I am running through the wilds of Tybee Island in the dark shouting in vain for a dog that has yet to really respond to this new name. He is a small dog and it’s very dark.
Naturally, I have no flashlight and the only contact number on his collar tag is my wife’s cell phone, which (of course) is sitting on a coffee table back in Beaufort. (Mental note: add the other number to the tag and attach it to a GPS collar.) I’m running through what used to be the Fort Screven parade grounds wondering just how this happened, which direction he’s likely to have run, how far he’s gotten, if he’s okay, and what the hell did I just step in? Did I mention this is our wedding anniversary? But I digress…
This all begins innocently enough (as these things often do) with a good deed and a whim. The good deed is a thirteen-pound Jack Russell/Shih Tzu mix (we think) with a snaggle-toothed mug reminiscent of a fuzzy canine version of a James Cagney or maybe one of those Lollipop Guild guys from The Wizard of Oz. My softhearted wife, Susan, takes him in temporarily as a favor to a neighbor. The “temporarily” part soon turns to something like “until we find him a good home.” Plus the little guy comes with a double whammy: a serious case of separation anxiety and mad skills as an escape artist. Nevertheless, the reigning queen of the household, our Miniature Schnauzer, Scout, seems to think the addition a fine idea. Now, she has something other than us to terrorize. We dub him “Ollie” after Dickens’ Oliver Twist , a fitting reference to his history and circumstances. Or so we think.
And so chaos and stress ensue, some of it Ollie-related, some of it the pure coincidence of life. As our anniversary approaches, it is apparent – at least to Susan – that we need a break, a change of scenery. We have to get the hell out of town. Just one problem – actually two problems – what to do with the dogs? They’re beginning to bond pretty well and boarding them at the last minute is not an option. On a last ditch whim Susan finds the answer online: a dog friendly bed and breakfast on a nearby island neither one of us has managed to set foot on before. Perfect.
Tybee Island is to Savannah what Sullivan’s Island once was to Charleston – an oddball mix of resort and residential, townies and tourists, with plenty of sand, surf, history and nature all moving at a different pace. Georgia’s northernmost Barrier Island sits at the mouth of the Savannah River, a short boat ride due south of Hilton Head, a bit longer drive for landlubbers from Beaufort. Despite a brief directional miscue in Savannah (something of a personal tradition), the drive takes about ninety minutes this fall morning. In fact, it’s less stressful than the average trip to the outer reaches of Hilton Head Island (which I prefer to call Death Race 2009 or “William Hilton’s Revenge”). Tybee’s about 20 miles east of the city on US-80, the final miles seem to float past over a narrow strip of asphalt with marsh in every direction.
On Cockspur Island, just before Tybee, sits a unique, living piece of American history, a pentagonal monument to the end of one era and the beginning of another. Fort Pulaski bears the name of a Polish nobleman and soldier who fought for George Washington during the American Revolution. The fort is finally finished in 1847 after eighteen years of construction, twenty five million bricks and a cost of a million dollars – an astronomical figure for the day. The eleven-foot thick walls are thought to be virtually invincible. The mere notion seems to tempt fate. What took nearly two decades to render, takes less than two days to rend asunder. In April 1862, Union forces firing highly accurate – and brand new – rifled artillery from Tybee Island need just thirty hours to blast the Confederate fortress into submission. The occupying Union force of a thousand men will spend their first six weeks repairing the major damage and breaches. The outer walls remain pockmarked with scars of the brief but horrific siege. The sudden fall of Pulaski marks the last time any such military installation is built of brick in the United States.
Now a National Monument under the auspices of the National Park Service , Fort Pulaski draws Civil War buffs, ghost hunters (it’s reportedly haunted by a number of Confederate specters), photographers and nature lovers. The surrounding habitat is home to nearly a dozen Protected Species including the American oystercatcher, bald eagle, loggerhead sea turtle, and manatee. Alligators ripple the glassy water of the old moat like silent nightmares.
The property also includes another unique piece of history, the Cockspur Island Lighthouse or Cockspur Beacon to the locals. The tower’s eastern side sports a distinctive prow-like design to help weather the Atlantic’s constant battery of storms. An overlook trail offers excellent views and photo opportunities and limited access is available depending upon the tides.
Just across Lazaretto Creek and we’re on Tybee. I make a mental note of the marina at the foot of the bridge and the trawlers and charter boats tied up to the docks. I’m a fiend for a great dockside experience and when this comes together in these parts it usually involves a few of my favorite things: fresh local shrimp, a salt-scented breeze and cold beer.
