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Georgia Coast Tour

From Forts to Seafood Festivals

Georgia has a shortest length of Atlantic coastline among all the Southern states. Part of a bight that includes the westernmost point of the world’s second-largest ocean, the Georgia coast is a mix of beaches, barrier islands, marshlands, historic forts, mighty ports, and more. We should probably check it out, huh?

Let’s begin about as far south along the Georgia coast as you can get – in Kingsland, right by the Florida-Georgia line (the state demarcation, not the country band). This is where I-95 and U.S. 17 come in from Florida. U.S. 17 is the old line in, and heads right into the heart of town (we recommend this over the Interstate, it’s a better connection to the real town). Kingsland calls its historic district downtown “the Royal District,” primarily along Lee Street between King and William Streets, and be sure to check out the Veterans Memorial just across the railroad tracks; it features statues representing each wing of the military.

Oprah Winfrey set her reality series Lovetown, USA in Kingsland, and the Kingsland Historic Depot – once a stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway’s main rail line up and down the East Coast – reopened in 2012 and features a Lovetown, USA exhibit. The Depot is located along Highway 40 just east of U.S. 17 in the Royal District. The district bustles every Labor Day weekend with the annual Catfish Festival.

Before heading north up the coast, take the quick ride southeast along Georgia Highway 40 to nearby St. Mary’s, which features a graceful old Historic District downtown which abuts the St. Mary’s River (for which the town was named) on the border with Florida. A short ferry ride brings you to Cumberland Island, which includes the Cumberland Island National Seashore.

The Cumberland Island Museum & War of 1812 Exhibit is open Wednesday through Sunday afternoons to showcase the area’s history, from Native American settlement to the Revolutionary War, the “Gilded Age” in the area and beyond, including what was known as the “Forgotten Invasion” during the War of 1812. The island is terrific for birding; the wide white sand beaches, live oaks, and palmetto forests house a variety of wildlife, including – not kidding – wild horses on the beach. Back on the mainland in St. Mary’s, Crooked River State Park features a nature trail winds through forests and a salt marsh. A hike can reveal gopher tortoises, fiddler crabs, herons and other birds while a nature center features many animals native to the Georgia coast, including snakes and turtles.

Nearby is the McIntosh Sugar Mill Tabby Ruins, a thick-walled structure built in the 1820s to accommodate sugar production. Later, it was a starch factory during the Civil War. Self-guided tours can be done any day of the week from 8am-6pm. The downtown stretch focused on Osborne Street, which has plenty of historic buildings under towering Spanish moss trees. A series of churches the Georgia Radio Museum & Hall of Fame, which features original studio and radio equipment dating back to the mid-20th century,

Also around St. Mary’s, right by the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base at the Franklin Gate you’ll find the USS Bancroft Sail Exhibit & Memorial. The Exhibit was built to commemorate 100 years of the U.S. Navy’s Submarine Program, and you can take a self-guided tour any time between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., seven days a week. Submarines are order of the day here: the 5,000 square-foot St. Mary's Submarine Museum is the fifth largest submarine museum in the nation and features all kinds of subs and equipment on display.

The Best Western PLUS Kingsland offers comfortable, convenient accommodations within close proximity of all there is to see and do around Kingsland and southeastern Georgia.

For a little more outdoor recreation, Laurel Island Links is one of the premier golf courses in the region; why not relax with a great round of 18 before heading up the Georgia Coast?

Heading up the coast via I-95 or U.S. 17, plenty of offshoot options exist for uncovering history or accessing the coastline; the main roads along the Georgia coast are generally far inland, given the coast’s barrier islands, marshes, and irregular shoreline.

Head up to the Brunswick area, where you also have access at different points to the “Golden Isles.” These are four barrier islands (St. Simons, Sea, Jekyll, and Little St. Simons) as well as the mainland area of Brunswick, a major port city. St. Simons and Jekyll are included directly on our Tour.

Head towards Brunswick north on U.S. 17 and do a detour right before the Sidney Lanier Bridge (trust us, you can’t miss it) and head over to Jekyll Island. Jekyll is the smallest of Georgia’s barrier islands but has plenty to see; it’s worth the small admission fee to get over the bridge and onto the island.

