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Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Georgia Coast & Okefenokee

By Richard J. Lenz

Design by Lenz, Inc. Decatur, Georgia.



Sherpa Guides > Georgia Coast & Okefenokee> Northern Coast > Tybee Island: South Beach Area

Tybee Island: South Beach Area

[Fig. 10(6)] South Beach is where the action and crowds are. Here you find the Tybee Pavilion and Pier, Tybee Island Marine Science Center, public beach parking, surfing, restaurants, motels and condos, and honky-tonks. The central commercial strip is Tybrisa Street, formerly 16th Street, where bars, ice cream parlors, and beach shops compete for your attention.

South Beach is probably the best easily accessible public beach in Georgia. As sand has drifted southward on the island, it was trapped here by now-buried jetties and groins. Notice how the beach is working its way up the steps of the boardwalks over the dunes. The snow fences were established a few years ago, and now the dunes are forming around them. Pioneer dune plants are starting to take hold, including morning glory, recognized by the yellow and white flower. Sea oats, important for their beach-holding character with their 30-foot-long roots, have not yet colonized these new dunes, so the dunes' futures are uncertain.

The beach is broad and flat, so tides move quickly up and down the beach. Twice a day, the water moves 6 to 9 feet vertically, and up to 300 feet horizontally. Tybee Island rookies set up their umbrellas and chairs, only to move them back in five minutes, then move them again five minutes later with irritation.

At low tide, where South Beach wraps around to the Back River area, sand bars or shoals become exposed, stretching southward toward Little Tybee. From the far end, it looks like an easy swim to Little Tybee, but don't try it. Every year someone drowns in the attempt, underestimating the outgoing tides and currents. Where longshore currents meet outgoing and incoming tides in the sounds, tremendous turbulence is created, making for dangerous conditions.

These sand bars are the best places to go beachcombing in the South Beach area, especially at low tide. Here you will find Van Hyning's cockle, a large, pretty shell that resembles a heart when two halves are closed together. Other sea life you will find here are pen and scallop shells; sand dollars; hermit, blue, and spider crabs; starfish; knobbed whelks; and oyster drills. Shorebirds prowl the rills and sloughs looking for trapped fish and other meals. Keep a watchful eye on incoming tides so you don't become trapped on a quickly disappearing sand bar.

[Fig. 10(4)] The Pier and Pavilion is a great place to drink a coffee and watch the sun come up—or wet a line with local fishermen when the sun goes down. Built in 1996 in time for the Olympics, the pier juts 700 feet out into the ocean. The 20,000-square-foot Pavilion can be rented for private parties. Many fish the pier at night, and a fish-cleaning sink is located here. On weekend nights, walking the pier is such a popular pastime that you are transported into a different, simpler era—before Nintendo and cable and VCRs—when you knew your neighbor. Bands play in the sheltered pavilion during the summer.

Below the pier, the pilings located in the intertidal zone are a good place to examine what quickly happens in a marine environment when a hard surface is introduced to the sea. Here you will find oysters, mussels, barnacles, and other marine life clinging to the concrete supports.

The pier south to the main jetty is officially approved for surfing. On days with good wave action, you will see quite a few trying their luck. Surfers also try the waves on the north side of the pier, but officially are not supposed to.

Other wildlife you will see on the beach, not including Homo sapiens, includes sea birds begging for handouts. One gull can quickly become a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds if you give in to the temptation to feed it. You will see menhaden and other fish stirring in the water plus a full complement of sand-dwelling fauna responding to the tides such as sand dollars, mole crabs, cochina, and ghost shrimp. Insects may bite in the summer during sunset if the usual sea breeze is absent, but usually they are not a problem.

Knobbed whelk (Busycon carica) This common mollusk is the official state seashell and is caught by commercial fishermen and sold as conch meat. Tybee Island Marine Science Center

[Fig. 10(5)] Located at the base of the Tybee Pavilion and Pier, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center is perfectly located to educate the general public on Georgia's valuable natural resources found at the shoreline. A beach walk with one of the center's educators is a great start to a vacation at the beach and helps the curious of all ages understand the natural processes and flora and fauna that share the beach with man. Volunteers pull a seine net through the surf and analyze the contents. The center, open to the public, has a museum with many exhibits and aquariums featuring native species found along Georgia's shore. More than 30,000 people visited the center in 1997.

For more than 10 years, the center has been conducting seinings and beach walks guided by volunteers. The doors of the center opened in 1988, with the City of Tybee and the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service as initial sponsors. In 1990, these two groups were joined by the Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary office of the NOAA. The City of Tybee Island provides the building, which currently is shared with Tybee's lifeguards, and Gray's Reef funds the aquarium and educational supplies. The Tybee Island Marine Science Foundation was formed in 1990 to give the center more stability and allow for donations from major sponsors and individuals.

