I’m thoroughly convinced the beauty of the Georgia coast is one of the best-kept secrets on earth. Sure, everyone who lives here knows how stunning it is, but outsiders don’t seem to have a clue.
From shrimp boats shrouded in fog docked along the banks of the Altamaha River to wild horses roaming the windswept dunes of Cumberland Island, the Georgia coast is largely free from commercialism and a nature lover’s dream.
Since I’m often asked the best places to visit along the Georgia coastline, I thought I’d break down the different options and list a few of my favorites to help you decide where to go!
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Quick Facts About the Georgia Coast
The shoreline of Georgia is nicknamed the Coastal Empire, while the southernmost islands are known as the Golden Isles. Let me tell you…when the marsh grasses fade to brown in the fall and the sun slips low over the sandy beaches, you’ll understand where that “golden” nickname originates.
- The coastline of Georgia is approximately 100 miles long. However, once you factor in all of the bends and curves of the barrier islands and tidal creeks, that length totals closer to 800 miles!
- Georgia’s coastal region is estimated to contain almost one third of the salt marshes found along the entire East Coast, and it’s home to many endangered species of plants and animals. Approximately a quarter million endangered loggerhead sea turtle eggs are laid annually in Georgia’s coastal sands.
- The majority of Georgia’s barrier islands are privately owned — or at least protected by the government. That’s because many homeowners couldn’t afford their properties after the Civil War ended, so they sold off their land to wealthy investors from the North. Some of those investors managed to acquire entire islands! In a few instances those wealthy families retained private ownership well into the late 1900s.
Of all the love I’ve known..and no matter where I roam…Georgia calls me home.Clayton Hackle, “Georgia Calls Me Home”
Popular Beaches Close to Savannah GA
The Georgia coast can be divided into two types of beaches: the popular/touristy variety and the remote/natural variety. I’m much more a fan of the remote beaches, so just know in advance that my opinion tends to skew more towards those locations.
I’ll start with the more frequently-visited options…
Tybee is the closest beach to Savannah, so it’s often referred to as “Savannah’s Beach”. It’s a popular stop for visitors who want to combine a trip to the Historic District with some down-time by the ocean. The vibe on Tybee is very laid back.
You’ll find cute and colorful cottages, plus lots of seafood restaurants and souvenir shops covering a good portion of the island. Tybee offers a little something for everyone, and the prices overall are reasonable — although visitors do tend to gripe about the parking fees.
As much as others seem to enjoy it, Tybee is one of my least favorite beaches on the Georgia coast. The quiet Back River area is my favorite spot, but other than that section it just seems like “any beach USA” to me. (Ha…clearly I’ll never be sponsored by the folks at Visit Tybee!! C’est la vie.)
- Tybee is easily accessible by car, but the traffic on and off the island can get congested — especially over holiday weekends. HWY 80 often floods when the tides are abnormally high or if there are bad storms in the area.
- Historic places of note on the island include the Tybee Island Lighthouse, Fort Screven, and the cute Tybee Post Theater. Don’t miss Fort Pulaski and the historic Cockspur Lighthouse on the way to Tybee!
Where to Stay on Tybee Island
Home rentals are usually the way to go on Tybee, since the hotel options aren’t that great. (It’s more fun to stay in a cute cottage when you’re at the beach anyway, right?) If you decide to stay in nearby Savannah, it takes about 20 minutes to drive to Tybee if the traffic is light.
St. Simons Island
While Tybee is laid back and accessible, St. Simons is a bit more upscale. If you like to spend your vacation days lounging by the pool, visiting the spa, and going out to dinner, then consider it the place for you. (I find it hard to argue with that kind of vacation!) You’ll find plenty of activities to keep you busy, from golf to tennis to chartered fishing excursions. Oh, and don’t forget the shopping! St. Simons has lots of boutiques and unique local stores. The food options are also abundant, with a mix of everything from fine dining to casual eats.
While you’re visiting, be sure to check out the mysterious tree faces carved into the beautiful old oaks on the island. There are about 20 of them scattered about, so it’s fun to go on a scavenger hunt to try and find as many as possible.
- St. Simons is accessible by car. You’ll take the F.J. Torras Causeway to get there.
- Historic places of note on the island include Fort Frederica National Monument, Christ Church, Cannon’s Point Preserve, and the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum.
Where to Stay on St. Simons Island
Hotels and home rentals are plentiful on the island, and you’ll find everything from casual to luxurious options.
Jekyll was once known as the millionaire’s playground. Its famous Jekyll Island Club was long considered the most exclusive club in the world. Membership included prominent names such as the Vanderbilts, J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, and the Rockefellers. Thankfully, these days it’s not so highfalutin’.
