Tybee Island: Laid-Back Beach Style in Georgia

September 6, 2013 by

Beach & Water Adventures, Day Trips, North America, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Just 20 minutes from the heavy antebellum charm of Savannah, the landscape begins to change. The horizon spreads open to reveal Georgia’s low country: a coastal waterway lined with marshes, sinking landscapes and a slow, lazy river.

Off the side of the road, you may see alligators lurking in the water, or cranes standing still in marsh grass. You’ll feel the slow pull of the tide as you drive further down Hwy. 80, away from the mainland and closer to the coast.

Then, just when you think you’ve entered the set of a Pat Conroy novel, you spy a gigantic silver mermaid sculpture with her hand raised in greeting. This is Tybee Island: a family-friendly seaside retreat, dotted with beach cottages, an island lighthouse, and small-town charm. This is Georgia’s northernmost barrier island.

Tybee mermaid sculpture

Tybee Island’s mermaid sculpture

If you’ve come to Tybee Island, you’ve probably come for a beach retreat. There are two main beach areas in Tybee and they couldn’t be more different.

There’s the South Beach – full of families, sunbathers, swimmers, and exactly the sort of white sand beach that you think of when you think of a beach vacation. Dozens of shops and cafes dot the streets leading to the fishing pier and beach. This is the area to visit if you’re looking for beachwear shops, sandwiches and ice cream before or after your swim. When people talk about Tybee Island as “Savannah’s Beach,” this is the section they mean.

Tybee Island South Beach

South Beach

But if you’re looking for natural beauty, sea grass, and undeveloped coastline, the North Beach area is the place for you.

Beach grass at Tybee

Beach grass at North Beach

There are few tourists here. A dangerous riptide warns visitors against swimming, but does not prevent dolphins from frolicking close to shore. You’ll see them more often than not, and may see other sea creatures that wash ashore, like jellyfish and crabs.

The seclusion and tranquility of the North Beach area makes you want to live on Tybee Island.  The crowds at North Beach are minimal; this is more a quiet place to walk along the water’s edge, or bring a chair to sit and read a book. You’ll need to bring your own food and drinks and carry them down a back road and across a wooden bridge. A marsh separates the beach from residential streets. This is the ‘Pat Conroy’ scene you expected when you drove into Tybee.

But Pat Conroy wrote about the Carolinas and this is Tybee Island, Georgia, where a gigantic mermaid sculpture pulled you in like a magnet.  It attracted bestselling author Mary Kay Andrews, too. She calls Tybee Island home and makes frequent book-signing appearances in area shops, including Seaside Sisters, where she hosts a booth of antique treasures.

Tybee Island - outdoor art

Outdoor art on the island

Other artists and writers have been inspired to capture the feel of Tybee Island with pen or paintbrush. Or scrap metal; the medium for that mesmerizing mermaid.

The mermaid is surrounded by beautifully crafted art made from recycled scrap, discarded yard tools and leftover bicycle parts.  These distinctive one-of-a-kind creations will make you sure that someone back home needs one of these creative lawn ornaments.

Even if you don’t step inside the bevy of shops, you’ll enjoy the fanciful flavor the local artists and their sculptures bring to the beach scene.

Tybee shops


And what is a beach without a lighthouse?

Tybee Lighthouse


There is something so alluring about lighthouses, and the Tybee Lighthouse is no exception. The lighthouse itself does not sit that close to the water. In fact, we couldn’t see the ocean until we climbed all 178 steps of the winding staircase to the top and looked out over the remains of Fort Screven that formed a seawall of sorts between the surf and the five acres that the lighthouse and its outbuildings occupy.

The Tybee Island Historical Society has carefully refurbished the buildings to represent the life of a lighthouse keeper’s family in 1916. If you’ve ever thought, I’d like to live in a lighthouse, you’ll suffer lighthouse-keeper-envy as you roam through rooms filled with exquisite hardwood floors, wainscoting, and turn-of-the-century décor. What a picturesque place to grow up!

A tour through the Tybee Island Light Station Museum provides information on the mechanics of the lighthouse and its history – including an explanation of why the lighthouse is not that close to water (anymore). As it turns out, this is the fourth lighthouse erected on Tybee Island, but to learn the history behind that you’ll need to visit the museum yourself.

There is so much to discover in Tybee Island: collections of art, maritime history, and natural fun by the sea. And the beauty of it all? You can make your trip to Tybee Island as lively as you like, or as laid back as you need, by simply exploring different parts of the island.

Photos courtesy of Juliann Wetz.

- Juliann Wetz

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One Response to “Tybee Island: Laid-Back Beach Style in Georgia”

  1. Bob Says:

    Juliann, we first visited Tybee a few years back. Since then we have been to the island several times. We always enjoy the laid-back, relaxing vacation on Tybee.

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