savannah under a foggy horizon and worked deeper into the skein of tidal creeks within the marsh. We skimmed the waters of this labyrinth as otters and minks scampered along the mid-tide mudflats on either bank. Egrets lifted off in heavy elegance as we passed, flapping into a still-lowering sky. The clouds were head-high and full of cold mist. And whenever we broke out into the bigger rivers and the wide open sounds, the freezing draft snatched at the charts from our stiff fingers.

It took us about five dreary hours -- and running aground twice in the ebbing tide -- before we reached our first stopover, tiny Barbour Island. Barbour, where a Savannah friend lent us his cottage for the night, is little more than an air strip and a patch of high forest in the marsh (I spent my honeymoon here 10 years ago). It's tucked into the plain of marsh between the barrier island chain and the continent proper. Just above is Ossabaw, our first stop in the morning. The clouds part just in time for us to catch a cherry glow over the distant Georgia mainland. A heron skims the marsh in black sillhouette.


For the first half of the 20th century, the winter resident list on the Georgia coast read like a Debrett's of America's industrial peerage: It was Carnegie steel money on Cumberland Island, Rockefeller oil and Morgan capital on Jekyll, Reynolds tobacco on Sapelo. The barons bought these islands as huntin' and fishin' getaways when nobody else much wanted them, after the sea island cotton plantations had played out and before the middle class went crazy for beach condos. And once they had them, the tycoons did something remarkable: Not much.

"They saw how valuable they were and they didn't develop them," says Meadows, the natural resources officer.

He meets us on the backside of Ossabaw, on a high bluff over a bend in Newell Creek where our boat is tied up. We jump in his truck for a drive around the fence-free forests of pine, oak and wax myrtle, past a big grandaddy alligator sunning by an upland pond, over to the broad beach where sandpipers and fiddler crabs skitter among the great sun-whitened carcasses of blown-over oaks. As we work north, he tells us about the island.

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