Steve and Liz travelled to Sapelo Island as a short exploratory side trip in September of 1999 on part of a larger swing around the Southeast. They returned there in March 2002 (see below), and again in the fall of 2002. We like it there! Our most recent trip to Sapelo was in October 2003.
Here, in a large nutshell, is the some of what we found out about Sapelo Island. The Darien Chamber of Commerce is not a good place to go for accurate info. The Sapelo Island Visitor's Center in Meridian is. Terri was our contact there and told us more than we wanted to know, including the never mentioned fact that to "visit" Sapelo, 48 hours notice is usually required. I put visit in quotes because that is the term used to describe using the permission of the Gullah community that resides on Sapelo to gain entry to the island without having to go on a government-organized tour, mostly historical.
The black population of the island, descendants of the original slaves used to work the island under RJ Reynolds direction as a rice plantation, etc., are allowed to operate various businesses catering to the tourist trade, including food, lodging, transportation, and as permitters for fun seekers such as ourselves. We called Tuesday evening to the first number on the list of operatives and connected with Nancy and Caesar Banks, who waived the normal 48 hour notice (usually reserved for busier seasons), and called ahead to the ferry boat captain to allow us the privilege of "visiting" the Banks. Caesar would meet us at the docks with a map and beach bikes at $10 each for the day and we'd take off from there.
The ferry left at 8:30, I think, and plowed off, heedless of the incoming tide, down river and into Doboy Sound, coming to the Sapelo dock 5.5 miles and 30 minutes later. Paddling those same waters would be easier to navigate and shorter than Cumberland Island. We did meet with Caesar, a very amiable older man, who answered questions and went over the handdrawn but reasonably readable map of both paved and unpaved roads. Our first pleasurable sight was acres of wild blazing star, also called liatrus, a purple shaft of flowers much like a butterfly bush flower only on a single stalk and no more than two feet off the ground. My right hand bike pedal had fallen off two or three times by now and we generally headed towards Hog Hammock to catch up with Caesar and trade in my failing transportation for one that held together better and had a basket on the handlebars as did Liz's. We made it there and after the bike trade, checked out their rental cabins, apartments and campsite. The campsite was bare minimum and very unprivate. The roofed structures were, shall we be kind and say, laidback Gullah?
Our most remote destination, about halfway up the island, was the government campsite, for reasons I never quite grasped, rented out at $150 per night. True, there were showers and toilets, privacy (since you were renting the whole site), beach access, three-sided, roofed shelters, trash receptacles and spanish moss/large oaks ambiance. Still, a hefty fee when the Banks' three bedroom apartment was only $75 a night.
Just north of the campsite was Raccoon Bluff on Blackbeard's Creek. Our unamed sources tell us that the bluff is the place to launch kayaks to explore Blackbeard Island only we found out the public is not allowed on the island above the high tide mark. This would limit the exploration it seems, but Sapelo itself is a large chunk of island to look over and almost none of it is off limits once "visitation" rights are granted.
Sapelo has all of the animals that Cumberland has except for wild horses; instead, they have wild cows. We are not making this up. In our bike riding frenzy we only saw one deer and an uncountable number of mosquitos. The south end of the island has a great swimming area, complete with jumping dolphins, and we took advantage of the perfect temperatures to wash off bug dope, sweat and miscellaneous grit.
The final part of our visit ended with a quick picture of the newly refurbished lighthouse, the only part of the tour we would have been interested in, since, with the proper guide, we could have gone to the top. As it was, without directions, we would have most certainly gotten lost climbing the stairs and the Darien press would finally have something to write about instead of another front page obituary on a Chamber of Commerce member.
Back at the docks, we ditched the bikes behind a pair of decrepit sheds, per Caesar's directions, and took the tide-ignorant ferry back to the Visitor's center. In retrospect, I wouldn't say Sapelo has all the promise of what Cumberland Island could be on a good day. But, Sapelo on a good day would likely be better than Cumberland on a rough day and we've gotten the T-shirt on that one.
Coming up from the south on I-95 after our paddling trip near Apalachicola, Fl., Liz, John and I had plans to re-explore Sapelo Island and its potential for a fall paddling trip. After a lukewarm dinner at Archie's on Rt. 17, we retired to our $50 Super 8 motel room, watching pro tennis and flamenco dancing as we took turns showering. At Waffle House before 7, a crewmember of the Sapelo Island Construction Company, ("We cheat the other guy and pass the savings on to you" said his t-shirt), shared a driving shortcut with us. The shortcut worked and we got to the Visitor's Center at the Meridian dock early enough to grab brochures and feed the gnats their breakfast.
Our Sapelo contact this time was George Walker who met us at the docks with five bikes, one of which was in decent shape. The gnats seemed to hang wherever there was an abundance of people, so we quickly left the docks and pedaled north, through singing birds and live oak shadows, on the paved road to Hog Hammock. Bird gawking and misdirections slowed our arrival but we eventually located Lula, George's wife, who helped us with under-inflated tires and more vague directives (vague for those unfamiliar with the backroads of Sapelo). Lula runs "Lula's Restaurant", open for prearranged meals only and situated in a new and beautiful building near their house. We priced trailer and vehicle rental and moved on. At this point, we'd already left the paved surface and pedaled on a mostly hard sand road. John and I were not avid bikers and were therefore susceptible to the dreaded medical condition, "abraded buttocks". Stopping frequently to dismount and bird watch helped delay its onset so we were glad to find the biting bugs almost nonexistent.
The northernmost destination this trip was Raccoon Bluff, where those wishing to paddle to adjacent Blackbeard's Island would be most likely to launch. After a bit of backpack food, some picture taking and scanning the island's shore through binoculars, we backtracked past the old church and Raccoon Bluff Social Club to Cabretta campground, a couple of miles south. We were thinking of using Cabretta Creek as a launch area but were told that is no longer allowed and, at low tide, is a difficult launch anyway.
A soft sand path led to Cabretta Beach, where, with binoculars, we were able to see the shelter at Nannygoat Beach, four miles to the south. After a short conference and a conversation with some other beach walkers, the decision was made to follow the hard sand to the shelter. Halfway there, John and I were having quadriceps breakdown, often associated with "abraded butt". About then, we were confronted with a series of runnels, low points in the beach that collect and drain tidal waters. The bikes had to be carried through one such spot; we were fortunate the tide was almost out. A pair of marbled godwits were sited less than 20 feet from us on the shore, reinforcing that this off road path was a good decision.
Except for the physical deterioration John and I were experiencing, (Liz seemed hardly fazed), the ride was very pleasant. We recovered in the shade of the shelter until time constraints pushed us on. A side trip to the lighthouse and a short, clock-watching walk on a nature trail finished our island explorations. Back at the dock, we dropped off the bikes and stepped onto the ferry, just minutes before time to weigh anchor. The half hour ride back allowed us time to strike up a conversation with a few serious birders who had great success on the same island. Their list of sightings was impressive, including a chachalaca.
We left the area after a short and cordial meeting with C. Hatcher of the McIntosh County P.D. about a headlight. In just about an hour, we were on the outskirts of Savannah, shuffling gear from John's van to our Honda. Savannah hosts a St. Patrick's Day celebration every year and motels are booked long in advance. Our preference was to stay and visit the Savannah Wildlife Refuge the next day, but there wasn't a room available for less than scalper's rates. John went to find a headlight; Liz and I drove on to the mountains of North Carolina.