We have reservations at the Island’s eponymous bed and breakfast, but we’re a bit early to check in so we decide to see what’s at the end of the road. The simple answer is the Atlantic Ocean. We stop just shy of it, take a left on Tybrisa Street and park seaside by the dunes next to the “new” Tybrisa Pier and Pavilion . The original structure burned in the late 1960’s after withstanding the Atlantic’s mercurial mood swings for three quarters of a century. With its massive dance floor suspended over the waves, the Tybrisa Pavilion was a regular stop for the legendary performers of the big band circuit for half a century. The new version, although not quite so grand as it’s predecessor is the coastal epicenter for seasonal festivals and events. It’s also a great spot to wet a line, have a picnic under the covered pavilion or watch the ceaseless procession of surfers ride the waves. According to a local website dedicated to the sport the only dangers listed are “rocks and sharks.” Dude.
The day is spectacular in the way only early fall on the southern coast can be – not too cool, not too warm with an ocean breeze that whispers in the lost tongue of ancient hedonists – or perhaps Jimmy Buffett (back in the day). I can’t tell the difference. Whatever it’s speaking, I hear it loud and clear.
Pardon My Soapbox
Before we toddle off to find a frosty beverage and some snacks, we decide to take a stroll out on the pier and enjoy the view, let the pups stretch their legs. This is where it becomes apparent that whims, like good deeds, rarely go unpunished. There it is in black and white: “No dogs allowed.” Okay. I can appreciate that. It’s a little disappointing after the nice drive down and the gorgeous day, but I can appreciate it. I understand the reasoning. People are irresponsible and some of us don’t follow the rules, indeed some of us don’t think the rules apply at all. There always seems to be the inevitable ass who refuses to clean up after their pet, ignores the leash laws (putting both the animal and everyone else at risk) and takes for-granted that we all find Max or Buffy as adorable as they do, and visa versa. You know who you are.
As it turns out the sign on the pier applies to the entire beach. All of it. We find this out for certain a bit later that afternoon from a couple of surfers.
“Dude,” says one of them as he nods to the dogs, “that’s like a six hundred dollar fine or something.”
“Seriously,” says his buddy.
Indeed, tripadvisor.com warns “Special emphasis on the NO PETS rule as they vigilantly enforce this and it carries a huge fine. Unfortunately a few bad apples ruin it for the responsible pet owners.” A first time ticket according to the website is $200 per dog.
According to the city and state the issue hinges on water quality and shorebird habitat. A native islander tells me flat out that this is more or less bunk. Control of the beaches and control of the town is all about who makes the rules. “It’s the new people, ” he says. “The new people are making up the rules. It’s the same old story.” Whether the issue is political or environmental doesn’t really matter to us at the moment. It just boils down to one thing: five miles of some of the most spectacular beaches on the eastern seaboard are off limits this trip.
The Little Yellow House and the Chicken Salad Rule
I once had an editor who, when offering up a lame assignment, never failed to invoke the Chicken Salad Rule, which (slightly sanitized) goes something like this: when life hands you chicken crap, make chicken salad. Taken literally, I find this somewhat flawed and disgusting, but I get the point. In the current situation, this simply means that it’s a good thing Susan picked a great place to stay ‘cause we’re going to be spending plenty of time there.
The Tybee Island Inn is one of those rare B&B’s that actually feels as though you are allowed to indulge in the comforts of home – hell, wallow in them. But there’s one word to best describe the place: whimsical. The B&B sits in the midst of the Fort Screven Historic District on the edge of a beautifully landscaped park and recreation area, once the old fort’s parade grounds. The butter-yellow house is framed by lush intricate gardens exploding with palms and palmettos. Ancient moss-draped live oaks bend low to shade the rambling, tin-roofed porches and gazebo. Built in 1902, the Inn was formerly the day room of the Fort Screven hospital. Dozens of surrounding buildings and private homes were also once part of the massive coastal defense complex.
The Inn is famous for it’s weddings, sunrise on the beach being the specialty of the house. Innkeepers, Cathy and Lloyd Kilday (who were also married here) have owned it since 1995. Lloyd often officiates at the ceremonies and is happy to show off some photos from the most recent nuptials, recommend things to see and do or liven up the breakfast conversation.
The Tybee Island Lighthouse is just a few blocks away, on the edge of that forbidden beach. The light still shines as it has for more than two hundred and seventy years in one form or another. Its recently renovated support complex is one of the most complete in the nation and the only light on the eastern seaboard with all of its original buildings still intact.
Our room is a new addition to the inn, designed with dogs in mind and features a private ground floor entrance and a small fenced courtyard complete with our own bench swing and picnic table. Once settled we take the dogs exploring through the park, down oak canopied lanes, past magnificent old homes, around the lighthouse and back again. The idea is simple: tire the pooches out enough so they’ll settle down while we escape for a bit. Lloyd highly recommends a visit to the marina I spotted on the way in.
“I’m not a big fan of fried shrimp, normally,” he says, “but the fresh shrimp at Groover’s are extraordinary.”
Best. Fried. Shrimp. Ever.
