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A Picturesque Road Trip Through Georgia's Barrier Islands

Cross bridges and board ferries for romantic lighthouses, marine life and more

road map of the georgia coastline with a road trip route plotted on it next to an image of the beach

Getty/AARP

En español | A journey along Georgia's eastern coast is equal parts history and nature. Several barrier islands have been saved from overdevelopment, rewarding visitors with rugged landscapes dotted by centuries-old landmarks.

This itinerary takes you to seven of the prettiest islands as well as waterfront cities you shouldn't miss: Savannah, of course, and smaller towns such as Darien and St. Marys. While a few of the isles are accessible by car, more remote shores require a boat ride — always worth the extra effort for what waits on the other side.

Savannah river and downtown river front

Rose-Marie Murray / Alamy Stock Photo

Savannah’s downtown riverfront

Day 1: Tybee Island to Savannah (20 miles)

Begin your adventure on Tybee Island, one of Georgia's northernmost barrier islands. Its 18th-century lighthouse is the state's oldest and tallest, an ideal first stop to get the lay of the land from 145 feet up. Your ticket includes admission to the Tybee Museum, housed in a former military battery and covering about four centuries of the isle's history, from early Native Americans to 1920s tourism. Next, mosey over to North Beach for a swim. When you're hungry, North Bar and Grill satisfies with Caribbean fusion food and music on its shady deck.

From Tybee, cross the bridge north to Cockspur Island, home of Fort Pulaski, once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Besides the fort, with its moat and 2-acre parade grounds, the national monument features trails to view wildlife, an abandoned lighthouse and ruins of its North Pier.

Then hop on U.S. Highway 80 and head 25 minutes west, straight into the heart of Savannah and spend the rest of your afternoon in the city's tree-lined Historic District. A must-see: Forsyth Park, with its oft-photographed fountain. If it's the weekend, indulge in the ritual of afternoon tea at the Mansion on Forsyth Park. Otherwise, see the sights nearby. The Mercer Williams House Museum, infamous as the scene of the murder detailed in the best-selling nonfiction novel (and later movie) Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; Monterey Square (just one of the city's 22 scenic squares); and Congregation Mickve Israel, the country's only Gothic-style synagogue, are all within walking distance. Wind down the evening on Savannah's famous River Street, where you can take a riverboat cruise for dinner and dancing.

Where to stay: East Bay Inn in the Historic District dates to the 1850s, but the hotel has all the modern luxuries, such as a concierge and nightly glass of wine or beer. The rumor it may be haunted just adds more charm.

a car on a road at Wormsloe State Historic Site, Live Oak Avenue, 400 Live Oak trees line the road to the former Wormsloe Plantation

Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Wormsloe State Historic Site in Savannah

Day 2: Savannah to Darien (63 miles)

From the inn, walk over to Goose Feathers Café to brunch on grits, waffles and croissants stuffed with raspberry cream. Take Congress Street on the way back to walk through three more attractive city squares: Reynolds, Johnson and Ellis.

Now, bid farewell to the Historic District and drive 4 miles southeast to Bonaventure Cemetery, dating to 1846 and bordering Wilmington River (not the same river as on River Street — that's the Savannah River). The cemetery statue made famous on the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is no longer there, but Bonaventure's many other lavish sculptures and headstones dazzle across more than 100 acres.

A mile down the river, fill up on fried oysters and butterfly shrimp on the waterfront patio of the seafood-happy Tubby's Tank House. Continue your leisurely drive south just 5 more miles to Wormsloe State Historic Site, a former colonial estate. The park features tabby ruins, occasional demonstrators in period garb and a long avenue of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, the perfect Instagram shot. For more scenery, drive southeast 7 miles to Skidaway Island to hike the trails, keeping an eye out for egrets, herons and more, especially from the boardwalk.

You can easily make Darien by dinnertime, just over an hour south off Interstate 95. Like many coastal communities, this small city knows how to do seafood right, so dine at Skipper's Fish Camp and order the fried Georgia shrimp. You won't be disappointed.

Where to stay: The five homey rooms at the Darien Waterfront Inn fill quickly, but it's worth booking in advance for the breakfast alone. Think sweet potato pancakes or redneck eggs benedict with palmetto cheese (a Southern twist on pimento cheese).

Sapelo Island Lighthouse

Daniel Dempster Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

The Sapelo Island Lighthouse

Day 3: Darien to St. Simons Island (22 miles)

The ferry to Sapelo Island departs at 8:30 a.m., but you'll need a reservation to access the state-owned island. Signing up with Sapelo Island Tours takes care of this for day visitors. Led by an island native, you'll tour the highlights by bus — Native American shell mounds, plantation ruins, the sprawling Reynolds Mansion, a lighthouse, Nannygoat Beach and the Hog Hammock community, where descendants of slaves preserve the Gullah Geechee culture.

You'll be back on the mainland in time for the country buffet lunch (fried chicken, mac and cheese, cornbread and more) at B&J's Steak and Seafood, followed by a post-meal promenade around Vernon Square, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Then it's back in the car for the 30-minute drive south on U.S. Highway 17 to St. Simons Island.

Pier Village is the hub of activity here. Look for dolphins, snap a photo of yet another lighthouse and shop for souvenirs. Rent a bicycle in the village and hit the trails to hunt for tree spirit carvings hidden around the island. Pick up a map at the visitors center, where you'll also find your very first tree spirit.

