Published November 3, 2006
Travel Section, Escapes
Shifting Sands and a Slow Pace on the Georgia Coast
Visitors return from a day of fishing at Shellman Bluff, Ga.
Stephen Morton for The New York Times
by ROBERT CORAM
Published: November 3, 2006
If the Bluffs are not at the end of the world, they are in the same ZIP code. Midway between Savannah and Sea Island on the Georgia coast, they sit, uncelebrated, in the northeastern corner of McIntosh County, slightly more than a four-hour drive from Atlanta. If you look hard, you will find them on the map: three contiguous fishing villages called Shellman Bluff, Contentment Bluff and Pleasure Bluff.
Others relax on a dock in Pleasure Bluff. Along with Contentment Bluff, theseGeorgia seacoast communities are known simply as the Bluffs.
No more than a few dozen people live full time along the high bluffs that give the villages their names. Most streets are not paved. Outside the mobile homes and small frame houses, almost every yard has a boat on a trailer. Everywhere are enormous moss-draped oaks. Cellphone coverage is spotty, and tourists are rare enough so that locals instantly recognize anyone who “is not from around here.”
But travelers do find their way here, and they tend to return, sometimes over and over again. They boat and fish in the creeks and rivers that wend through the greatest expanse of salt marsh on the East Coast (a third of the remaining marsh on the Eastern Seaboard is in Georgia). They cross Sapelo Sound to BlackbeardIsland, owned by the Fish and Wildlife Service, and walk on beaches devoid of other people. Some drive half an hour to Meridian to take the ferry to SapeloIsland, where a mansion remains that was once owned by the tobacco tycoon R. J. Reynolds. If things seem too quiet at night, they can drive up to Savannah, about an hour away, for some city-style night life.
They can also come at any time of the year. Nighttime winter temperatures rarely drop into the 30s, and in January the days are almost always in the 60s. I have been going to the Georgia coast for more than 30 years, and I have gone swimming in the ocean near the Bluffs on New Year’s Day.
Rick Lehman, 41, a concrete salesman, towed his boat about 900 miles to the Bluffs last summer from Fort Wayne, Ind., for a weeklong vacation with his wife, Marcy, and two daughters, Chelsey, 21, and Taylor, 17. The Lehmans had been to Hilton Head three times, and on this trip they wanted something more remote and with fewer visitors, yet still fairly close to restaurants and tourist attractions. They found it, and they plan to return.
Chelsey and Taylor were content to comb the beaches and swim in the ocean and, at low tide, off the long sandbar across the Julienton River from the house they rented. And, of course, the Lehmans went boating. The waters at the Bluffs are tricky. They have some of the highest tides on the East Coast, seven to nine feet. In places the ebb tide races along at five knots. The sandbars are numerous and shift frequently, and Mr. Lehman hit one of them, broke the gears in the lower unit of his engine and had to be towed to a marina. But, he said, what remained strongest in his memory from the trip was “hanging out on a deserted beach.”
The string of barrier islands off the Georgia coast are separated from the mainland by as much as nine miles of salt marshes — expanses of brown and gold with their own mesmerizing beauty. Boat out beyond the marsh to the wide, flat islands, and you’ll find the surf pounding onto fine, whitish sand. Near the Bluffs, most of the barrier islands are owned by the state or the federal government and remain largely undeveloped. There is no causeway to any of them; access is only by boat.
Once this stretch of coast was a dynamic place, a center of commerce and adventurism. More than a half-century before the English arrived at Jamestownand Plymouth Rock, the Spanish had missions and fortifications here, the largest and most important on nearby St. Catherines Island. The Spanish foothold was “founded earlier, involved more people and lasted longer” than did the mission culture of the Southwest, according to David Hurst Thomas, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York who has excavated the mission on St. Catherines Island.
Edward Teach, the notorious pirate known as Blackbeard, plundered this coast. and some of his treasure is said to be buried on the island named for him — the island roamed by Mr. Lehman and his family.
Though Sapelo Sound is not used as a port now, it is a natural deep-water harbor, and English settlers in the 1700s said that more than 500 vessels could lie at anchor there, in the lee of Sapelo Island.
Today the Bluffs are commercial fishing villages, and traditionally, visitors came for the sport fishing. While most national fishing magazines treat the Georgiacoast as a black hole between the Carolinas and Florida, savvy anglers know it as a world-class fishery for everything from sea trout and red fish to tarpon. Every time I take out my boat, I see fishermen anchored, and often they are pulling in fish.
Whether or not you’re after fish, a boat is handy at the Bluffs. If you don’t own one, you can rent one, and for a little more money, you can also get a licensed captain to take you out to swim at the beach on Blackbeard Island or around the nearby waters to spot bottlenose dolphins…
But a boat isn’t necessary. Visitors often spend time just hanging out on a dock owned by Lin Rogers (the owner of most local vacation rental properties), reading, napping or just looking out across miles of marsh and maybe wondering where they will eat dinner.