The Jekyll Island National Historic District grew out of a once-very-exclusive club of wealthy industrialists; the district also features 33 other historic structures, all of which is detailed at the Jekyll Island Museum. Jekyll Island is a golfer’s paradise, offers one of the few public beaches along Georgia’s coast, and holds the fascinating Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which features exhibits on sea turtles as well as tanks and tubs filled with them – and some seem like they’ll even pose for a picture if they notice you.

Trivia: Brunswick and the Golden Isles lie at the westernmost point on the Atlantic seaboard.

Getting back to U.S. 17, head north on the soaring cable-stayed Sidney Lanier Bridge, which carries U.S. 17 high over the Brunswick River and the Port of Brunswick. The Port itself is one of the busiest shipping ports in the U.S., with a particular emphasis on the import and export of automobiles. While a big part of Brunswick’s economy, the area also counts aerospace, seafood, wood and paper processing, and tourism. So in a sense, you’re a big part of Brunswick’s economy.

A few miles after U.S. 17 leapfrogs the Brunswick River and port area, you can angle west on U.S. 25 (which ends here after beginning at Ohio River in Cincinnati) to access Old Town Brunswick National Historic District. A pleasant 19th century-era downtown features art galleries, cafes, shops, and the historic Ritz Theater which began in 1899 and progressed from opera house to vaudeville theatre to movie house before falling into the decline so many theatres suffered once TV took over. Restored by 2011, the Ritz once again hosts shows and performances.

From Old Town Brunswick, head back to U.S. 17 and use the Torras Causeway to connect to St. Simons Island, the largest of the Golden Isles. Historically, the island has served as the military headquarters of the Province of Georgia during the Colonial period. Fort Frederica was constructed between 1736 and 1748 to defend Georgia from Spanish raids, since Florida to the south was a colony of Spain at the time. The fort helped create a town of 500 residents named Frederica.

Fort Frederica National Monument protects what remains of the fort and town – which is only a little bit – but it’s also a beautiful grounds filled with live oaks, orange, and pecan trees. On the other side you’ll find the Maritime Center at Historic Coast Guard Station and the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum, one of two lighthouses on our Tour. The 104-foot-tall lighthouse on St. Simons was built in 1872, replacing the 1810 original. Long a favorite for artists and photographers (and ship captains, since it’s a handy guide to not wrecking on the shore), the lighthouse can be toured, including the innkeeper’s quarters and the stairs to the top.

The museum, also called the A.W. Jones Heritage Center, features a ton of information about the area’s history, including the supposed haunting of the lighthouse by a former innkeeper killed in a duel in 1880. Nearby Neptune Park offers a lovely vantage point of the lighthouse from the pier. Other points of historical interest on the island include Gascoigne Bluff, which you approach on the causeway, and the Bloody Marsh Battle Site. Gascoigne was a popular Native American campground and site of a Franciscan monastery. Hamilton Plantation was built on this site and its remains remain, including slave cabins built prior to 1833. They are made of “tabby,” a popular 19th century construction material for the area made up of a lime, water, and crushed oyster shells mix.

The National Park Service maintains the bluff and plantation areas, which you can visit. Further back in history, the Battle of Bloody Marsh took place in 1742 between Spanish and British forces near Gascoigne Bluff, and it was a decisive British victory that helped secure Georgia as a colony. The site is filled with plaques across the marshland that tells the stories of the battle. Today, the battles on the golf course: St. Simons is home of golf’s McGladrey Classic on the PGA Tour on the Seaside Course. St. Simons Island and Sea Island are major golf havens, offering over 250 holes across numerous courses.

Trivia: Lumber from St. Simons Island was used in the construction of the USS Constitution (a.k.a. “Old Ironsides”) in the 1790s and the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1880s.

North of Brunswick along U.S. 17 and close to I-95, the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site offers tours of this handsome rice plantation that lasted until 1913. The antebellum home became a museum in 1973 and features a large collection of items from the plantation as well as personal effects from generations of the family living there.