After refreshing back at your hotel, walk over to Barbara Jean's for Southern fare and seafood — try the crab cakes, heavy on the crab, as they should be. And save room for dessert, preferably the uber-moist Chocolate Stuff, a decadent cream-topped brownie that defies naming.

Where to stay: No need to leave Pier Village. At the Village Inn and Pub, 28 well-appointed rooms in a restored 1930s beach cottage surround a courtyard with a pool.

Main beach on the east coast of Jekyll Island, Georgia

Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

Georgia’s Jekyll Island

Day 4: St. Simons Island to Jekyll Island (23 miles)

Palmer's Village Café serves gourmet omelets and challah French toast all day, but eat breakfast early for a busy day of sightseeing.

As you leave Pier Village and head 10 minutes west toward Brunswick, make a detour for Fort Frederica. This free national monument has an especially engaging visitors center, including tavern games such as bagatelle, an 18th-century version of pinball.

In Brunswick, wander the downtown, admiring its pocket parks, fountains, murals and the castle-like Old City Hall. Lunch on Calypso Nachos at Indigo Coastal Shanty, then make your way to the Brunswick River for one of the town's classic experiences — a ride on the shrimping trawler Lady Jane. You can see and hold sharks, stingrays, crabs and more before they're returned to the water.

If you didn't photograph the marshes on your trawler tour because you were too busy with the marine life, swing by the Marshes of Glynn Overlook Park, less than two minutes away, before driving south across Sidney Lanier Bridge to neighboring Jekyll Island, winter retreat of America's elite in the late 19th century. Note: This state park has a parking fee, which you can buy at the entrance or online.

Where to stay: Splurge on the Holiday Inn Resort for its top-notch amenities, including a hot tub, martini bar, pool and bike rentals, plus a private beach. Live bands regularly spice up the evenings at the hotel's Beach House Restaurant + Tap Room, where you can fill up on a juicy 16-ounce ribeye or a crab boil with a pound of snow crab legs.


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 Cumberland Queen II ferry boat carries tourists from St. Marys, Georgia to the Cumberland Island National Seashore

Ron S Buskirk / Alamy Stock Photo

The Cumberland Queen II ferry boat carries tourists from St. Marys, Georgia to the Cumberland Island National Seashore

Day 5: Jekyll Island to St. Marys (50 miles)

Start your day exploring the island's National Historic Landmark District. Here, at the height of the Gilded Age, the likes of J.P. Morgan and William Vanderbilt spent their winters, giving rise to the ultra-exclusive Jekyll Island Club. Today, the flawlessly manicured grounds boast several Victorian buildings, including several “cottages” (i.e., mansions). Learn more on the trolley tour, where you'll see how the other half lived when touring the former home of William Rockefeller.

Come lunchtime, celebrate how Jekyll Island has changed — yet stayed the same — with a margarita and fajitas served beachfront at Tortuga Jacks. From there, it's just 3 miles north along the appropriately named Beachview Drive to Driftwood Beach. Strewn with skeletal trees and limbs, the beach is a playground for photographers. Visit at low tide for the best photos.

Another hour south on I-95 leads you to St. Marys, one of Georgia's oldest towns, dating to 1787. Take the St. Marys History Walk to read all about it, detailed on 24 plaques along a short path downtown. Stroll over to the waterfront park to relax on the swing and take in a colorful sunset.

Where to stay: Try the newly remodeled Riverview Hotel, built in 1916, and settle into one of its 18 rooms with period furniture. For dinner, grab drinks and small plates (ceviche, bacon-wrapped scallops) on the patio at the hotel's Seagle's Saloon. Come morning, you're right by the ferry for your next adventure.

Cumberland County National Seashore

Pat & Chuck Blackley / Alamy Stock Photo

Wild Horses walk the beach at Cumberland Island National Seashore

Day 6: St. Marys to Cumberland Island (15 miles)

Cumberland Island is a pristine national seashore accessible only by boat. The southernmost and largest of Georgia's barrier islands, it's arguably the most beautiful, with its wild horses, sea oats framing deserted beaches and wide open spaces unmarred by high-rises.

Plan to bring all the necessities with you: bug spray, extra water, food and sunscreen. Before leaving St. Marys, pick up a sack lunch at Market on the Square, an old-timey general store conveniently across from the ferry, but it's a good idea to eat a hearty breakfast, too. Cedar Oak Café fits the bill with generous platters of eggs, meat, cheese and veggies in any combination you like.

The ferry departs at 9 a.m. for its 45-minute ride to Cumberland. Day-trippers get off at the first stop for Dungeness, the ruins of a Carnegie mansion slowly being reclaimed by nature. On foot, you'll only have time to explore this southern end of the island. Take the Dungeness Trail to a 19th-century graveyard and scenic overlook of the salt marsh. Then follow a boardwalk through the dunes to the beach and a picnic in perfect seclusion.

Your ferry will have you back in St. Marys by 5:30 p.m. for a quiet dinner at Seagle's or a head start on the return journey home.

Cheryl Rodewig, a longtime journalist based in the Southeast, has written travel stories for Roadtrippers, Fodor's, Modern Woman and more.

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