The salt marshes on the Georgia coast are among America’s largest.
Don Cobb, 70, and his partner, Roy Haapala, 76, who are retired after operating an antiques shop in Middlefield, Mass., spent most of their three months at the
They see a remarkable similarity (except in weather) between the Bluffs and Prince Edward Island, where they also have a house. Both are what Mr. Cobb calls “cottage communities” and both have strong Scots-Irish roots. And they were delighted with the St. Patrick’s parade last March, a Norman Rockwell collection of everything from lawn mowers to fire trucks to proud owners towing their boats.
For bicycling, there are inviting flat, paved roads through oak and juniper groves at the Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge, six miles by road from the Bluffs. A path skirts the southern edge of Woody Pond, an ideal area for sighting the permanent colony of wood storks as well as egrets, herons and ducks. A guided Harris Neck cultural history tour tells the story of a black community that was once in the area, made up of people whose ancestors had been taken as slaves from Sierra Leone.
Out on Sapelo Island, about 500 acres that are not owned by the state belong to the 90 or so residents of Hog Hammock, the last intact Gullah community in theGeorgia barrier islands. (The Gullah people are descendants of former slaves who stayed in their communities after they were freed and who still speak an African-based creole dialect.)
Local residents offer tours of the village. When I took one with Fran DeLoach, 78, she told me poignant stories of her great-grandmother, who was a slave, and showed me a prickly ash, called a “toothache tree” because of its medicinal properties. Skeptical, I chewed on a small leaf. My mouth went numb for half an hour.
The Bluffs are tied to the sea. Some of the best shrimp in the world come from these waters and local restaurants know how to prepare them. At Hunter’s, a little waterfront bar and restaurant in the middle of Shellman Bluff, the fried shrimp are as good as you will find anywhere. So are the grouper sandwiches. Hunter’s also has live entertainment on the weekend.
One night, after an hour of boat riding on a high tide, under a clear sky and full moon, some of us wound up going to Hunter’s to hear live music. Some people in the audience, including my wife, were barefooted. The owner didn’t care, and the performer, the singer-songwriter Valerie DeLaCruz from Niskayuna in upstateNew York, had gotten into the spirit, too. “There is a much slower pace here,” she told me. “Normally that would infuriate me. But it makes me slow down, and that is a good thing.”
Slowing down didn’t seem to hurt her performance. After a grizzled shrimper, singing karaoke, belted out “Folsom Prison Blues,” Ms. DeLaCruz took the mike and rocked the house.
IF YOU GO
Vacation rentals at the Bluffs, from trailers to cottages, are $100 to $300 a night, with discounts for longer stays, from Lin Rogers (912-832-5191;www.serenitycoastalvacationrentals.com). Ms. Rogers also arranges fishing trips, boat rides, tours to Sapelo Island and Harris Neck, and rentals of bicycles and boats, including kayaks.
The Shellman Bluff Motel, a rustic place used mostly by fishermen, rents rooms for $65 a night and has a dock. Call (912) 832-4220 for directions. Chain motels on Interstate 95 are 15 minutes from the Bluffs, and Savannah offers higher-end lodging.
The credo at restaurants around the Bluffs seems to be, “If you fry it, they will come.” There are at least two hardy dining perennials, both quintessential down-home coastal restaurants. At Hunter’s Cafe in Shellman Bluff (like many Bluffs locations, it has no street address; call 912-832-5771 for directions; open daily), the most expensive item on the menu is the seafood platter: shrimp, oysters, scallops, deviled crab and whatever fish is fresh for $20. Fried shrimp is $15, and the grouper sandwich is $9. There is a bar, but diners with the faintest appreciation for wine should bring their own.
At Speed’s Kitchen (912-832-4763; open Thursday through Sunday), the name has nothing to do with the service. In fact, the menu states: “Not a place for fast-lane folks. Ain’t got no red lights. No 4-lanes. We move slow here.” But the crab stew ($4.75), stuffed flounder ($15) and fried fish ($13) draw people from 50 miles away. Wine can be brought in.
All boaters interested in sampling the waters around the Bluffs should be prepared and skilled. Most who arrive with their own craft launch by hoist. At Fisherman’s Lodge (912-832-4671), boats up to 21 feet can be launched and recovered for $19. Slips are $7.50 a night for boats up to 20 feet. Rates are comparable at the Shellman Fish Camp (912-832-4331). Public boat launching ramps, without fees, are inland on tidal creeks that can be tricky to navigate.
At Boating Sales & Service (912-832-2566) a 21-foot pontoon boat or a 23-footCarolina skiff is $200 for eight hours. A boat with a licensed captain is $200 for four hours.