The Best Western PLUS Brunswick Inn & Suites is conveniently located along I-95 near U.S. 17 at Spur Highway 25 for easy access to Brunswick, the Golden Isles, and all points up and down the Georgia coast.

Heading up U.S. 17 or I-95, plenty more offshoots and sights await. Off Exit 76 of I-95, you can access the Fort Morris State Historic Site. The site showcases the remains of Fort Morris, which dates back to the 1750s and remains one of the few Revolutionary War-era earthwork fortifications left in the U.S. Designed to protect a seaport town that no longer exists (its name was “Sunbury”), it was surrendered to British forces in 1779.

Off Exit 49, you can access Fort King George. Fort King George was Georgia's first colonial British garrison, established in 1721 where the Altamaha River meets the Atlantic and rebuilt six years later after a fire. A museum showcases the fort’s history, and you can view brick ruins from early sawmill operations, a small graveyard, and more.

For a little wildlife, hiking, fishing, and outdoor recreating, the Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is accessible off Exit 67 from I-95, or the connection to South Newport from U.S. 17. The Refuge offers sanctuary for birds and ducks across 2,760 acres of saltwater marsh, grasslands, woods, and farmland. Birders will enjoy this as part of the Colonial Coast Birding Trail. Over 15 miles of paved roads and trails allow people to fully explore the refuge.

One of the few sights to the west of I-95 on our Tour happens when U.S. 17 angles northwest into historic Midway at the crossroads with Georgia Highway 38. Founded in 1752 by Puritans from New England, Midway was a center for the independence movement from Great Britain and attracted attention from British troops more than a few times. A church built by the Puritans in 1752 was burned during the Revolutionary War; it was rebuilt in 1792 and still stands.

The Midway Museum, Georgia’s first colonial museum, features heirloom furnishings, paintings, and artifacts from the 18th and 19th century settlements in the area. Also in Midway, Dorchester Academy National Historic Site & Museum began as a boys’ dormitory in 1935 and played a big role with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Citizen Education Program, influencing the civil rights movement. It became a National Historic Landmark in 2006. Next door is Hinesville, the gateway to Fort Stewart and the 3rd Infantry Division, the largest military installation east of the Mississippi River.

Past Midway but also close to Fort Stewart is the southern Savannah suburb of Richmond Hill, a fast-growing Savannah suburb with a strong connection to industrialist Henry Ford. In 1925, Ford established a winter home in what was Ways Station, one of the poorest towns in Georgia. He bought up 85,000 acres, drained swamps, built schools, hospitals, a saw mill, and created jobs in the area on what became known as Ford Farms. To salute him, civic leaders renamed the city Richmond Hill, after his winter home – Henry Ford turned down having the town named directly after him. But you will see “A Henry Ford City” on entrance signs to town. His legacy lives on with the Richmond Hill Museum, the local history museum housed in the kindergarten school Ford built for the community. It’s located on State Highway 144, also known as Ford Avenue (surprise!)

Interstate 95 and U.S. 17 cross once again in Richmond Hill (exit 87 for I-95) and there you’ll find the well-appointed Best Western PLUS Richmond Hill Inn.

Just a little north on U.S. 17 getting into southern Savannah you’ll find Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens at the Historic Bamboo Farm, where you can check out fantastic plants, palms, and other botany-related variety, as well as pick your own berries and even buy bamboo plants, poles, and canes.

Along the Great Ogeechee River you’ll find Fort McAllister State Park, featuring the well-preserved Civil War-era Fort McAllister. It was attacked seven times by Union troops but was not captured until General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” finally proved too much. The park itself is a mixture of live oaks, saltwater marsh, and palm trees. A Civil War museum in the park provides more information on the fort, and nature trails let you explore the lands around it. Richmond Hill also hosts the Great Ogeechee Seafood Festival each fall, which draws crowds, bands including some national acts, and of course plenty of seafood lovers.

Let’s save Savannah for last – and head to the coast again to take one last look at the Atlantic on our Tour. Head south around Savannah, following U.S. 17 to Highway 204/Truman Parkway east and north to U.S. 80, also known as Victory Drive. Head east on U.S. 80 and it takes you to Tybee Island, a beautiful hamlet and popular tourist destination on the northernmost section of the Georgia coast, where the Savannah River meets the Atlantic on the Georgia/South Carolina border.