The museum holds nine aquariums and a touch tank featuring native species, many of which are brought to the center by Tybee's fishermen. Excellent exhibits will educate both children and adults about sharks, fossils, marine mammals, shells, marine pollution, local reptiles, tropical species, and sea turtles.

The museum has a homemade look to it, but in many ways it is superior to the sleek, expensive aquariums found around the U.S. because it offers hands-on educational activities in the natural setting that is its focus. In other words, you can apply what you learn just steps away from the center, something you can't do at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium exhibit on whales.

The center sees a lot of traffic from school groups, and conducts popular summer programs including Sea Camp, a summer camp for children ages 3–12; Tuesdays at Tybee, a free guest lecture series held at the pavilion; and beach walks. The center also conducts teacher workshops and group programs for organizations such as the Girl Scouts.

Due to the success of the center, the Tybee Island marine Science Center has gone through a number of changes in the past few years including extensive improvements with new staff, building renovations, exhibit expansion, and more. For more information visit their web site at http://www.tybeemsc.org.

Lodging on Tybee Island's South Beach

The South Beach area of Tybee Island has the greatest selection of motels, B&Bs, and condos for rent.

Motels: Ocean Plaza Beach Resort. 15th Street and Strand Avenue. Owned and operated by local developer Harry Spirides, it is the largest (240 rooms) family-oriented motel on the island, offering some rooms with ocean views that are steps away from the beach, kitchenettes, a pool, and suites. The Ocean Plaza is built on the location of the famous Tybee Hotel, the north wing of which is still standing and in use as a conference center located near the pool. The current motel is built on the old front lawn of the Tybee Hotel. Notice the palm-lined road, the historic center walkway to the beach. Spirides plans to build a $2 million glass-fronted beach view restaurant that will be the largest restaurant on the island and one of its tallest commercial structures. Moderate. (912) 786-7777. Days Inn. 1402 Butler Avenue. This is the first ever in the popular chain of inexpensive motels. Recently renovated and not far from the beach. Moderate. (800) 325-2525.
Best Western Dunes Inn. 1409 Butler Avenue. A family-oriented motel, with private balconies, beach access, kitchenettes and jacuzzi rooms. Moderate. (912) 786-4591.

B&Bs: See Hunter House

Rental Properties: South Beach Ocean Condos. Strand Avenue and 17th Street. New condos with porches, some overlooking the beach, others just a few steps away, are available by the week or month. Units have 1, 2 and 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. Well equipped and well located in the South Beach area. Moderate. (800) 565-0107. Other options in area are available by calling the Tybee Island Visitors Center. (800) 868-(912) 2322.

Restaurants on Tybee Island's South Beach

There aren't a lot of choices, but the offerings run the gamut from hamburger grills to chicken-finger honky-tonks to fine dining. (See also Night Life on Tybee's South Beach)

Breakfast Club. 1500 Butler Avenue. A Tybee legend, the "World Famous" Breakfast Club is the best place for breakfast on Tybee, if not the entire southeastern coast. Owned by chef Jodee Sadowsky, locals and tourists alike frequent the popular restaurant at the corner of 15th Street and Butler Avenue. Famous for its omelets, waffles, Polish sausage, and hot coffee, the Breakfast Club features excellent service and a restaurant policy that calls for your order to be served as soon as it's ready. No cold eggs here. Sadowsky was hired to cook for the John F. Kennedy Jr. wedding on Cumberland Island. The decor is trés Chicago, with signed photos of former Cubs manager Don Zimmer and shortstop Ernie Banks. Try the Grill Cleaner's Special, a yummy concoction of diced potatoes, Polish sausage, peppers and onions, two scrambled eggs, and jack and American cheese. Open 7 days a week, 6 a.m.–1 p.m. Inexpensive. (912) 786-5984.

The Hunter House. 1701 Butler Avenue. Fine dining in a 1910 summer cottage. A 10-year-old B&B with four rooms and more planned for the back, the Hunter House is more famous for its dinner specials than its lodging. John Hunter prepares a short list of specials each night, but whatever you choose, it promises to be very good. Reservations recommended. Moderate. (912) 786-7515.

Marlin Marina Bar and Grille. 1315 Chatham Avenue. This Back River marina and restaurant is a great place to look at some boats, eat some shrimp, nurse a cold drink, and watch the sun set. Occasionally live music is featured. Moderate. (912) 786-7508.

Night Life on Tybee's South Beach

Some of South Beach's eating establishments double as nightspots, sometimes with live music. You have several honky-tonks to choose from:

Doc's. 16th Street (Tybrisa Street). The longest continually operating bar on the island, Doc's has been serving drinks since 1948. Doc's is to Tybee what the original Sloppy Joe's was to Key West. Here you will hear many "True Tybee Tales" and meet many of the people who make Tybee an interesting community. A centrally placed bumper pool table has witnessed many an epic battle. (912) 786-5268. Spanky's. Strand Avenue. Spanky's moved from its rowdy DeSoto Motel location to near the pier, where it offers bar food staples such as chicken fingers and nachos. A deck overlooks the ocean. (912) 786-5520. Fanny's. 1613 Strand Avenue. A new deck on top of Fanny's gives the margarita and beer crowd a beautiful view of the beach and Atlantic Ocean. Known for its 15 kinds of gourmet pizza. (912) 786-6109.

