|The rains fell all day and into the night. The wet leaves of the banana tree, heavy with fruit glistened in the moonlight. Full moon, on Eagle Island, is one of the many reasons groups of friends, family members, writers on retreat and honeymooners pack all they'll need, and ensconce themselves in this ecotouristic location. It's a 20-minute ride on Captain Andy's boat from the Port of Darien, Georgia on the East Coast of the United States.
|Eagle Island is among the islands on Georgia's 100 miles of coastline, less than 2.5 miles in from the Intercoastal Waterway linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Mayhall River. These islands--barrier, back, and inner--designated by the location in relationship to the Atlantic Ocean and the mainland, are rife with history, known for the pink Georgia shrimps, and are largely uninhabited nature preserves monitored and managed by the Georgia Department of Nature Preserve.
Ten of the 14 major barrier islands are being preserved by public and private initiatives. Several of the islands are privately owned by entrepreneurs, like Andy Hill (Captain Andy), who want the land to be used and enjoyed by visitors who value its unique location and all that it has to offer. Preservation for eco-touristic use versus development for 'island' homes is the central debate in the region.
|What beckons the visitors? What tugs at the heart to prompt a return trip?
Sapelo Island history buffs know that the shell ring on the island made with pottery shards more than 5,000 years old establishes the first inhabitants of the area as Native Americans. Steeped in history, Sapelo Island with its pristine beaches was first inhabited by the Guale Indians. It is the site of parallel lives: Reynolds Mansion, legacy of Thomas Spalding, enslaver; and 434 acre Hog Hammock, the 75 member and dwindling community from the original 400 enslaved Saltwater Geechees.
Accessible only by boat, the approach offers an unobstructed view of the famous lighthouse built in 1819, reconstructed several times in response to damage by storms and Union fighters, and in use until 1933. Sand dollars, whelk shells and drift wood are collectibles along Nanny Goat Beach steps beyond the dunes, ever changing and moving by the whims of the wind and weather.
Hog Hammock Community. The story has many twists and turns, but the most definitive telling is that by Cornelia Walker Bailey, of the last generation to be born, raised and schooled on Sapelo Island. Her story, her family's story, and the story of the Saltwater Geechee community in general is documented in God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man published in 2001 by Random House.
The Reynolds Mansion functions as a retreat residence in what is now a state park managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Bearded cyprus trees create canopies for the mostly unpaved roadways linking the lighthouse, the beaches, the mansion, and the historic Hog Hammock Community.
The lives of the enslaved Saltwater Geechees are entwined with the Thomas Spalding, enslaver, who built the initial structure that eventually became the Reynolds Mansion with a brief period of ownership by Detroit auto engineer, Howard Coffin. It was J. R. Reynolds who consolidated the several black communities across the island into one, the Hog Hammock Community.
||Spalding's ambivalence about enslavement, it is said, made it possible for each family to own a home constructed with tabby (a bluish mixture of lime, oyster shells, and water), enjoy free time for personal pursuits; and report to a black overseer. Clearly unique aspects of the enslaved life!
The dwindling populations led to schools on the island being closed and all pre-collegiate education provided on the mainland. The absence of viable employment, the controversial restrictions on development and newly enacted policies for the preservation of the land, as well as a dearth of agriculture has forced a once vibrant community into near dormancy.
|In contrast to Sapelo Island, among the larger of these barrier islands, are the smaller, mostly uninhabited islands. Eight of these islands, collectively known as the Private Islands of Georgia, owned by Andy Hill, call out to adventure seekers with a desire to indulge in a multiplicity of interests.
First, there is the love of nature: cyprus, pine, and cedar trees; bald eagles mating for life and nesting in the crowns of the tallest trees, egrets and blue herons, as well as lumbering alligators partially hidden within the marshes; and waterways in which to set trap for succulent blue crabs. There are no buildings on the Mick or Jagger islands, the unspoiled settings enjoyed by boating to and around them.
Secondly, there must be the unique experience of glamping: the blending of glamorous surroundings and amenities within a camping environment. May Hall Island, Little May Hall Island, and Grassie Field are connected by boardwalks nestled among the trees and raised to prevent destruction of any indigenous flora and fauna. Campers will not be pitching tents as luxurious eco-huts built from all recycled materials await.
There is a home built on May Hall Island offering a breathtaking view of the river by the same name. Here too doors, mantles, fireplaces, glass transoms and wood rosettes salvaged from old hotels being demolished, drift wood captured from the rivers, light fixtures from old boats, as well as pipes from the old saw mills and pottery shards from the earlier Native American communities are integral to the construction.
In keeping with the preservation of the environment and the reusing of existing structures and artifacts, the excavated salt pits are now refashioned as fire pits central to an outdoor entertainment area for both glampers and house guests. The walkways and parts of the grounds are covered with 120,000 antique bricks.
|Ten acre Eagle Island, the largest of the eight, with the Eagle Lodge and its wraparound verandah offering hot tub, hammock, and fireplace (outside and inside) addresses the diversity of interests all in one place!
The writer reveled in the many options for solitary spaces in a place that easily accommodates twelve persons: the hammock between cedar trees at the end of an oyster-shell packed trail; teak benches by the man-made pond; a picnic table on the dock where one can set 'blue crab' traps; three levels of living space.
There was something for everyone. The food lover was excited by the fully equipped indoor kitchen and the outdoor kitchen with smoker grill, cook stand for low country boils (here is where those fresh pink shrimp are enjoyed), and oyster steamer (Captain Andy has a special recipe for the oyster roasts). The sports enthusiast had options for kayaking, fishing, boating. And, the couch potato could knock a few ping-pong balls before lazing around leafing through books in the library or with some of the provided board games.
| Visitors can fly into Jacksonville, Fl, Atlanta, GA, and Savannah, GA, but Brunswick, GA is the closest airport, then drive to historic Dairen, GA for the transfer by boat. The 20-minute boat ride up the Darien River and the May Hall Creek is shared with shrimpers--those procurers of the famous wild Georgia shrimp indigenous to the coastal waters--accompanied in shifts by egrets and blue herons, passing by lumbering alligators partially hidden within the marshes, and possibly being watched by bald eagles in those large nests tethering in the crowns of the tall trees.
For additional information about Georgia's private islands:
| PHOTO CREDITS:
Map courtesy of Private Islands of Georgia,
Photos by Jennifer Beaumont