Union and Confederate forces made note of this strategic location too, and on Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island, Fort Pulaski became a hotly-contested focal point. Started in 1829 to help protect the Port of Savannah, Fort Pulaski was completed in 1847 and was taken by Confederate forces in 1861 when South Carolina seceded from the Union. Union forces re-took Fort Pulaski in 1862 with heavy shelling that managed to breach a fort wall; however, only soldier in each army was injured during the attack. The capture of Fort Pulaski proved pivotal in the War, putting shipping to and from Savannah in control of the Union Army.

Today, the Fort Pulaski National Monument holds the very well-preserved fort, which is ideal for touring, witnessing a Civil War reenactment, or just marveling at. Much of the original construction is in place, including holes and blasted-away areas of brick that were direct results of shelling during battles in the war, the room where Colonel Charles Olmstead surrendered to the Union Army on April 11, 1862, bunks used by soldiers and prisoners, drawbridges, ditches, moats, and more. It’s well worth a visit.

U.S. 80 continues onto Tybee Island, which has been a haven for Savannah residents for centuries and a popular beach and vacation spot for many more in the last several decades. Part sleepy beach town and part party and festival town, Tybee mixes a Georgia and Florida laid-back culture.

Definitely worth a visit, and a climb, is the Tybee Island Lighthouse. The current lighthouse is the fourth constructed on the site; the first lighthouse (though not lit) originally went up in 1736. What we can see and climb the 178 steps up today was started in 1773 as the third lighthouse. The lower sixty feet survived the Civil War, and the decision was made to build upon it to create a 144-foot lighthouse with a Fresnel lens. Through hurricanes, earthquakes, general weathering, and time some replacements of lenses and such had to be made, but the original brick and stairs of the lighthouse remain, as do the outbuildings on the grounds. All are available for self-guided tours and amazing photo opportunities.

The climb to the top reveals a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean, the Savannah River and South Carolina just across, the white sand beaches of Tybee, and even a view back towards Savannah, where the U.S. 17 bridge (the Tallmedge) can be seen leapfrogging the Savannah River about 15 miles away. There’s another, smaller, older lighthouse along the water further down: the 46-foot tall Cockspur Island Lighthouse went up in 1855 and, though being in the direct path of fire during the Battle of Fort Pulaski, suffered very little damage. Its active duty lighthouse days ended in 1909 and became part of the National Park Service in 1958. It can be visited daily and is best accessible by boat or paddleboard tour – at low tide.

Near the pier off 14th Street, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center offers up an aquarium, tours, and a variety of marine life exhibits to get you acquainted with everything underneath the surface of the rivers, ocean, and marshes in the area.

The final stretch of U.S. 80 ends mere blocks from the southern end of the island; a marker recognizes the endpoint and notes the former western origin of U.S. 80 being San Diego, California. Today, U.S. 80 only reaches Dallas, Texas, but you’re still at the endpoint of a major U.S. highway. You’re also at the easternmost point of Georgia. Why not relax? Shop, eat, drink, watch a live band or enjoy the beach for a while. After all, there’s more to come…

From Tybee, head back west on U.S. 80 and follow the Islands Expressway, which becomes President Street towards Savannah. Right off President Street, another piece of military history can be toured in the form of Old Fort Jackson National Historic Landmark, Georgia’s oldest standing brick fort. Very well-maintained, Fort Jackson offers daily cannon firings – kids love it! Other demonstrations and interactions, history lessons, self-guided tours, and guides in period costumes often role-playing can make any day at Fort Jackson interesting. The fort also offers beautiful riverfront views of central Savannah, which is only one mile away.

