Sapelo Island, Georgia: Finding Treasure on the Secret Coast

Visitors make their escape to Sapelo Island, GA on a boat from Meridian — a port town between Savannah and St. Simons Island along I-95.

Leave the modern world, and all your cares on the dock when you board the Sapelo Island Ferry, and let the wind take them into the miles of marshland you pass, to be washed out to sea with the next tide.

Wondering, where in the world is Sapelo Island, Georgia? You aren’t alone. This remote barrier island of Georgia welcomes day visitors, as well as a few overnight guests, but is mostly undeveloped. There is a small population of about 70 residents that live in a community called Hog Hammock, and the University of Georgia manages UGAMI, a Marine Institute on the island, but other than that, it is left for the shore birds and native wildlife. A perfect place to escape.

Here’s everything you need to know about Sapelo Island.

SAPELO ISLAND, GEORGIA: FINDING TREASURE ON THE SECRET COAST

SAPELO ISLAND

Sapelo Island is a state-protected barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Ninety-seven percent of the island is owned by the state of Georgia, and the rest is under private ownership.

The western perimeter of Sapelo is the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, which is part of NOAA’s National Estuarine Research Reserve system. The University of Georgia Marine Institute, which is focused on research and education, is located on 1,500 acres on the south end of the island.

Reynolds Mansion, a Georgia State Park, also lies on the south end of the island. Visitors to the island must be a part of an organized tour or guests of residents on the island.

Guided tours highlight the African-American community of Hog Hammock, Reynolds Mansion, Nanny Goat Beach, University of Georgia Marine Institute and a restored 1820 lighthouse.

HISTORY OF SAPELO ISLAND

Humans first inhabited Sapelo Island 4,500 years ago. Native Americans are believed to have inhabited Sapelo, and the name itself has Indian origins.

Spanish missionaries also called this island home from 1573 to 1686. A Spanish mission was once on the island — near a unique ceremonial mound on the north end known as the Native American Shell Ring. The Native American Shell Ring is one of the most unique features on the Georgia Coast.

Private owners then called the island their own, eventually leading to one majority owner, Thomas Spalding. Spalding owned most of the island by 1843, and he’s the one who introduced the cultivation of sugar cane, and eventually had a plantation empire. He and his family had 385 slaves during this time.

The Civil War ended the plantation economy and Sapelo became the home to a large African-American community during the Reconstruction and postbellum periods. 

There were other owners in later years, like Richard J. Reynolds, Jr. His widow eventually sold Sapelo Island to the State of Georgia in two transactions, in 1969 and 1976.

VISIT SAPELO ISLAND

Although visitors won’t run into many people, what they will find are unspoiled beaches, dense maritime forests, miles of undisturbed salt-marsh land, a mansion from a by-gone era, and a community of slave decedents preserving an almost forgotten culture.

There is only one way to get to Sapelo Island. Take the Sapelo Island Ferry in Meridian, GA. To take the ferry, make reservations in advance, there are a limited number of spots, and they can fill up. You may even want to stay in Darien the night before.

Arrive early for the ferry, and plan to spend a little time at the Sapelo Island Visitor’s Center learning about the island and the Geechee Island people that live there, or take a walk through the Maritime Forest Nature Trail — it’s an easy 1.1 mile loop.

The ferry ride to the island is 30 minutes long.

Just a note about planning your Sapelo Island trip. Although it is one island, there are several different groups that manage pieces of the island. The Sapelo Island Ferry, as well as day tours, are run through the Georgia Department of Natural Resources – Wildlife Resources Division. Group reservations for Reynolds Mansion or Cabretta group campground are made through Georgia Department of Natural Resources – Georgia State Parks.

Read More: THE GEORGIA COAST: 47 AMAZING THINGS TO DO ON AND NEAR THE BARRIER ISLANDS

THE GULLAH-GEECHEE OF SAPELO ISLAND

Georgia is part of the Gullah Geechee corridor that runs from Florida, through Georgia and the Carolinas. Brought to Georgia as slaves, the Gullah Geechee were from West Africa. Once in the states, many retained their African heritage even amid lives in bondage.

The 70 ish people that live in the Hog Hammock community on Sapelo are descendants of the Geechee. The name Geechee (or Gullah as they are called in South Carolina) was originally the term for their version of English, but has since become an ethnic identity.

If you want to know more about the Gullah Geechee, take one of the Sapelo Island tours with Cornelia Walker Bailey. Ms Bailey was born and raised on the island and has been active in preserving the Geechee island culture.

