Handmade baskets on Sapelo Island, Georgia

Handmade baskets on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

Uncover Gullah Geechee Heritage on Sapelo Island

It is difficult to describe the incredible raw beauty of Sapelo Island — the best way to truly understand why is to experience it for yourself. Located on the Georgia coast, right in the middle of the Golden Isles, Sapelo Island is as close to living history as land can be.

Hog Hammock Community sign on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Hog Hammock Community sign on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

The island is home to Hog Hammock, which is part of the official Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. In 1996 Hog Hammock was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and today it is the only documented Saltwater Geechee community on Earth that’s still intact.

Getting to Sapelo Island

Cabretta Island beach on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Cabretta Island beach on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

Start your day at the Sapelo Island Visitors Center in Darien for an introduction to the area, including the Gullah Geechee — descendants of peoples from West Africa who were enslaved on cotton, sugarcane, indigo and rice plantations. Admire baskets made of sweetgrass and other artifacts in the center’s interpretive exhibit on the Hog Hammock Gullah Geechee community. Before heading out, grab snacks at The Local Exchange to prepare for your trip to the island, which has limited food options available.

From the Sapelo Island Visitors Center, you’ll hop on the ferry for a picturesque half-hour cruise from the dock at Landing Road heading southeast via Doboy Sound to the island. Ferry times are typically limited, so plan to arrive the night before to ensure smooth sailing. You’ll want to dress as lightly as possible while covering up your arms and legs, and bring a sturdy mosquito repellent.

Marsh on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Marsh on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

Stepping off the ferry upon arrival, the gentle breeze can feel like the crosswinds of history. Back in the 19th century, this patch of land, larger than both Bermuda and Manhattan, was established as a settlement for enslaved Africans. They created communities on Sapelo Island, and when the Civil War ended, they retained their language and broader culture, which stand today as a continuation of their homeland traditions. Before their arrival, the island was home to Native American tribes who enjoyed an unspoiled natural habitat full of various wildlife before colonization, the arrival of pirates, and other development. Still, it is today a place full of wonder and awe.

Things to do on Sapelo Island

Lula's Kitchen on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Lula's Kitchen on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

For an up-close and personal view, take one of several driving tours led by members of the community, many of whom are descendants of the original families whose lineage traces back hundreds of years. Along the way, you’ll see landmarks that are sacred to the Gullah Geechee community, including places of worship such as the First African Baptist Church and St. Luke Baptist Church. You’ll also pass Lula’s Kitchen, where groups of 10 people or more can call ahead and have Lula, the chef and a Gullah Geechee descendent, prepare ribs, chicken and Lowcountry boils for your dinner. Look for the rectangular white sign posted on one of the mighty, majestic live oak trees – the kitchen will be just behind it, underneath long, draping Spanish moss.

Woman weaving a basket on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Weaving a basket on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

After enjoying a home-cooked meal, indulge in the natural wonders of Sapelo Island’s sweetgrass marshes, the powdery dunes of Nanny Goat Beach and clusters of saw palmettos spreading their fronds like green fingers. The lovely scenery, however, pales in comparison to the Geechee culture. Rooted in agriculture and fishing, the Hog Hammock people honor their heritage by passing on traditions like weaving cast nets and baskets. Schedule a basket-making demo with resident Yvonne Grovner in advance to marvel at this artistry firsthand, or pre-order baskets to take home.

Lighthouse on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Lighthouse on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

As you continue to cruise Sapelo Island’s marvelous Autobahn, passing the lush marshlands, rows of wild ferns, bay leaves and various native trees, you’ll also see the Sapelo Island Lighthouse, built in 1892 and maintained today by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Though not in official use, it is the second-oldest brick lighthouse in America. If you’re interested in exploring the natural wonders more closely, visit Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, where year-round, from sunrise to sunset, you can engage in a range of activities such as biking, hiking, observing and photographing wildlife, fishing, and even hunting white-tailed deer during the official season. Not only bikes but golf carts are available to rent in advance of your stay. Be sure to leave your pets at home; not only alligators but ticks are lurking all around.

Places to stay on Sapelo Island

While there are plenty of short-term rental properties and hotels in Darien, you can stay on the island if you choose. The Sapelo Island Birdhouses are available to rent, with luxury cottages that have room for two guests or up to six to sleep overnight. Inside the cottages, you’ll find pillow-top queen beds, full kitchens, screened-in porches furnished with rocking chairs, charcoal grills, beach gear (towels, umbrellas and chairs), and WiFi connectivity. And each has a different joyous inspiration, including the Painted Bunting Cottage, whose yellow, green, red and blue colorburst is inspired by the male Sapelo Island bird of the same name, and also features a private outdoor shower.

While selecting your preferred cottage, check out helpful links on the Birdhouses’ website; you’ll find information on the island’s rich agricultural history, with background on delicious local produce like Sapelo sour oranges, its famous red peas, and the storied Purple Ribbon sugar cane, all of which come from the native soil. You’ll even find recipes for skillet-fried Sapelo Island soft shell crabs, whether you like them with lime green curry sauce or sweet pepper Geechee salsa. The website provides information on how to order fresh-caught crabs in advance of your arrival and where to pick them up if you’re visiting in April.

Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, Georgia
Reynolds Mansion on Sapelo Island, Georgia. Photo by @benjamingalland

Also available to rent is the Reynolds Mansion, but only for groups of 16 to 25 guests. The opulent property, surrounded by live oaks, is more than 200 years old and has a library, billiards room, a bowling lane and more. Continental breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, but menu options must be arranged at least a month in advance through a coordinator. And while the mansion does not provide or serve alcoholic beverages, you’re welcome to bring them and request bar set-ups at additional cost. And even if you’re not in a large enough group to stay overnight, you can still take a guided tour of the property.

There’s no place on the planet quite like Sapelo Island, and a visit is a reminder of our state’s amazing cultural heritage and the history that continues today.

Published: November 2023
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