Off the Beaten Path on Tybee Island

Forgo the crowded beach tourist spots on Tybee Island for an up close and personal view of this historic coastal town.

Written by Nancy Meeks

Located 20 miles due east of downtown Savannah, Tybee Island is one of only four of Georgia’s many barrier islands that are accessible by automobile. Once you cross the bridge over Lazaretto Creek, you are officially on the island and, as the locals say, “on Tybee time.”

Slow down as you cross the bridge because you don’t want to miss the turn to the right at the end of the bridge for Tybee Island Marina. Located on the shores of Lazaretto Creek, it’s an ideal spot for beginning your time on Tybee. The Savannah River feeds into the creek right at the marina, and for centuries, this was a major entrance point for cargo and passenger ships into the area. The word “lazaretto” is derived from an Italian phrase meaning “hospital for the contagious,” and people who were sick or carrying diseases would be quarantined here and not allowed to continue through the waterway and into Savannah. These days it’s home to fishing and shrimping boats, dolphin cruises, and kayaking and paddle boarding.

sunset over Lazaretto Creek, Tybee Island, Georgia
Photo courtesy of Coco’s Sunset Grille

For beautiful views of the creek and river at the marina, head to Coco’s Sunset Grille.

Every day at sunset at the bar inside the restaurant, owner Tracy McMahon marks the occasion by blowing on a conch horn, raising a toast, and kicking off an evening of fun. Start your meal with a hand-blended CocoTail cocktail and an appetizer of chilled Shem Creek Crab Dip or seared tuna that’s served with a sweet and spicy chile sauce.

grilled shrimp and scallops with angel hair pasta at Coco's Sunset Grille, Tybee Island, Georgia

Fresh shrimp is abundant in the area, and Coco’s makes delicious use of it in two of its most popular dishes, shrimp cakes served with a creamy chipotle sauce and seared shrimp and scallops over angel hair pasta with tomatoes, basil, and wine–butter sauce. Save room for one of the most original desserts you’ll find on the island, Fried Strawberries, which are frozen strawberries dipped in pancake batter, deep fried, dusted with cinnamon sugar, and served with fresh strawberry sauce.

At just 3.2 square miles, Tybee can be explored easily and leisurely during the day.

Fort Pulaski in Tybee Island, Georgia
Photo courtesy of Visit Tybee/Geoff L. Johnson

Put on your walking shoes or rent a bicycle from one of the many shops all over the island, and plot a path of discovery. At the western side of the island is Fort Pulaski National Monument. Named for a general who fought alongside George Washington during the Revolutionary War, the fort was a Confederate stronghold during the Civil War until Union forces overtook it with rifled canons. It was used as a prison during the winter of 1864, holding more than 500 Confederate soldiers. The fort is open daily for tours and canon firings and features four walking and biking trails, picnic areas, and a monument to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who landed in the area in 1736.

Head to the north end of the island to explore the Tybee Island Light Station.

Tybee Island Light Station, Tybee Island, Georgia

Upon founding the colony of Georgia in 1733, General James Oglethorpe ordered the construction of a day mark—a lighthouse without a light—to serve as a navigation guide through the channels of the Savannah River. The first true lighthouse was built in 1736 and stood at 90 feet, the tallest of its kind in the colonies at that time. Over the centuries, the lighthouse was replaced several times with an increasingly larger and further-inland structure. After the Civil War, a vertical addition was added to the existing structure, resulting in the 144-foot-tall lighthouse that stands today. The light station’s museum is located in what used to be Fort Screven, which served as an important military post during the Spanish–American War in the late 1890s and again during the world wars. The museum is open six days a week, and tours of the light station grounds are self guided. You can also walk up the 178 steps inside the lighthouse for gorgeous views from the observation deck.

Take a break from sightseeing and stop in to the North Beach Bar and Grill, located between the light station and the beach.

crab cakes at North Beach Bar and Grill, Tybee Island, Georgia
Photo courtesy of North Beach Bar and Grill

North Beach serves burgers, hot dogs, and plenty of good, casual food, but the stars of the menu are its seafood dishes and other entrées that have a distinct Caribbean influence. Crab cakes are one of North Beach’s most popular items, which are served with tropical fruit-accented red beans and rice and sautéed vegetables dusted with a smoky–sweet spice blend. Jamaican flavors and ingredients are featured in the spicy jerk chicken and pork, as well as the whole fried fish escovitch topped with a vinegary olive, pepper, and onion sauce, and Cuban cuisine is represented with ropa vieja, a flank steak, pepper, onion, and tomato pot roast that’s served with rice and plantains. For its Sunday brunch, North Beach offers refined breakfast favorites including shrimp with peppers, onions, and chorizo in a sherry cream sauce paired with Gorgonzola grits and smoked salmon or crab and asparagus eggs benedict on challah toast drizzled with chive hollandaise.

Trade your walking shoes for flip-flops and hop on board a riverboat for an unforgettable tour of the island with Sundial Charters.

starfish caught on trip with Sundial Charters, Tybee Island, Georgia
Photo courtesy of Sundial Charters

Captain Rene Heidt and her husband, David, specialize in getting up close and personal with the native flora and fauna. Rene grew up in Savannah, and her fisherman father taught her all about the area and navigating its ever-changing waterways as the tides come in and out. Always accompanied by her dog, Fiddler, named after the fiddler crabs that are abundant in salt marshes, Rene skillfully weaves the boat in and out of river grass beds while pointing out yellow prickly pear cacti blooms, a bald eagle’s nest, piping plovers, jellyfish, fossilized shark teeth, sand dollars, and countless other sites of interest high and low. Dolphins swimming alongside the boat are not uncommon. Rene is also a talented painter, and her pieces, which reflect her love of nature and her surroundings, are on display in The Robinson Gallery on Tybee.

Return to dry land for some R & R at the Tybee Island Social Club.

Tybee Island Social Club, Tybee Island, Georgia
Photo by William Dickey

Chorizo sausage dogs, fish tacos, crab stew, burgers, and more are served up at this casual joint with a fun beach-bum vibe. Enjoy your meal with a side of live music most nights of the week, as well as a Sunday Bluegrass Brunch. In addition to the Social Club, spouses Kurtis and Sarah Schumm also own and operate two other local eateries: Tybee Island Fish Camp, a fine-dining restaurant housed in a 1950s cottage shaded by oak trees, and Bo Bien Hut, an Asian-inspired take-out and delivery place serving up stir-frys, dumplings, rice and noodle dishes, sushi, salads, soups, and more.

This content was originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Cooking with Paula Deen magazine. ©2016 Hoffman Media