Kayaking in the Okefenokee Swamp. Photo by Wander North Georgia
Wander North Georgia Goes South
A bunch of mountain folks explored the South on a five-day trip, and here's what happened.
Although we spend most of our time wandering mountain peaks and chasing waterfalls near our store, Wander North Georgia, in Clayton, we have been itching to take our wandering spirit on a tour of South Georgia for a hot minute. Recently, we got the chance to head south and explore the southern part of our great state.
We hopped in our car and headed south toward Thomasville with the goal of making it to Savannah in a week. We made stops in the Okefenokee Swamp, St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Cumberland Island and, finally, Savannah. Buckle up and follow along. Here are our recommendations and rough itinerary for wandering South Georgia.
Every good road trip needs a starting point, so we thought we'd start in one of South Georgia's staple cities. Thomasville is a quintessential small town with a vibrant Main Street, award-winning restaurants and amazing people.
Thomasville is known for its roses, and during our visit, they were celebrating the 100th Anniversary Rose Show and Festival. All the downtown restaurants and businesses were decorated with flowers and rose-themed art, and all kinds of special events were taking place. Did you know most of the streets downtown are paved with 100+-year-old bricks? The epitome of small-town vibes!
For dinner, we ate at AJ Moonspin, which is a really awesome local pizza joint. We got pizza, wings, and beer but also had some amazing truffle salt and garlic pasta, which we highly recommend! The service and staff were some of the best we had on our trip. Hubs & Hops (bike shop and taproom) and The Kickstand (bike gear and taco stand) are also awesome for all our outdoor-loving friends.
For a nightcap, stop into Liam's for a Torpedo (mezcal cocktail) or a Sunshower (grapefruit and lavender goodness). Then for breakfast, you have to put Empire Bagel on your list and try their egg sandwich or Greenwich toast.
If you're going to Thomasville, you've got to visit the 335+-year-old "Big Oak." More than 22 feet wide, it covers an entire city corner with massive fern-covered branches bigger than most normal tree trunks.
Sweet Grass Dairy is on the outskirts of town and offers tours of the dairy, where you can taste their famous cheese. They even serve food, cocktails and wine alongside gourmet cheese made on-site!
The Jack Hadley Black History Museum is also worth a visit. The museum was created in 1995 by James "Jack" Hadley. Jack served in the Air Force for 28 years and then worked for the United States Postal Service for another 12 years. In his spare time, he collected more than 4,700 pieces of African American artifacts telling the story of Black American history throughout our country.
This was the road trip for checking some places off our bucket list, and at the top of that list was the Okefenokee Swamp. There are no words or even pictures that can describe just how surreal this place was. The swamp is considered one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Georgia, but honestly, it could be one of the great wonders of the entire country.
We arrived in the afternoon and jumped straight on a boat tour with Okefenokee Adventures at the eastern entrance to the swamp. We booked a private 90-minute boat tour, and it was the best money we spent on the entire trip. We saw well over 100 alligators, turtles, all kinds of wildlife, and learned a ton about the history and geological makeup of the swamp.
The Okefenokee is a 438,000-acre blackwater swamp. Despite the water looking dark and, well, swampy, the water is actually crystal clear. It gets its dark color from the peat-lined bottom where thousands of years' worth of decaying plant life has fallen, making it harder for light to reflect back up to the surface. So, what looks dark is in reality crystal clear water that is only four to five feet deep on average!
Our boat guide took the time to answer our questions, show us where the alligators were lounging in the sun on the bank, and showed us the hundreds of different kinds of flowers, plants and birds. If you go to the eastern entrance of the swamp, be sure to take the boardwalk from the old Chesser Homestead to the lookout tower for a bird's-eye view of the Okefenokee.
After our boat tour, we headed to Stephen C. Foster State Park. It is officially recognized as a Dark Sky zone, making this a stargazer's dream. We tent-camped while we were here, but they also have RV and trailer sites along with nine cottages for those wanting something less primitive. We visited during alligator mating season, so if you decide to go the tent route, just know that you're going to hear all kinds of disconcerting noises throughout the night less than 50 feet away from where you're sleeping on the ground!
In the morning, we rented two kayaks and headed out into the Okefenokee again, this time on the western side of the swamp. There aren't many places to eat or grab food, so we highly recommend you bring a picnic with you. Here, we paddled within 20 feet of multiple alligators, which was a nice coffee replacement with all the adrenaline!
There aren't many places to eat near the park. When we say "near" the park, we mean about a 50-mile radius. So, it's best to pack and bring a picnic lunch and/or dinner with you prior to getting there. Although there are a few roadside cafes that we wanted to stop at, most were closed when we were passing through.
After visiting the Okefenokee Swamp, we headed toward Jekyll Island.
Do yourself a favor: if you're anywhere in the orbit of Jekyll, drive 15 minutes out of your way and eat at Southern Soul Barbeque on St. Simons Island. Honestly, we would drive hours out of our way to eat there, so 15 minutes is nothing. On top of that, St. Simons is worthy of its own visit due to how great it is! Get the knuckle sandwich, brisket, pimento or burnt ends (or all of the above) and thank us later. Also don't sleep on their collards, slaw, Brunswick stew or a paper sack of fried green beans.
After sleeping on the ground next to mating alligators, we were ready for a day of relaxing at Jekyll Island Club Resort. The island has a ton of great hotels, including many on the beach, but we made sitting by the pool a priority so we chose the Club.
If you decide to leave the pool, you have to rent some bikes and explore the island on two wheels. A short 10-minute bike ride and you can be at Glory Beach (where they shot the movie "Glory"), downtown Jekyll Island for all kinds of dining and shopping, or the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (a great spot for kids).