THINGS TO DO ON SAPELO ISLAND

RJ REYNOLDS MANSION

The Georgia coast was once home to Sea Island cotton plantations. Once that era died, those plantations were replaced by gorgeous homes of America’s wealthiest tycoons. The decedents of slaves that once worked the cotton fields, now managed these estates.

Jekyll Island has the Millionaire’s Club. Cumberland Island was a retreat for the Carnegies, and Richard Reynolds, the tobacco heir, lived in a mansion on Sapelo Island.

Groups can stay in the period-decorated Reynolds Mansion, which has 13 bedrooms and 11 baths, as well as a bowling alley (if you ask nicely, they may even let your group of overnight guests play a game). You’ll also find a film room and circus-themed children’s playroom.

SAPELO ISLAND TOURS

The best way to get a feel for Sapelo Island is through a tour. Whether your interest is history or nature, there is a tour that will fit the bill, but as with everything on Sapelo Island, you’ll want to plan ahead of time.

Public day tours and Group Tours are offered by the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve and the state of Georgia. Currently, regular tours are held on Wednesdays (8:30am – 12:30pm) and Saturdays (9:00am – 1:00pm). The cost for a Sapelo Island tour is $15 for adults 13+, $10 for kids 6-12 and it’s free for children 5 and under. Cash and checks are accepted. The tours meet at the Sapelo Island Visitors Center in Darien.

The tours can be booked by calling: (912) 437-3224.

In addition to Cornelia Bailey’s Geechee tours, JR Grovner, also a direct descendent of slaves brought to work the plantation, gives a comprehensive tour that includes Sapelo Island history, as well as points of interest.

SAPELO ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE

The Sapelo Island Lighthouse has big bright stripes all the way up. The best way to learn about the lighthouse is on one of the Sapelo Island Tours. If you have a vehicle, you can visit on your own, but it’s a bit of a hike on foot, so you’ll want some form of transportation.

CHOCOLATE PLANTATION RUINS

This was not actually a place where chocolate was made, the plantation got it’s name from a Guale Indian village on the island of Chucalate. 

Visitors to the ruins must be escorted by a private land owner or a state employee, so if you’d like to see the Chocolate Ruins, be sure to schedule a tour.

BEACH AND MARSH WALKS

Make sure to visit both Nanny Goat Beach and the Cabretta Campground beach on Sapelo Island. Both show off the beauty of the undeveloped coastlines, and both are a great place to go shelling.

The grey, wind-withered trees dot the landscape, making it an especially beautiful site.

HOG HAMMOCK COMMUNITY

Leave some time at Sapelo to explore the Gullah community of Hog Hammock. Get a soda or ice cream sandwich from the Country Store. Don’t make any promises to the kids though — sometimes Country Store is open, and sometimes it’s not.

EAT AT LULA’S

The only restaurant on Sapelo Island is Lula’s. Lula of Lula’s Kitchen opens her restaurant for groups of 10 or more that call ahead.

Are you catching the theme here? Whatever you want to do, eat, or see on Sapelo Island, make sure to plan ahead.

SAPELO ISLAND LODGING

There are no hotels or resorts on Sapelo Island, which is one reason why it’s such a joy to visit. If you’d like to stay overnight, there are a couple of options. Groups can book the Reynolds Mansion Sapelo Island or there is also Sapelo Island camping at the Cabretta Campground. Both group options are managed by the Georgia State Park Service.

There are also private Sapelo Island rentals through companies like VRBO and Home Away. Sapelo Island Birdhouses is a local rental company, although I have not used them. If you are renting, be sure a vehicle comes with the rental. The island is large and walking or biking anywhere will take a long time.

DARIEN

Darien isn’t just a place to catch the ferry to Sapelo Island — it’s a fun little destination in and of itself. 

Skippers’ Fish Camp is a great place to eat before you catch the ferry, and then again when you get off. The shrimp boats are docked within eyesight of the restaurant and they have some of the best fried shrimp anywhere (and the fired okra came highly recommended too). If you can, visit Darien in April during the Blessing of the Fleet, a unique coastal festival that’s worth a visit.

Another favorite field trip for my boys is Fort King George State Historic Site, which is located in Darien. You’ll want a couple of hours here, or more if your kids get into playing with the wooden guns in the replica fort.

Read More: EXPLORING FORT KING GEORGE HISTORICAL SITE

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO GEORGIA

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Sapelo Island, Georgia: Finding Treasure on the Secret Coast