Tybee Island, Georgia: America's Best Kept Secret


Watching the sun set on Tybee Island is the official way to transition from lazy days on the beach to dinner and drinks. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

By Cathy Bennett Kopf/The Open Suitcase

She grabbed my hand and pumped it like a well handle. “I saw you!” she shrieked. “I saw you walking past my house!” I politely inquired about the location, which happened to be along the route I’d biked earlier in the day. Jill Ferree is a local Tybee artist and the proud mom of one of the owners of the Tybee Island Social Club, where we were both settling in for a fun night of bar games with various locals and vacationers. We chatted for a bit about our kids and New York and the island, until the emcee took the mike and started explaining the rules of Blues and Bingo, which was about to begin. She handed me one of her cards and wished me a good night. To quote Yeats, on Tybee Island, there are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.

One of Georgia’s four developed barrier islands (the others are St. Simons, Jekyll, and Sea Island), Tybee is three square miles with a year-round population under 3,000. It became a resort community after the Civil War but also hosted an active military installation on the north end until 1947. It’s a popular second-home community for Georgians because of the relatively short drive time (a half hour to Savannah; 4 ½ hours to Atlanta), and it’s also an excellent escape for those of who live a little farther away. The community feeling and the laid-back vibe make it one of the most relaxing islands I’ve ever been on. And that’s saying a lot. Leave your white linen and bedazzled sandals at home. On Tybee, you’ll be more comfortable kicking back in flip-flops and a T-shirt that barely passes the sniff test.


Everyone’s friendly on Tybee. Even the birds. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

Where to Stay

The island’s petite dimensions have limited development; there are no modern mega resorts or golf courses. And that’s a good thing. Hotels are clustered along 1st Avenue, the ocean-side main drag. None remain from the island’s heyday as a getaway for Savannahians who took the Central Georgia train to the island. What you’ll find now are serviceable, motor inn–style lodgings, like the Desoto Beach Hotel. There are a number of bed and breakfasts to choose from, including the dramatic Surf Song, located on Officer’s Row in the Fort Screven section of the island. I decided to live like the locals and rented a beach cottage. There are several excellent rental companies to choose from; I used Mermaid Cottages, one of the newer agencies. They have properties designed by Jane Coslick; her work is charming, colorful, and retro, perfectly suited to the island’s vibe.


This sleeping porch is the perfect spot for an afternoon nap after a day at the beach. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

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Things to Do

Take a stroll: After settling in, I headed out for a walk on the beach. My cottage was located in the former Fort Screven area on the north end of the island. The streets are quiet and lined with bungalows, some restored to perfection and others in need of a little love. Quaint road markers in the shape of sea turtles direct pedestrians to local landmarks so it’s easy to get acclimated.

Climb to the top of the historic Tybee Lighthouse: Originally built by Savannah’s founder James Oglethorpe in 1732, the lighthouse has survived fires and other mayhem and continues to operate today. You can climb the 178 steps to the top and also pop into the Lighthouse Keeper’s House. Admission to the lighthouse also includes entry to the Tybee Museum, located in the squat concrete structures known as Battery Garland across the parking lot. Several displays trace the history of the island and its many incarnations: native American hunting grounds, pirate hideout, quarantine center for slaves, Civil War battle site, resort destination. It’s worth a stop. But you’ll wonder, as I did, why a tourist island hasn’t removed these massive, ugly concrete structures that block the ocean view.

Ride a bike: The island is flat with wide, tree-lined streets. Daily rentals at Fat Tire Bikes start at $12. Cruise by some of the locations for the filmed adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’ The Last Song, including the Tybee Wedding Chapel and North Beach Grill.


The historic Tybee Lighthouse. The view is worth the climb. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

Where to Shop

Owned by a collective of women, including the author Mary Kay Andrews, Seaside Sisters offers a thoughtfully curated assortment of beach-themed housewares, jewelry, and other decorative items. It’s a lovely shop, and everything in it reinforces that laid-back idea of Tybee time – picture a clock with no hands.

A short walk from Seaside Sisters is the delightful Fish Art Gallery, a dizzying collection of “junque”. Pay the requested dollar and take some photos.

Tybee’s main drag includes a bunch of schlocky souvenir shops but stop in T.S. Chu’s, an old-fashioned five-and-dime. “If it’s something you use, you’ll find it at Chu’s” is the store’s motto. It sells everything, from lightbulbs and plungers to hand-painted coconuts.

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Looking for a trippy shopping experience? The Fish Art Gallery will astound and amaze. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

Where to Eat

Don’t miss the World Famous Tybee Breakfast Club. The line forms early, but moves quickly. If you can, sit at the counter and watch the professionals in action at the griddle. When a plate’s ready for serving, they ring a triangle dinner bell. Try the low country omelette: shrimp, sausage, diced potatoes, onions, and jack cheese, with toast and a side of grits. I wasn’t hungry until the next day.

My Mermaid Cottage concierge recommended Sundae Cafe for dinner. It was located in the kind of strip mall where nothing good happens, so I was a bit dubious. However, the interior was elegant and my dining companions at the bar were friendly and highly recommended the sweet and spicy pistachio crusted tuna for dinner. Desserts are homemade so I couldn’t pass up a slice of peanut butter pie.

For a down-and-dirty seafood feast, go to The Crab Shack. Situated on Lazaretto Creek, the restaurant is one of the largest on the island. I ordered a Sangria of the South (sweet tea) and a pile of blue crabs; my waitress gave me detailed instructions on how to open them. They keep gators on the property which can be entertaining or terrifying, depending on your disposition.


You just need your hands, a pitcher of beer, and a roll of paper towels to really enjoy a blue crab feast. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

Where to Drink

Welcome the evening at A-J’s Dockside Restaurant. Bring your camera to catch some beautiful sunset photos.

The Tybee Island Social Club is a casually elegant bar/restaurant offering regular evening entertainment. I thought there’d be singing at Blues and Bingo, but a guitar duo played simple blues riffs while the laconic emcee drolly rolled out the numbers: “The winner of straight line bingo gets two PBRs…da da da da….B-5…that’s B-5.” It was a fun night.

The locals hang out at Huca Poo’s. The night I was there, they were hosting a screening of a documentary Bag It, because some of the residents are seeking a ban on plastic shopping bags because they pose a significant risk to the island’s marine life. Everyone gathered around the big screen on the deck, sharing pizzas and pitchers.

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You can sip a crafted cocktail at the Social Club but a cold PBR is just as good. (Photo: The Open Suitcase)

Enjoying Tybee after dark is fun and safe thanks to the inexpensive Island Hopper. This golf-cart transportation service runs all day and late into the night and charges $3 each way, per person for a ride. You can hail them on the street or call for a pickup.

As you can probably tell from the buggy shuttle, the bar bingo, and the small-town friendliness, Tybee is not an upscale fancy-pants island vacation spot. In fact, there is nothing high-end or glitzy about this particular island. And that is exactly its appeal. On Tybee, the pampering comes from friendly smiles and down-home dinners. This is the island you escape to when you need a comfortable place to put up your feet, read a paperback, and wash down the catch-of-the day with some cold beer. And at the end of the summer, we all need a little of that.

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