The state of Georgia purchased the island in 1947 and converted it into a state park, so you no longer have to flash your black card or know the secret handshake in order to set foot on its beautiful beaches.
Jekyll strikes a nice balance between commercialized and natural areas — although I’d say it leans a little more towards the natural side. (The state mandates that a certain percentage of the island remains undeveloped.) Driftwood beach is a wildly popular spot for photographers!
- Jekyll is accessible by car. You can drive over the Jekyll Island Causeway or take a boat to get there.
- Because the island still has many preserved natural areas, you’ll find wildlife such as alligator, deer, and rare birds. Jekyll’s beaches are a nesting point for endangered sea turtles, and the island’s Georgia Sea Turtle Museum is dedicated to rescuing and releasing injured turtles.
- Historic places of note on the island include the Jekyll Island Museum, Horton House, the beautiful cottages of the Jekyll Island National Historic District, and the elusive Jekyll Island Club — which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Where to Stay on Jekyll Island
There are plenty of hotel and home rental options on Jekyll Island. You can even stay at the former playground of the rich and famous! The Jekyll Island Club currently operates as a resort, and the fees (surprisingly) aren’t too high.
Barrier Islands on the Georgia Coast
These stunningly beautiful secluded barrier islands are largely unspoiled by man. Nature is the star of the show here! If you visit these destinations, you’ll find an abundance of wildlife, beautiful ancient oaks, and pristine beaches — but very few visitors.
Cumberland Island Georgia
Located towards the southern end of the Georgia Coast, Cumberland Island is designated as a National Seashore and is mostly undeveloped. Only 300 visitors are allowed at any given time, so it’s possible to wander around on the island and feel like you’re the only person there. The only cars allowed on Cumberland are owned by employees, so plan to walk or ride a bike everywhere you go.
- Cumberland is Georgia’s largest barrier island. It has 17 miles of tranquil, undisturbed beaches.
- It’s only accessible by boat. You’ll need to take the DNR ferry based out of St. Mary’s, Georgia, and make note that you have to make reservations in advance.
- Cumberland is home to feral horses, which are often seen roaming the beaches towards the south end of the island. Cumberland’s beaches are where the largest percentage of Georgia’s endangered loggerhead sea turtles make their nests.
- Historic places of note on the island include the Dungeness Ruins, the late 19th century Plum Orchard Mansion, and First African Baptist Church, which is the tiny church where John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married.
What Makes Cumberland Island So Special?
…the wild horses. Just imagine resting beneath the branches of a majestic 200-year-old oak while watching untamed horses grazing nearby in the dune meadows. So peaceful. There’s a coffee table book called Wild Horses of Cumberland Island that showcases both the beauty of the horses and the island.
Where to Stay on Cumberland Island
You have two good options for accommodations on the island: either reserve a camping spot and sleep in a tent or stay in style at the Greyfield Inn. (I can tell you right now which one I’d choose!) You can also stay overnight in St. Mary’s and do a day trip to Cumberland.
Ossabaw Island GA
Ossabaw is very unique and one of the most remote of all the barrier islands. You can still see a few former slave cabins on the island, and much of the land is undeveloped and still in its natural state. Ossabaw is considered a Heritage Preserve, so in order to visit you need to be going for the purpose of research or cultural studies.
- Ossabaw is the third largest barrier island on the Georgia Coast. The 10-mile island consists of 26,000+ acres of maritime forest and marshlands, interspersed with tidal creeks.
- The island is home to free-range donkeys, feral hogs, and a wide variety of birds. It’s also a prime loggerhead turtle nesting spot.
- Historic places of note on Ossabaw Island include the pink stucco Torrey West mansion (which looks like it belongs on a movie set), the abandoned North End Plantation slave cabins, and the Club House — which operated as a hunting lodge in the 1880s.
- Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West was the island’s most well-known resident. She fiercely protected the island, and her family is responsible for selling it to the state of Georgia to help preserve it for future generations. Mrs. West passed away in early 2021 on her 108th birthday.
What Makes Ossabaw Island so Special?
…the fact that it’s so fiercely protected. Very few people set foot on the island, and those who do are either wealthy donors interested in preserving it for future generations (by paying top dollar for controlled hunting and camping excursions), artists there to capture its beauty, or scientists visiting for research.
Where to Stay on Ossabaw Island
There are very few options if you want to spend the night on Ossabaw Island. You’ll need to arrange your visit and accommodations in advance through the Department of Natural Resources or the Ossabaw Island Foundation.
Learn More: Ossabaw Island: One of Georgia’s Most Beautiful Barrier Islands
Much like Ossabaw Island, Sapelo is a barrier island almost exclusively owned by the state of Georgia and managed by the Department of Natural Resources. Access to the island is restricted, but guests are allowed to visit. The best way to get there by taking a DNR ferry from nearby Darien, GA.
