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.
"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.
It was Pittsburgh Plate Glass money here. Eleanor Torrey West's parents bought the 25,000-acre island and its 13 miles of beach in 1924. She's 89 and still lives, alone, in the enormous Spanish revival mansion at the north end. West and her husband ran a retreat here for artists and scholars for two decades, when the likes of Ralph Ellison, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber walked and worked in the swaying shade. In 1978, as taxes soared and developers circled the coast like so many hurricanes, West led her family to sell the island to the State of Georgia for $8 million -- about half its appraised value -- as a heritage preserve that would never be developed. Among the deals she turned down was a name-your-price offer from Aristotle Onassis and his famous wife.
"It was Ari and Jackie," she laughs. "They were looking for an island. I think they finally bought one in Greece."
Ossabaw remains an exclusive place. Although anyone can pull up a boat and walk the beaches (all Georgia beaches are legally public up to the high-tide line), no one can walk around Ossabaw's dry lands without permission from West or the Department of Natural Resources. (Although about 500 people a year are let on by lottery for managed deer and turkey hunts to thin the wildlife numbers). But now the department has plans to expand that number, maybe quadruple it, with more people allowed on for camping.
West hates that idea and says it's a flat violation of her agreement when she sold. Still, she continues to live happily in the big house and remains friendly with Meadows and a small DNR crew that lives elsewhere on the north end. And she says she's still glad she sold to the state.
"You don't destroy something like this just to develop it," she says. "At least I could never do that."
Apparently, neither could the other rich families who controlled these islands.
We tie up at the Hog Hammock docks after a sunny but chilly three-hour run down the Mud River and Tea Kettle Creek from Ossabaw. Resident Julius Bailey meets us there, throwing our duffels into a rattling minivan. The drive to Hog Hammock is short, just past the gas station that's open two hours each week. Bailey fills us in on Sapelo's tourist infrastructure.
"Lulu Walker runs Lulu's Kitchen, but she only opens on demand," he says, looking at his watch as we pass by the neat frame cottages planted in flowering vines. "We'll get you something to eat. And tomorrow you can have lunch at the senior citizens' center."
Bailey and his wife, Cornelia, are the innkeepers in Hog Hammock. On one corner of their lot, they built a comfortable six-room shotgun guest house with a long porch covered with treasures from the beach. A few hundred overnight guests a year take the ferry over from Meridian, on the mainland, to walk the beach or ride the island lanes on the Baileys' bicycles. (Alice Walker once stayed four days.) More come on day trips, loading up in son Maurice Bailey's mule-pulled wagon for guided tours of the lighthouse, the old slave quarters and churches built of oyster shell cement (there are three, all Baptist, in this town of 64 permanent residents).
Waiting for supper, we walk through the village on sandy tracks roofed with oak limbs. Frying smells drift out of the small houses along with snatches of household murmurs. If it's an old person talking, we might be eavesdropping on Geechee, the slave patois with roots in West Africa (in South Carolina they call it Gullah).
At one time, the Sapelo Geechees lived in small communities all over the island. But Richard J. Reynolds -- who reportedly once had plans to build a resort on the north end -- slowly wheedled them all into Hog Hammock, the last community of slave descendants left in Georgia. His leverage was absolute control over who got to ride the ferry to the mainland and who got to tap into the island generator.
"I would say Mr. R.J. Reynolds was a mean man," says J.R. Grovner, as he shows us around the grounds of the Big House, Reynold's columned, statue-filled, indoor-pooled mansion. Grovner's father, like most black men on Sapelo, once worked for Reynolds. J.R. now leads tours and weaves sweetgrass baskets to sell to tourists.
The state now runs the mansion as a conference center. And the grand old dairy barns nearby now house a thriving University of Georgia marine research center. But Hog Hammock worries about its future. The oldest resident, Mr. Hicks the cast-net maker, is 98. The last baby was born five years ago.
"Nobody is pregnant and nobody is moving onto Sapelo," says Cornelia Bailey, the community's historian. Her book, "God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man," is a detailed, readable chronical of Saltwater Geechee heritage on the island. She's standing at the ferry dock, waiting for the boat to bring her grandson back from school on the mainland. One day, she knows, he'll probably get on that ferry and not come back. "We've got to get some young people to stay. It won't make a hill of beans to us what the state does if the next generation is not here to carry on."
After a ride across the Doboy Sound and up the Hampton River -- a ride boasting warm breezes (finally) and an escort of porpoises -- we idle up Mosquito Creek to one of the East Coast's great small hotels.
