It’s January. The Holiday Season is over. Now we face the long, grim winter months ahead. Most of us face winter with forbearance because we’ve gotten through it before. We are a hearty people who thrive on adversity. But wait, I’ve just visited the true antidote to our Akron, Ohio winters. Its name is Tybee Island.
The island, located in a suburb of Savannah, Georgia, is an island much as Peninsula, Ohio is a peninsula. It is cut off from the mainland by the Tybee River. Tybee has been the playground for Georgians for over 100 years, just like Put-In-Bay in Lake Erie have been for Ohioans. In fact, Tybee reminded me very much of Put-In-Bay in the off-season: quiet, peaceful and calm.
We visited Tybee Island during the off-season in December, when the town is quiet and you can get a seat in almost any restaurant with no wait. The streets are mostly empty save for delivery trucks and a few locals. There is really only one street in Tybee that really matters, Butler Ave., which runs from the western end of the island through town and connects with U.S.80 into Savannah.
We stayed in a Mermaid Cottage ($150 - $350 a night) right on the beach with only a sand dune to separate us from the Atlantic Ocean. Just as it has been in Akron for the last few months, it was unseasonably warm in Tybee in December. We walked the beach in shorts and a t-shirt for our entire four-day stay, each day getting warmer and more cloudless. The cottage slept six and had a spacious living room. It was air conditioned, but it was so beautiful that we kept the doors open all day long. There is excellent cell and internet reception; there are many channels on cable TV, but we soon forgot about those things as we settled into the relaxing lifestyle that is Tybee Island in the off-season. I was content just watching the beach and listening to the ocean’s arrhythmic chant. Since we were on the western tip of the island, we could watch both the sunrise and the sunset from our front deck.
As you can imagine, wonderful fresh seafood is available in many fine restaurants and bars across town. We ate in two owned by the same local couple, who are riding the same rising economic tide we are all feeling. Sarah and Kurtis Schumm have opened three high-end restaurants since 2010. The first is Tybee Island Social Club, which is a casual lunch and dinner place, while the second, Tybee Fish Camp, is more formal while still serving mostly fresh seafood. We tried both places, and I will put their fish tacos up there with the best I have ever eaten. Another bar and grill you don’t want to miss is CoCo’s Sunset Grille. Owner Tracy McMahon was the one to tell us that Tybee is trying to switch its image from a college party town to more of a family destination as it used to be. We also ate lunch at a new place located in a strip mall off 1st Street called Sundae Cafe where we again had excellent fresh seafood. We ate breakfast in the “World Famous Breakfast Club” which has many rules for its patrons; it must be very successful.
We rented bicycles from Fat Tire Bikes and were able to pedal to almost any spot on the island. That which we could not reach by bike we could easily reach in a taxi, or in our case, Uber. We visited Tybee Marine Science Center, the Tybee Island Lighthouse and the newly-renovated pavilion and pier. At the end of the pier is a sign that reads, “No Shark Fishing”; I looked over the railing of the pier and saw several people swimming—go figure.
All of the peace and quiet that we experienced is turned on its head on weekends and in the summer time. No one told me, but by counting the bars and gift shops I could see that this is indeed a party town, and trying to make it into a family-friendly destination may take a while. Don’t get me wrong, I can testify to the quality of life in the off-season, and it is idyllic.
But, let’s face it, the big draw for most people to Tybee Island is its long, wide sandy beach. Though I didn’t swim, I saw others do so, and I did splash my feet in the warm waters along the shore. We were privileged to take a two-person tour of Little Tybee Island, which is uninhabited, and the salt marshes beyond. Our captain, Rene of Sundial Charters Boat Tours, is a serious local birder, so we came to recognize turns, gulls, loons, painted bunting, rakes, sand pipers and three bald eagles perched about 100 yards away on a sand bank, eating a dead fish. They were young, Rene pointed out, because their heads had not yet begun to turn their signature white. Tybee Island is on the Colonial Coastal Birding trail and hosts over 211 bird species. Additionally, we saw dolphins (a family of three), gators and small sharks that also live here and up the rivers by as many as eight miles.
Tybee Island was Savannah’s playground for many years, first for it’s fishing, then when the railroad went through in 1887, opening it up to tourists from all over, including many from Ohio, it seems. Part of the island was taken over by the military of various armies at Fort Screven from 1897 until it was sold to the town of Tybee in 1947.
You can watch the Agnes Marie shrimping boat chugging out to sea to catch your dinner. You can visit the many fine restaurants (most are informal) or gift shops or bars if that is your inclination. In fact, open container laws are suspended in Tybee; even the bicycles we rode had beer holders built right onto the handlebars. But for me and many people from up north, we appreciate the calm and serenity of Tybee in December, the busiest month of the year.
Don Baker, Jr., Founder and Editor-in-Chief