Discover unexpected pleasures kayaking the salt marshes of Glynn County
“There’s one thing about the area I don’t like,” said the bartender from Idaho. He was talking about his adjustment to life on the Georgia coast.
“What’s that?” I asked distractedly as I read over the dinner menu.
My head snapped up and I studied his face.
My hearing difficulties aside, his comment struck an ironic chord. I’ve spent my life vacationing along the Southeastern coast and had never given much thought to those grassy wetlands we crossed over to get to the beach. That is, until a recent trip to St. Simons Island, when I officially fell in love with the mucky, verdant wonderland of salt marshes.
I know the moment it happened. I was walking around Fort Frederica, the remains of fortifications used by British Gen. James Oglethorpe and his men in the early 1700s to defend the newly founded colony of Georgia from foreign attacks. The fort backs up to a great expanse of marsh laced with the tributaries of Fancy Bluff Creek.
On this day in early spring, it looked like a sea of tall, Kelly green grass. I’ve since learned the plant is called spartina, and it turns yellow in the fall, which is why Georgia’s southern Barrier Islands are called the Golden Isles.
The tide was high and the river was running at a fair clip, creating a trickling, rustling sound as it flooded the grasses beneath a cloudless blue sky. My heart was set aflutter. I was overcome with a desire to get in the marsh, to see it up close, to navigate the twisty creek, to smell the salt and mud. When I got back to my hotel that afternoon, I booked a guided kayak trip for the next morning.
I am not the first person to fall under the spell of the marshes of Glynn County. The ecosystem’s most celebrated fan is poet Sidney Lanier, a Confederate soldier from Macon and a significant writer of his time whose works were inspired by nature. His poem “Marshes of Glynn” is among his most notable works.
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea? / Somehow my soul seems suddenly free / From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin, / By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.
According to the state Department of Natural Resources, the Georgia coastline boasts 380,000 acres of marshland. In the 1900s, that represented just 10 percent of the East Coast’s salt marshes; today it represents 35 percent, thanks to the state’s Coastal Marshlands Protection Act, established in 1970, which manages activities and restricts development in and around the area. It is a delicate ecosystem, but an essential one that serves as a vital breeding and feeding ground for birds, fish and shellfish, and it provides a buffer against offshore storms. In addition to all that, it is just plain beautiful.
Photo: Kayaking in St. Simons. Suzanne Van Atten
Early the next morning, I met Matthew Morton, a guide for Southeast Adventure Outfitters, at Village Creek Landing. Being a novice, I was given a single kayak with a rudder to help keep me on track, and off we paddled through the sea of green.
It took me a few minutes to get the hang of my vessel, but before long I was paddling along, dodging the occasional oyster bed with relative ease. It was a weekday morning, so other boats were scarce, making it seem as though the marsh was all ours.
We crossed Village Creek and paddled into the creeks behind Sea Island, where we spotted brown pelicans, oystercatchers, cormorants and white ibis going about their avian duties. Every once in a while, a mullet leapt from the water and slapped its gills on the surface.
“Do they ever jump in the boat?” I asked.
“I’ve seen it happen,” Morton said.
At one point, we wedged our boats against the shore and sat quietly, feeling the sun on our skin and listening to the birds chatter, the grasses rustle.
“I do my best thinking out here,” Morton said after some time had passed.
Just then, I detected an occasional popping sound.
“Oysters snapping shut,” Morton explained, a result of the changing tides.
It was a revelation. Oysters make a sound. How could I have gone my whole life and not known this?
Back at the bar, once I understood what the bartender was talking about — that it was marshes he disliked, not Martians — I asked him why.
“They’re swampy and buggy,” he explained with a shrug.
It’s true, they are. Bug spray is a necessity.
He seemed apologetic, acknowledging he held the minority opinion on the subject.
Too bad, I thought, as I sipped from my glass of wine. You’ll never know the sound an oyster makes.
IF YOU GO
The main strip on St. Simons Island is called Pier Village, featuring a cluster of restaurants and shops along Mallery Street, Beachview Drive and Ocean Boulevard.
Dogs are permitted on the beach at St. Simons Island, off leash and on, except 9 a.m.-6 p.m. from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Fort Frederica National Monument. Established in 1736 by Gen. James Oglethorpe to protect the newly established colony of Georgia from foreign attack, Fort Frederica once consisted of a small walled village and fort. What remains today are the foundations of several tabby homes and businesses, as well as a portion of the fort, which succeeded in holding back Spanish forces in 1742. Free. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 6515 Frederica Road. 912-638-3639, nps.gov/state/ga/index.htm.
St. Simons Island Lighthouse and Museum. The 104-foot-tall beacon was built in 1810 and reconstructed in 1872 after it was destroyed by retreating Confederate troops in 1862. Visitors can climb 129 steps to the top for panoramic views of the coast, as well as tour the lighthouse keeper’s house, also reconstructed in 1872. $12, $5 children 6-12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 1:30-5 p.m. Sundays. Last climb at 4:30 p.m. Museum is closed noon-1 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. 101 12th St., Pier Village. 912-638-4666, saintsimonslighthouse.org.
Christ Church. Built in 1884 and featuring stunning stained glass windows, Christ Church has a long history that predates its current structure. The church was established as a congregation in 1776, and its first structure, built in 1820, was destroyed by Union troops. But, before that, John and Charles Wesley, considered the fathers of Methodism in America, preached on this site in 1736. This is an active church, with services and events throughout the week, but visitors are welcome to stop in to tour the structure. Volunteer docents are available 2-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. 6329 Frederica Road. 912-638-8683, christchurchfrederica.org.