- At 16,500 acres, Sapelo is the coast’s fourth largest barrier island.
- Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to alligators, plus many varieties of migrating shorebirds and butterflies. Like much of the Georgia coast, its beaches are also loggerhead turtle nesting grounds.
- Historic places of note on Sapelo Island include the Hog Hammock community and the tabby ruins and slave houses on the grounds of the former Chocolate Plantation. The Reynolds Mansion was once owned by tobacco heir R.J. Reynolds.
- Cornelia Walker Bailey was a lifelong resident of Sapelo and one of the island’s most well-known Geechee preservationists. She passed away in October of 2017, and now Hog Hammock is at greater risk of peril since losing her as one of the community’s most vocal advocates.
What Makes Sapelo Island so Special?
…Sapelo is home to Hog Hammock, which is one of the few remaining intact Gullah Geechee communities in the United States. It’s a peaceful place where you can taste the salt in the air and hear the wind whispering through the Spanish moss.
The community is on the National Register of Historic Places, but the Geechee population has dwindled to less than 50 full-time residents in recent years. You can learn more from the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society.
Where to Stay on Sapelo Island
Although there are a few home rentals available on the island, my ethics prevent me from recommending them. The rising costs of property taxes from homes being purchased and converted to vacation rentals are forcing the Geechee people off the island. Instead, I recommend staying at one of the following overnight options, both of which are managed by the Georgia State Park Service.
Related Reading: God, Doctor Buzzard, and the Bolito Man
Little St. Simons Island
Little St. Simons Island has been privately-owned since 1760, but there is an eco-tourism lodge available if you want to visit. You’ll practically have the island to yourself if you go, since no more than 32 overnight guests are allowed at one time.
- Little St. Simons Island has 7 miles of beaches and roughly 11,000 acres of land, and it’s classified as a nature reserve.
- The island is only accessible by private ferry from Hampton River Marina, which is located at the north end of St. Simon’s Island.
- A good portion of the island is designated as a Nature Conservancy. You’ll find shorebirds such as Black Skimmer, Painted Bunting, Wilson’s Plovers there, in addition to alligators, armadillos, horseshoe crabs, and other wildlife.
What Makes Little St. Simons Island so Special?
…its unhurried pace and the plethora of opportunities to interact with nature. There are naturalists on the island who offer guided tours for birding, kayaking, nature walks, and more. This is one of those places where you can go to clock out, forget about your worries, and just relax with nature.
Where to Stay on Little St. Simons Island
You can either stay in the lodge or choose a cottage if you want more privacy. Overnight camping is not allowed. This is also one of the few islands on the Georgia coast where you can rent the entire island!
Isle of Hope
This small, family-friendly community is located on the outskirts of Savannah and is situated along the picturesque banks of the Skidaway River. It’s an affluent area that was originally designed as a summer retreat for Savannahians. The suburb’s location on a bluff overlooking the river provides nice coastal breezes, and the massive oaks on the island are draped in thick tufts of Spanish moss.
Bluff Drive is the most well-known location on the island. It’s a beautiful, narrow street that overlooks a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river. It’s a popular spot for photography and sunset strolls. You might also recognize it from a few tv shows and movie scenes.
What Makes Isle of Hope so Special?
I find it so relaxing to stroll down Bluff Drive on a misty morning with my camera in-hand to capture beautiful shots of the old oaks lining the street and the sailboats docked along the river. Isle of Hope is incredibly beautiful in the springtime when the azaleas are blooming and during the Christmas season when homes are decorated for the holidays. The sunsets at the marina are also very pretty.
Where to Stay on Isle of Hope
There aren’t any hotels on the island, and there are only a handful of vacation rentals are available. Most homeowners live there full-time, which is one of the reasons Isle of Hope has such a welcoming feel. It’s best to stay in Savannah and make a day trip to the island.
Related Reading: Where to Find the Best Christmas Lights in (and around) Savannah
Charities Supporting the Georgia Coast
Those of you who frequent this site know I always like to include insight about the various ways tourism affects locals. While there’s no doubt visitors stimulate the economy along the Georgia coast, some of the side effects from tourism aren’t so great for the environment.
If you’re fortunate to have both the funds and free time to travel, maybe you’ll consider contributing a little (or a lot!) to any of the following organizations that focus on preserving Georgia’s beautiful coastline and the heritage of its people.
- One Hundred Miles
- Georgia Conservancy
- Savannah Tree Foundation
- Friends of Ossabaw
- Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
If you’re planning a trip to the Georgia coast and are interested in seeing Savannah while you’re in the area, my Savannah First-Timer’s Guide has all the information you need to plan your trip!
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