For more than a century, this barrier island off Georgia’s coast has been a welcoming getaway for all.
By Patrick Martin
Eighteen miles east of Savannah, Ga., on a silver strip of beach is a retro salute to flappers, Ford Model T cars, and full-body bathing suits.
Above: The Tybee Light Station has been an island sentinel since the 1700s. Tybee Visitors’ Center photo
In title: A sunset stroll on the public pier is one of the island’s activities to savor.
Patrick Martin photo
More than a century ago, Tybee Island was the only Georgia barrier island to be developed for public use. Many islands were privately owned estates and playgrounds for the rich. Some, such as millionaire enclave Jekyll Island, were intentionally left inaccessible to the masses in order to protect the privacy of residents.
By contrast, Tybee Island had roads and its own railroad. From the 1880s until well past World War II, it was the place for Savannah’s citizens to find cooling respite from the heat and humidity. They flocked there by the thousands.
Even then, there were historical sites
. The Tybee Light Station, which was constructed in 1773 and rebuilt several times over the years, still stands at Fort Screven. It is open for the strong-legged to climb its 178 steps.
The Tybee Museum rests near the historical lighthouse within Battery Garland, an 1898 military installation. Tickets that give access to the light station and museum are $9 for adults, $7 for children 6-17 and seniors 62 and older.
These testaments to war watch silently over an island that hasn’t taken an enemy round in nearly a century and a half. The beaches, however, are still attracting bathers for the same reason they did from shortly after the Civil War.
The long stretch of uninterrupted public beach, punctuated only by a fishing pier, offers the same basic recreational pursuits that attracted Gilded Age vacationers.
There are no full-body bathing suits today and scarcely a Model T, but the original downtown area and beach have their own retro appeal. Small shops and restaurants suggest a more leisurely pace. Parking in that area is scarce and expensive. Bring a roll of quarters for the hungry meters if you attempt it. But it’s a short walk from a large public parking lot that runs along the beach.
If the kiddies get tired or sunburned, their parents may want to take a break at the Tybee Island Marine Science Center, located off the 14th Street parking lot near the pier at 1510 Strand St. The center offers a variety of programs and educational opportunities. Turtle watching can be so restorative. Various talks and treks are $10, while admission to the Coastal Georgia Gallery is $4 for adults and $3 for children.
The island still has its upscale accommodations, such as the DeSoto Beach Hotel or the condo-style lodging at Tybee Beach Resort Club. It also has moderately priced hotels, a good sampling of bed-and-breakfast establishments, and plenty of places to dine.
We took a sunset stroll on the pier. A blisteringly hot day yielded easily to a cool ocean breeze. Couples, families with kids, and fishermen with smelly bait buckets shared the wide pier. There was plenty of room for all, though the bucket-wielders seemed to be given the widest berths by the rest of us.
Fishermen stood shoulder to shoulder, flipping their baits 30 feet down to the water and giving each other room when someone hooked a fish. It was a serene scene, except for the fish.
We didn’t sample the nightlife, but observed a good variety of beach and town bars, many of which featured music.
Tybee Island has a casual vibe, a breezy location and some history to boot. Set the mainsail, cap’n.
Patrick Martin is a contributor from St. Louis.