Beaches. Unless you’re staying at a hotel or vacation rental located within walking distance of the ocean, your best bets for going to the beach are at Massengale Park at 1350 Ocean Blvd. and Coast Guard Station/East Beach at 4100 First St. Both parks offer lots of free parking, Americans with Disabilities Act beach access and well-maintained restrooms. Massengale also offers a playground, shaded picnic tables and grills.
Golf. St. Simons is home to three golf resorts offering multiple courses: King and Prince Golf Course, 100 Tabbystone, 912-634-0255, kingandprince.com; Sea Palm Resort & Conference Center Main Course and West Course, 5445 Frederica Road, 912-638-3351, seapalms.com; and Sea Island Golf Club’s Plantation Course, Retreat Course and Seaside Course, 100 Retreat Road, 912-638-5118, seaisland.com.
Neptune Park. Located in the heart of St. Simons Island Village, this waterfront park features a swimming pool with a play zone for kids, miniature golf, a playground and a paved path along the water to the pier. Golf, $8 per round; pool, $8 a day, free for children 3 and under, swim diaper required. 550 Beachview Drive, Pier Village. 912-265-0620, 912-279-3720, glynncounty.org.
Southeast Adventure Outfitters. Kayak tours, $45-$85. Standup paddle board rental and instruction, $49 for two hours. Boat tours, $55-$80. 313 Mallery St., Pier Village. 912-638-6732, southeastadventure.com.
Coastal Georgia Charter Fishing. Inshore fishing and shark, tarpon, redfish and reef fishing, $450-$650. Deep sea fishing, $750-$1,000. Kids fishing trips, $275-$325. All prices are for one to three people. 301 Sea Island Road, #12. 912-617-5577, charterfish.com.
Ocean Motion Surf Co. Bicycle rentals, $19 a day; three-wheel fun cycles, $15 an hour; kayak tours, $49 per person; Hobie Cat sailboat rentals, $85 an hour. 1300 Ocean Blvd. and 210 Mallery St. 912-638-5225, 912-638-8053, 912-638-5390, stsimonskayaking.com.
Gogo Jewelry. Rattlesnake jaw earrings and sand dollar chokers are among the pieces of fine silver, gold and bone jewelry created by Janet “Gogo” Ferguson, a Carnegie heir who grew up on Cumberland Island. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays. 217 Redfern Village. 912-634-8875, gogojewelry.com.
Go Fish Jewelry & Clothing Co. Locally designed, well-crafted batik-print clothing and beaded jewelry. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. 203 Mallery St., Pier Village. 912-634-5654, shopgofish.com.
Simons Gallery, Gifts & Antiques. Well-curated collection of framed original art, pottery, jewelry, garden accessories, vases, crystal stemware and beach-inspired décor. 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays. 316 Mallery St., Pier Village. 912-638-3899.
Southern Soul Barbeque. Outstanding barbecue joint with covered outdoor seating overlooking a busy traffic circle. In addition to the usual pork ribs, pulled pork, beef brisket and smoked chicken, the menu features ’cue-inspired interpretations of a Philly cheesesteak and a Cuban sandwich. Excellent Southern sides, including collard greens and Hoppin’ John, and a full bar, too. Open daily starting at 11 a.m. for lunch and dinner. Closing time depends on the crowds. 2020 Demere Road. 912-638-7085, southernsoulbbq.com.
Palmer’s Village Cafe. Serving hefty portions from a creative menu of Southern-inspired classics, including banana pudding pancakes, chicken potpie omelet and a delightful twist on eggs Benedict made with crab cakes on smoked Gouda grits cakes. Also offers a terrific pimento cheese and a selection of burgers and sandwiches. The dinner menu changes weekly. 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. daily for breakfast and lunch; 5:30-9:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays for dinner. 223 Mallery St., Pier Village. 912-634-5515, palmersvillagecafe.com.
The Half Shell at the Pier. An excellent option for fresh seafood standards. Specialties include shrimp ceviche, barbecue shrimp and grits and oysters bruschetta. Opens 5 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11:30 a.m. Fridays-Sundays. Closing time depends on the crowd. 504 Beachview Drive, Pier Village. 912-268-4241, thehalfshellssi.com.
Del Sur Bakery. Serving crave-worthy artisanal baked goods, including ciabatta, sweet and savory tarts, empanadas and wedding cookies, as well as a variety of sandwiches and cookies. 7 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. 539 Ocean Blvd. 912-638-8080, delsurbakery.com.
Sea Palms Resort & Conference Center. Offering a wide range of accommodations, from standard guest rooms to multi-bedroom suites with full kitchens overlooking salt marshes at 515 N. Windward Drive and condominium-style suites at a smaller property across the street from the beach at 1015 Beachview Drive, Pier Village. Amenities include 10,000 square feet of meeting space, as well as 27 holes of golf, a driving range and a practice putting green. $199-$739. 912-638-3351, 1-800-841-6268, seapalms.com.
The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort. Beachfront accommodations range from standard rooms and suites to multi-bedroom villas and individual guesthouses. Amenities include an 18-hole golf course, a beachfront swimming pool and massage therapy services. $289-$829. 201 Arnold Road. 912-638-3631, 1-800-342-0212, kingandprince.com.
Ocean Inn & Suites. Small, three-story hotel offering standard rooms, one-bedroom suites and one two-bedroom suite in the heart of Pier Village. Amenities include a small swimming pool and free parking. $209-$419. 599 Beachview Drive. 912-634-2122, oceaninnsuites.com.
Golden Isles Welcome Center. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 1-5 p.m. Sundays. 529 Beachview Drive, Pier Village. 1-800-809-1790, explorestsimonsisland.com.