Two places that you absolutely can't miss are Shark Tooth Beach and Driftwood Beach. We recommend doing Shark Tooth as close to low tide as you can and Driftwood Beach for sunrise. Shark Tooth Beach has about a mile-long hike, while Driftwood is a short walk from parking.
On Shark Tooth Beach, if you are patient enough, you can find prehistoric shark teeth. We've been multiple times and never not found at least one. The area used to be the bottom of the ocean, so anytime the tide rolls out, you can find teeth that have been buried for centuries.
Driftwood Beach, on the other hand, looks like something out of Jurassic Park. The beach used to be a maritime forest, but after decades of erosion now has its own strangely unique vibe. We highly recommend visiting Driftwood Beach for sunrise. Sunset is great, but the beach faces the east, making sunrise the ideal time. Plus, the gnats, bugs, heat and humidity that South Georgia are known for aren't quite at full force yet!
Eat & Drink
For dinner, we ate at the club restaurant, The Wharf. There, you can catch the sun as it sets over the marsh. It's hard to go wrong with their shrimp and grits and a nice sunset cocktail on the pier after a long day of wandering.
Day 4: Jekyll Island to Cumberland Island to Savannah
After catching one more sunrise at Driftwood Beach, we were on the road by 6:30 a.m. to make it over to the Cumberland Island Ferry in time. The first ferry leaves at 9 a.m., and they ask that you arrive one hour in advance. Outside of private boat tours, the ferry is the only way to and from Cumberland Island, so we highly recommend booking a reservation weeks (or even months) in advance.
If you plan on camping on Cumberland, you should book your reservation months (or even a year) in advance. Bottom line: plan ahead. This is a popular destination with limited access every day, so a little planning goes a long way.
Cumberland has also been on our bucket list for years, and it did not disappoint. It was like stepping back in time.
The Timucua Native Nation originally inhabited the island as early as 4,000 years ago. Before Spanish contact, they moved between the island and the mainland seasonally.
The island has a complicated history. Even in the not-so-distant past, there were conflicts between conservationists, historians and developers on what the future of the island should look like, culminating in the island becoming a national seashore in 1972. Now that the island is part of the National Park Service, those stories are highlighted through a museum and signage throughout the island.
Cumberland Island is 17.5 miles long. You can rent bikes or book a van tour to access the northern part of the island, but if you only have a day, we recommend just exploring the southern portion of the island by foot. You'll see plenty of the 150-200 feral horses on the island, the ruins of the Carnegie mansion now called the Dungeness Ruins, and a beautiful section of unspoiled beach front.
We spent our day lounging on a blanket in front of the Dungeness Ruins watching the horses, exploring the remains of the old mansion, and visiting a beach that had fewer than 10 people on it. If you want to go somewhere and feel like you have the whole place to yourself, Cumberland Island is about as close as you're going to get anywhere in the country.
With all things nature, please make sure you Leave No Trace. This applies to everything from packing your trash out to observing the horses and other wildlife from a safe and respectful distance.
Where do you even begin with Savannah? We could spend a week or more here, so trying to sum up our favorite spots in a few paragraphs seems like an awfully big disservice to a pretty special (and big) place. So, be sure to check out an extended recommendation list below for some of our personal favorites.
This was our first trip in more than a year due to COVID, so we splurged on the new JW Marriott in the Plant Riverside District. It was right on the water and close to a ton of stuff downtown. If you've never been to Savannah, this section of downtown should be on your list. It's the most "touristy" section of the city, but most "touristy" spots get that way for a reason. It's historic, it's classic, and it's infinitely walkable.
Eat & Drink
We arrived late in the evening, so we hit the town in search of a drink. Alley Cat and Lone Wolf Lounge were two of our favorites. Alley Cat is the higher end of the two. Hidden down a back alley in a basement, you'll find more than 150 classic cocktails on their 20-plus-page menu. The best option here is to choose your favorite base and then go with something you haven't heard of or tried before. For us, it was a Paper Plane, which is a bourbon-based drink.
Lone Wolf is farther away from the river, making it more of a locals spot. Here, you can expect to find old wood paneling walls and a laid-back retro tiki bar vibe. The Pegu Club was our favorite drink here.
Now, let's talk about food. Where to begin, where to begin? Honestly, just throw a dart at a map, and you’re probably good. From high-end places that need reservations months in advance to low-key spots you can walk in at almost any time, you won’t struggle to find amazing food in Savannah.
Some of our favorites were Treylor Park (nachos grande appetizer, chicken & pancake tacos, awesome small courtyard bar), Starland Yard (rotating food trucks), The Wyld (waterfront spot on a pier, fish tacos, chicharrones), Foxy Loxy (gorgeous courtyard, Mexican mocha), and Huey's (brunch, beignets, Creole omelette) to name a few. We're going to quit before this becomes a novel, but this is a good start on a very long list deserving of its own post.
Finally, Savannah has a ton of places to wander and experience. We booked a glass-blowing workshop with Blown Studios. The shop owner, Brandon, was great and taught us all about the art of glass blowing. We even got to make our own items: a long-stemmed glass flower and a custom wine glass with colored glass we picked out and made ourselves.
We did this trip in five quick days and packed a ton in! Our only regret is that we didn't tack on a few more days to give us a little more room to breathe and recover between everything we were doing. However, we did learn something incredibly important: although we may be the pros of wandering North Georgia, we've got a whole lot left to learn, explore, and experience across the rest of this great state, and we can't wait to get back out there again!