Camping on Tybee Island

River's End Campground & RV Park. 915 Polk Street. River's End is the only campground on the island, located at the north end of the island only "3 blocks to the Atlantic Ocean." Whether you are carrying a tent or driving an RV, River's End has the full range of amenities you would expect, with 130 campsites, full hookups, pull throughs, water and electricity, fuel, ice, dump station, pool and bathhouse, laundry, store, exercise equipment, picnic tables, and primitive tent sites. (800) 786-1016.

Biking and Kayaking on Tybee Island

Because the island is small, biking is a favorite way to get to know the town. And the beach is hard-packed enough to accommodate a beach or mountain bike cruise down the length of it. Traffic hasn't increased on the island to where you feel unsafe. Bike rentals are available at Pack Rat Bicycle Shop, 1405 Butler Avenue. (912) 786-4013.

An excellent method of experiencing the Georgia coast is under your own steam in a sea kayak. Sea Kayak Georgia is based on Tybee and offers instruction in surfing, navigation, open water rescue, and eskimo rolls. They also offer guided tours with ACA-certified coastal kayak instructors and naturalists. For more information, contact Sea Kayak Georgia at (912) 786-8732.

Fishing, Marinas, and Charters on Tybee Island

Sport fishermen use the Tybee and Back River piers, surf cast from the north and south ends, and book charter boats for deep-sea and inshore fishing trips. Sport crabbers use piers, docks, and bridges. Deep-sea fishing of the Gulf Stream and snapper banks is a longer and more expensive commitment, and focuses on catching snapper, grouper, sea bass, triggerfish, shark, king and Spanish mackerel, barracuda, amberjack, dolphin, wahoo, sailfish, tuna, and marlin. Inshore fishing is less time consuming and expensive, with trout, bass, flounder, sheepshead, tarpon, whiting, and shark as the fisherman's game. Nature tours feature trips to Little Tybee and Wassaw islands and dolphin cruises. These playful, intelligent marine mammals are common in the tidal rivers around Tybee.

Marlin Marina is the only marina located on the island. This is the closest marina to the ocean in Chatham County, found in the Back River area at 1315 Chatham Ave. It has a ramp, dock, hoist, fuel, bait and tackle, and a restaurant. You can book fishing trips and nature cruises to Little Tybee and Wassaw islands and dolphin and bird cruises from here. (912) 786-7508.

Other Tybee Island charter activities occur just off the western side of the island at Chimney and Lazaretto Creeks. At Chimney Creek Fish Camp you will find a ramp, dock, hoist, fuel, bait and tackle. (912) 786-9857. A shrimp fleet docks at Lazaretto Creek Marina located on Tybee Island before crossing the Lazaretto Creek Bridge toward Wilmington Island. Several fishing charters leave from here. Fishing trips and nature cruises can be booked by calling Lazaretto Creek Marina & Dolphin Tours, (800) 242-0166; Palmetto Coast Charters, (912) 786-5403; and Tybee Island Charters, Inc., (912) 786-4801.

Tybee National Wildlife Refuge

[Fig. 9(1)] This 400-acre wildlife refuge was established on May 9, 1938 as a protected breeding area for migratory birds. Located in South Carolina north of the Savannah River shipping channel, above the Georgia state line, the majority of the island is covered with sand deposits from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredging activities. Historically known as Oyster Bed Island, a beacon similar to Cockspur Island Beacon used to be located here to mark the north channel of the river until a storm destroyed it. Today only wild animals use the island, and the public is prohibited from landing on the island or disturbing it in any way.

Salt marsh borders certain areas of the island. Higher and drier portions of the island are densely covered with typical hammock species such as red cedar, wax myrtle, and groundsel. At low tide, the shoreline provides a resting and feeding site for many species of migratory birds, and pelicans, egrets, herons, and gulls are commonly seen here. Willets are recorded as nesting and raising their young here as do American oystercatchers, killdeer, clapper rails, and red-tailed hawks. Some winter visitors include whimbrels, purple and pectoral sandpipers, dunlin, redknots, and northern gannets. Permanent residents include clapper rails, fish crows, and boat-tailed grackles.

Bird watchers should probably pilot their boats toward a different wildlife refuge than Tybee, with this one located so close to heavy shipping traffic and the strong currents of Tybee Roads. Some bird watchers view the island with a telescope from the northern side of Fort Pulaski National Monument.

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