Little St. Simons is one of the few privately owned islands left on the Georgia coast, and it's probably the closest a tourist can get to experiencing a genuine tycoon family retreat. Once a plantation of the huge coastal slaveholder Pierce Butler, the six-mile-long island was bought in 1915 by Philip Berolzheimer, a New York pencil magnate. He built a lodge house, still filled with buck heads and 'gator skulls shot and collected by Berolzheimer's big city cronies. Other cottages went up and now there's a proper little compound on the bluff over the Mosquito Creek docks.
But while other island owners, groaning under increasing taxes and dispersing fortunes, went looking for public buyers, the Berolzheimers decided to keep theirs and turn it into a high-end, all-inclusive eco-resort. The family still takes it over for a few weeks around the holidays, but at other times anyone with $500 a night (less in the off season) can have their well-fed run of the place. (Now it's Randy's turn to reminisce: He came here on his honeymoon.)
We arrive just in time for a bike ride to the old tugboat half-buried on the beach before getting back for the island's most hallowed rite: cocktail hour.
The various cottages sleep up to 30 people, but only eight pre-season guests gather on the lodge porch, jingling their ice and admiring the sunset over the marsh.
They quickly surround us with advice on how to fill our time: horse rides in the forest, skiffing about the island in little 10-horsepower launches, nonstop guided nature tours. Fishing, birding, hiking. Eating, eating, eating: Pecan crusted pork loin with port wine and pear sauce, flounder with Georgia peaches, grilled quail with chutney, creamy grits, the most amazing bacon, baked goods and booze, out for the grabbing, day and night.
"We've done a lot of big trips, Alaska, New Zealand," says John Mueller, a Chicago lawyer who was visiting for the second time. "But this is the only one we ever repeated. I don't know of anything like it."
Racing down the house- and marina-lined Frederica River behind the traffic-clogged island of (greater) St. Simons, we cross the choppy sound and pull in for a brief visit on Jekyll Island to meet Warren Murphy. Jekyll is connected to the mainland by a bridge and therefore didn't meet our purist island criteria. But this was the absolute seat of tycoon activity on the Georgia isles, and Murphy, a historian, is going to show us around. An employee of the Jekyll Island Authority, he spends a lot of time explaining the bygone era of the swells to today's tourists.
We tie up behind a gigantic ocean-going yacht at the docks of the Jekyll Island Club. The club is now a fancy hotel but once was the place where Astors and Vanderbilts gathered to get away from the rigors of dominating the globe. Murphy walked us along the ranks of mansion-scale "cottages" the nabobs built around the club. During the heyday, Murphy reckons one-sixth of the world's wealth was represented when all of the members were at a club dinner.
"They saw the island as exotic," he says. "And, hey, if you're an industrialist from Buffalo, this is a pretty marvelous place to spend the winter."
This corner of the island is as groomed as an 18th green, but almost two-thirds of Jekyll is protected from most development. That was part of the deal when the state bought it from the club in 1947, against the wishes of some members. Without those protections, you only have to look one island to the north to see where Jekyll could be today.
"This would have turned into another St. Simons, so fully developed I wonder why it doesn't sink," Murphy says.
Our run to Cumberland takes longer than expected, blown about as we are in the wide waters of St. Andrews Sound. Cumberland, Georgia's largest barrier island, is a federal national seashore, and we have to go all the way to the south end to sign up with the rangers. We're almost in Florida, the end of our run.
Most of the allowed 300 visitors a day get off the ferry from St. Mary's for day hikes or camping around the south end. But we ask for a campsite farther north, a two-mile hike from a dock on the Brickhill River.
An hour later, we tie up in the shadow of a vast Georgian-revival mansion, built in 1898 by the Carnegies of Pittsburgh. For Cumberland was the Carnegie playground until the family split on how to dispose of it. Some members sold out to Charles Fletcher, the developer who built Hilton Head. Others howled, and after court intervention, the federal government bought it up and protected it forever.
We lug our gear through the forest, just in time to make camp and have dinner by the last of the day. The hanging moss makes a shadowed valance around our clearing, beyond which the frog choir is finding its voice.
Tomorrow we'll make it to the beach close enough to sunrise to claim bragging rights, and then hike back along the long route, past the wild ponies that graze along dappled trails. Maybe we'll walk out to the now ballyhooed one-room church on the north end where JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette married.
But tonight we'll just sleep, warm at last on pine needle luxury, under a chandelier of stars and the chamber music of the coastal night, a couple of millionaires on our Georgia island.
If you don't take your own boat, here are some things to know: