I approached the island at high tide. Water lapped at the edge of the roadside, following a narrow six-mile strip of land showcasing an untouched part of Georgia’s low country. The shadow from a Civil War-era lighthouse —abandoned and surrounded by water on the south channel of the Savannah River — pointed towards the Atlantic Ocean as I crossed one final bridge underneath the mid-morning sun.
My car hit solid ground on the island and I passed the welcome sign, only this one had a twist: “Welcome Back!” it said, not “Welcome to...”. Repeat visitors were assumed.
Twenty miles east of historic Savannah, Tybee Island rests between the prominent barrier islands of Hilton Head and the Golden Isles of Georgia. For those who can pull away from the 18th century colonial homes and clatter of horse-drawn carriages, all enveloped under Savannah’s timeless Spanish moss, the city’s closest beachfront destination paints a striking contrast to many of its peers in the southeast.
Lacking all inclusive resorts or even a name-brand hotel, a lost 7,000-pound nuclear bomb serves as Tybee’s only claim to fame. Dropped after two Air Force jets collided in 1958, the bombs lays dormant off the coastline, undiscovered, much like the island itself.
The speed limit dropped to a crawl as I rounded the last remaining curve of Butler Avenue, the island’s only street with stoplights. The rest of the slow-moving avenue — a straight shot to the other end of Tybee’s two-mile coastline — offered a collection of low-rise condos, storefronts, and independent hotels. Opposite the waterfront, a YMCA, public library, and small private school gave the island a sense of community. The only grocery store: a local IGA. The island exuded a bygone era of quiet small-town beachfront locales.
I parked towards the southern end of the island and made my way to Tybee’s pier, which extends into the Atlantic and offers views of Little Tybee Island to the south: a 7,000 acre, marsh-laden haven to endangered bird species, easily accessible by kayak. The beach along both sides of the pier was mostly empty of people, yet wide enough to accommodate a game of football or soccer.
Anticipating the sight of Tybee’s notable landmarks, I made the journey to the island’s north end by foot and was pleasantly surprised to find wooden swings nestled amongst the sand dunes dotting the coastline. Fort Screven stood overlooking the Atlantic as I neared the northeastern corner of the island. The massive structure once served as an important seacoast defense in the early to mid 20th century and has since been turned into a restaurant, along with a number of private residences dug into the stonework.
Only seven miles as the crow flies, the outline of South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island was visible in the distance. Cargo ships making their way to Savannah’s port also dotted the horizon.
The nearby Tybee Island Lighthouse was set back from the water and surrounded by a white picket fence dropped out of 1950s suburbia. A large house and smaller buildings were also on the 250-year-old grounds, which looked more like an ocean estate than a guiding light to mariners at sea. The 178-step lighthouse has been through several renovations in years past and was in pristine condition — a stark contrast to Fort Screven.
Faced with a few miles to my car and a quickly-setting sun, I opted to rent a bike from one of the various shops offering everything from golf carts to tandem bikes. My one-speed ocean cruiser made quick work of the sandy path and the lighthouse quickly faded away into the background, along with my brief time on the island.
I gathered my things and started the trip back to Savannah. Nearing the bridge, I caught a glimpse of Tybee’s “Welcome Back!” sign in my rearview mirror. It now made perfect sense.
Matt Milloway is a freelance writer and historian. He travels obsessively, packs lightly and knows enough Spanish for party tricks. His writing has appeared in The Miami Herald and magazines including Next American City and Verge Magazine. You can see more of his writing and photographs at www.mattmilloway.com.