Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
I love going to Tybee, but there’s nothing secret about it. Tourists flock year-round, and every shred of high ground is built to the gills. There’s no room for adventure, and apart from the general beauty we’re used to seeing around here — white sand beaches, patriarchal oaks, silky egrets fishing from creekbanks — there’s nothing to make it a nature destination. It doesn’t have even the pocket-sized preserves of Hilton Head, much less the untouched feel of Daufuskie and Hunting islands or the wilderness tracts of Sapelo and Cumberland.
Tybee is more about the vibe. Funky art shacks and java huts sit across from surf and T-shirt shops. Pancake diners do breakfast until the beer and seafood joints take over. Georgia ladies gab on their morning walks while shirtless men smoke cigarettes next to a fan and last night’s beer cans in the shady areas underneath raised houses. Driftwood and yard art abound. Crusty bungalows hold their own against manicured homes, generic condos, new-money mansions and Old South “big houses” with the white columns and everything. But it’s the brightly painted beach cottages — many of them rentals with ridiculous names like Sassy Seagull, Sea La Vie and Sandy Feet Retreat — that do the most for Tybee’s look, along with the tropical landscaping of banana, hibiscus and spider lily.
As for the beach, it’s nice enough, although there tends to be a lot of trash. I always park on Second Street, far from the big pavilion and pier; but as I was to learn on a recent trip with my bike, there’s more to Tybee Beach than just the north end. My mission: find a secret spot, if such a thing exists on this sardine-can island.
I fanned out along side streets, cutting through the playgrounds and dog parks, passing everyday places like the police department and post office. My first discovery was the Byer Street beach access, which felt at least a little wilder thanks to a marsh boardwalk and short trail tunneling through the dune scrub. It spat me out at a much more sparsely populated shore on the South Savannah River channel, where giant oceangoing container ships turned inland toward the port. I took a quick dip to cool off before continuing my ride.
Following bike route signs that sent me meandering through neighborhoods, I wound up on the opposite end of the island where I checked out another beach at Chatham Avenue. This was on the inlet side, and surf gave way to Tybee Creek, creating a bunch of sandbars and dangerous currents. Signs warned of drowning, so no one was swimming, just wading, throwing cast nets or lolling about in the shallows with a beverage. One couple was straining wet sand through a colander to look for shark’s teeth. I took another dip and moved on.
Next, I stumbled on the Sally Pearce Nature Trail, a teeny-tiny path cutting through a patch of woods behind some condos where they abutted the marsh. It had several benches and took me about five minutes to walk. This could, maybe, count as a secret spot, I thought, but as a last ditch effort I decided to head back off island and see what else I could turn up.
I wasn’t sure where Tybee proper ended, but I hadn’t reached the welcome sign yet when I hung a left off Highway 80 onto Catalina Drive, a paved causeway leading out into the marsh. Sure enough, it had a little side path breaking off of it — could this be my secret spot? I ducked along through saw palmetto and scrub oak, thinking it felt like the sort of path pirates take when going to bury their treasure. An osprey chick peeped overhead, and big egrets flapped out from their fishing spots. Shortly I came to the trail’s end, a beautiful little lookout over the vast, watery estuary separating Tybee from the mainland — marsh grass all lit up yellow and lime green under a blue sky with other islands lying low and flat on the horizon. I was out of the sardine can. Should anyone come to Tybee and find they need some space, they can hit this secret spot and be assured of solitude.
Location: Tybee Island, Georgia
Distance: 1 hour, 19 minutes (48.8 miles) via US-80 E
If you go: Drive over early and wait in line at The Breakfast Club, a no-frills diner that specializes in incredible house-made sausage, burgers and breakfast. You can expect a 15- to 20-minute wait in a line wrapped around the diner, but it’s worth it. Score a seat at the counter to watch Culinary Institute of America-trained chef/owner Jodee Sadowsky work breakfast magic with skilled line cooks. It’s open 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every day except Wednesdays.