Speaking of, let’s head into central Savannah, Georgia’s oldest city (1733) and probably its loveliest. True to its age, Savannah is bathed in history. The mesmerizingly beautiful Savannah Historic District comprises much of the downtown area and features over 20 park-like squares scattered throughout. Trolley tours and carriage rides are popular, although walking this district will yield plenty of delights and beautiful buildings, live oak and Spanish moss trees shading the streets, and plenty of shops, restaurants, art galleries, and creative spaces line the streets throughout. Forsyth Park, one of the squares, contains a stunning fountain that dates back to 1858 and Confederate monument dedicated in 1879.

Religious structures include the First African Baptist Church, which dates back to 1773 and also features a museum; Temple Mickve Israel is the third oldest synagogue in the U.S., dating back to 1878 and featuring Gothic architecture; the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the oldest Roman Catholic church in Georgia, just to name a few.

The Arts are huge in Savannah, and artists sketching, painting, or being either delightfully or oddly creative abound in the Historic District. The Telfair Museum of Art is the oldest public art museum in the southern U.S., having opened in 1886 inside the benefactor’s mansion, which is known as the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a National Historic Landmark.

Operated by the Telfair Museum is the Owens-Thomas House, another National Historic Landmark that was built in 1816 on Abercorn Street; it’s considered one of the finest examples of English Regency architecture in America. Tours of the house begin in a carriage house which includes one of the earliest intact slave quarters from the era. The Historic Savannah Theatre is the oldest continually operating theatre in the United States, having been built in 1818. It still hosts live Broadway-style shows year ‘round. The “new” is represented too, with the Jepson Center for the Arts opening nearby in 2006 focusing on contemporary art and performances.

The Port of Savannah is the fourth largest seaport in the United States; with this kind of shipping activity, railroads have long been running in and out of Savannah for a long time. The Roundhouse Railroad Museum on the west end of the Historic District adds history of its own, believed to be the most complete antebellum-era railroad complex in the country.

Basically, it can take several days to take in all the districts, beautiful parks and architectures, and unique shops, restaurants, bars, tree-lined streets, and history Savannah has to offer. It’s worth a few days, at least!

The Best Western PLUS Savannah Historic District is located on Bay Street within blocks of these sights; the Best Western Central Inn and Best Western Savannah Gateway are also conveniently close by as you enjoy one of the nation’s most beautiful cities.

Up for some sports? You can enjoy minor league baseball with the Savannah Sand Gnats, an “A”-affiliate of the New York Mets; they play at historic Grayson Stadium on the east side of Savannah along Victory Drive (U.S. 80) near the bypass we took to get to Tybee Island.

Next to Savannah to the west, and along the border with South Carolina, is Pooler – a fast-growing Savannah suburb with a character all its own. Pooler is where the major crossroads of I-95 and I-16 meet, as well as U.S. 80 and GA highway 21, which heads northwest. Pooler began as Pooler’s Station, the last train stop before Savannah during the Civil War. That’s probably why General Sherman stopped in Pooler’s Station to negotiate with Savannah’s authorities for the peaceful surrender of that city.

The Mighty 8th Air Force Museum is a popular and highly-regarded draw in Pooler, a western suburb of Savannah. Originally established in 1942 as the Eighth Bomber Command in Savannah, the Eighth Air Force (8 AF) played a major role in the air campaigns leading to Allied victory in World War II, as well as key battles in conflicts since. More than 41,000 active-duty, Air National Guard, and Reserve professional remain part of the Eighth Air Force; though headquartered today out of Barksdale AFB in Louisiana, its origins lie here.

Through exhibits, artifacts, and archives, this museum chronicles the experiences of the Eighth Air Force. Planes that can be viewed include a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, a P-51 Mustang fighter, a B-47, an F-4 Phantom II, a MiG-17, and more. Up for some speed on land? Race fans can enjoy Oglethorpe Speedway Park, a .5-mile clay oval track hosting races every weekend in season. There’s truly something for everyone in the Savannah area.

The Best Western PLUS Savannah Airport Inn & Suites is right along I-95 in Pooler with convenient access to Savannah’s airport, Hilton Head across the border, and any of the roads heading west or northwest through Georgia.

So there it is: the shortest Atlantic coastline of any Southern state. But there was plenty to see and do, wasn’t there? Enjoy the Georgia coast and your stay at any of the Best Western hotels along the way!