Georgia is the nature coast; it is the least developed shoreline along the East Coast. You don't come to Georgia for surfing because the waves are always small except during stormy conditions. The continental shelf, which is relatively shallow water before the ocean bottom drops off into abyssal depths, extends for almost 400 miles offshore here, more than twice the average along the East Coast. This very wide shelf tends to cause the bigger waves to break far offshore. The fine sand results in flat beaches and gentle nearshore areas which further knock down the waves to little more than big ripples. While waves are small, the tides are the largest south of the Gulf of Maine. The spring tides, which occur on full and new moons, can exceed seven feet in vertical range, which means a tremendous lateral sweep of the water on a gently sloping beach face. These exceedingly large tides are caused by the wide continental shelf and the shoreline configuration that geologists call the "Georgia Bight." Georgia's coast is indented relative to the protruding Carolinas and Florida, so that as the tide approaches this bight from offshore, the ocean water is funneled, bunching up and rising higher (conservation of mass - the water has got to go somewhere making the tides larger here). The big tides mean that currents are particularly swift at inlets and other water flow constrictions, and swimming should never be contemplated near the ends of islands.
Savannah is Georgia's number one and only major coastal city - and a grand one indeed. This historic city developed in the 18th century, and today there is a 221/2 mile historic district with over 1,200 restored historic structures, which is ideal for exploring on foot along the oak-shaded streets trimmed with Spanish moss. Cobblestone streets lead to the Savannah riverfront, and you can see the bench made famous in the movie "Forrest Gump" at the Savannah History Museum. Savannah was not as well known as the southern port cities of Charleston and New Orleans until the book "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" by John Berendt, which takes place in the city, made the best-seller list. While Savannah has always been known for its fantastic Southern cooking and hospitality in an enchanting environment, the book elevated the fame and popularity of the city. In similar fashion, the popular TV show "Miami Vice" caused a renaissance in Miami's real estate a decade ago by attracting the attention of the "rich and famous" and other people of means to the area.
Tybee Island is Savannah's beach, but this shore is plagued by erosion problems and the water is murky due to the convergence of the muddy river water with the ocean. The currents are also quite strong, especially during spring tides. The saving grace is the huge number of sand dollars that can be picked up on the lower beach face during low tide. For those looking for cheap beer and loud music, then you have found nirvana at Tybee; all others should enjoy Savannah and skip the beach. People have long come to Tybee Island for the ocean breezes that keep the island cooler than the steamy mainland. Also, the beneficial properties of the salty air have been appreciated for generations by hay fever and asthma suffers as there is no pollen in the inland blowing sea breezes.
St. Simons is one of the famed Sea Islands or "Golden Isles of Georgia" as locally called. For those travelers familiar with more northern beaches, you have to be impressed by the luxurious vegetation that grows almost to the water's edge. The old live oak trees (that do not shed their leaves in winter) are draped with Spanish moss and tower over a variety of understory, subtropical shrubs. St. Simons is a year-round residential and resort area which boasts luxurious accommodations at the internationally renowned Cloister Hotel. St. Simons and Little St. Simons Islands, whose beach is a seven-mile long beauty, are the favorite shores of former President Jimmy Carter.
Jekyll Island is another Sea Island with a "rich" history; its "club" was established on the island in 1886 by the captains of industry, including such luminaries as Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, and Goodyear. Their castles and the club were sold to the state of Georgia shortly after World War II, and now the almost 11 miles of beach are open to the public.
The Georgia coastal waters are quite pristine along these largely undeveloped islands, but clean water does not mean clear water. On the ebbing tide, sediment-laden waters are pulled out of the marshes and tidal creeks to the ocean, making the swimming water murky. The inland, fresh water is less than crystal clear for another reason. The nearby Okefenokee Swamp water is tea-colored from the decomposing leaves and other vegetation that falls into this slow-moving water body, forming tannic acid (which is so diluted as to be harmless).
Cumberland Island National Seashore is the Best Wilderness Beach in the Southeast. Animals have the run of the place - we are the visitors. Reachable only by pedestrian ferry, Cumberland is the home to a wide variety of wildlife, including many shore and wading birds such as egrets, herons, oystercatchers and pelicans. Bird rookeries are found in the maritime forest, and alligator holes and nests abound in the many freshwater sloughs on the island. I remember walking around with a gator expert, trying to find some of their nests. But the longer I walked and the deeper the dark, tea-colored water became, finally reaching my waist, the more I privately hoped that we wouldn't find an alligator at all.
Cumberland is the largest and most beautiful barrier island on the Georgia coast. It has the longest stretch of undeveloped beach - 17 miles of pristine shore backed by formidable dunes that reach almost 50 feet high in some places. You can stroll along the beach for hours and never see anyone. The sand is fine and hard-packed as it is elsewhere along the entire Georgia coast, but is whiter and more appealing here. The swimming is very good, with gentle waves and shallow water close to shore. There is only one inn and a handful of houses on the island, but Cumberland was once slated to be developed, as recounted in one of my favorite books, "Encounters with the Archdruids" by John McPhee.
During the Cold War military buildup, the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base was built just south of Cumberland Island at the Florida border. This huge nuclear submarine base is home to the giant Trident subs which require considerable water depth for docking. The natural channels had to be greatly deepened, which in combination with the strong tidal currents is literally "sucking the innards out of the marsh." On the ebbing tide, the fine-grained sediments and detritus are pulled out of the marshes and settle into the basin, which requires continual dredging. Marsh detritus is the base of the food chain for fish and shellfish and thus the lifeblood of the estuary. The submarine base was built in this inappropriate area because the Department of Defense strategy was to put a base in every state so that the local U.S. congressmen would vote for it.
Georgia Department of Tourism
P.O. Box 1776
Atlanta, GA 30301-1776