I love it when lofty expectations are fully realized. My hunch about the Tybee Island Marina was on the money and Lloyd was right – really right. And I’m with Lloyd on this. Fried shrimp are almost always ruined in my opinion. Not these. The batter’s light, barely a hint, and the shrimp are sweet and juicy. “Where do you get the shrimp?” I ask the bartender. He points over my shoulder. “That blue boat, yonder,” he says. Excellent. I highly recommend the deviled crab cakes as well – a whole lot of crab, very little devil.
Groover’s Place is the sort of unapologetic locals joint I’m guessing “The New People” might tend to avoid. It’s not fancy, it’s not expensive and it’s not pretentious. It’s just kind of perfect right here in the breeze on the dock. There is a properly enclosed restaurant and bar next to this plank and plywood, open-air affair, but no one’s inside but the cook. The afternoon’s too pretty and the breeze too balmy. We wash our seafood down with sassy homemade Bloody Marys and ice-cold beers as God intended. The regulars gradually begin to roll in like the tide, a divers crew of young and old and everything in between. Most are locals – life-long islanders – there is a small flock of snowbirds on their annual nautical migration south for the winter and a few seem more or less permanently moored here. A few look as though they could have washed up here in The Great Flood. One guy takes a break from the bar to walk down the dock and cast a flounder rig. All he catches is someone else’s old rig dripping with seaweed. Eventually he gives up and reclaims his bar stool.
A big group of kayakers – all sickeningly young, fit and tanned – infiltrate the crowd for a cold one after a long paddle. Some have their own gear, others rented from North Island Surf and Kayak right off of this very dock. A giant rack of multicolored kayaks is stacked a few steps away. A full day’s rental for a single person boat is just forty bucks, fifty-five for a two seater. Paddleboards and surfboards are also available as well as lessons in how to use them. And unlike the beaches, the waterways are pet friendly. North Island Surf has several sizes of canine life vests from which to choose.
On the other side of the dock Tybee Island Bait and Tackle offers everything the name implies plus a full line of gear rentals for those of us prone to whims. They’re also happy to fill you in on what’s biting and where it’s biting as well as how to catch it and cook it.
Across the marina Tybee Island Charters offers guided inshore fishing for trout, redfish and flounder and offshore trips for snapper, grouper and cobia. They also offer a long list of eco-tours and nature cruises, fossil and shell hunts. There’s also a unique day-long excursion that includes an exclusive tour of Ossabaw Island (Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve) along with the naturalist in charge. The island is listed as one of the most endangered historic places in the U.S. and features the remains of four plantations and more than two hundred archeological digs.
As the sun begins to set we stroll out on the docks to watch it sink into the marsh stretching into infinity beyond Lazaretto Creek. Most of the boats – even the relatively few larger ones, the ones you might call yachts – are well used and older. The slips are as no frills as the bar with a single exception. I’m told the custom enclosed combination boathouse and lift was commissioned by an Atlanta car dealer to protect his Miami Vice-style cigarette boat from the pelican poo. The upgrade supposedly cost a quarter of a million dollars. I hear he sells Smart Cars.
I'm going… out.
The Great Escape II
In spite of the no-dogs-on-the-beach silliness, it’s been a great day. All of our stress is melted away, at least for a moment. Back at the Inn we unbolt the door to find a slightly distressed looking Scout and no sign of young master Ollie. We turn the room inside out. He’s not under, behind or between anything. He has quite simply vanished into thin air – almost literally. The little Houdini’s pushed aside a piece of the accordion-like fitting to a window unit air conditioner, squeezed through and high-tailed it. This discovery is followed by much cursing and the realization that even if someone rescues him, the number on his collar will be ringing back in Beaufort. This revelation is followed by even more cursing and much running about in different directions, essentially what one might classify as “panic.”
The Kindness of Strangers
We give up the search on foot and drive very slowly around the areas where we walked the dogs earlier. Susan runs into a local watering hole near the lighthouse to ask if anyone’s seen him. No one’s spotted him, but the bartender suggests we check a few blocks up at the police station. “Tourists lose dogs all the time around here,” he says, presumably with a straight face.
A few minutes later Susan emerges from the police station with a name and address. As it turns out our canine Captain Hilts has crossed a major highway, and wandered more than a mile back into a residential area and into the yard of a retired local fireman. By the time we arrive, his grandkids are ready to adopt the wayward pooch. Heavy hints are dropped. This is our chance…and…I…can’t…do it. After profuse offerings of thanks, we scoop up the little fugitive – who actually looks relieved – and drive away. The little boy is crestfallen and from the expression on his grandfather’s face, I’m guessing there’s probably a puppy in his future.
Back at the Inn we seal up the escape hatch, pour a couple of stiff drinks and take the dogs up to the porch swing to listen to the breeze rustle the palms and count our lucky stars.
Get More Here
Mark Shaffer’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.