An eclectic haven with surprising history, Tybee is a place where businesses are owned and operated by people with saltwater in their veins and true passion for the preservation of the island’s natural beauty. I quickly learned that life is best lived on “Tybee Time,” preferably on a dock or in Adirondack chairs sharing front porch philosophies with friends. Know as “Savannah’s Beach,” not only is the area one of Atlantan’s quickest routes to the sea, but offers a unique, retro getaway. You won’t find a Starbucks here, or anything commerical for that matter.
More than a decade ago, Diane Kaufman, founder and owner, or as she prefers, “Head Mermaid,” of the cheerfully restored Mermaid Cottages decided to leave the city life for a slower pace.
Many of her inviting properties date back to the early 1900s, and have welcomed big-named beachgoers over the years, including celebrity chef Paula Deen and author Mary Kay Andrews. While writing her New York Times bestselling novels, Andrews fell for the charm here and bought her own rental – The Breeze Inn. Meanwhile, devoted fans of Deen can get a taste of her personal beach home including recipes from her cookbooks at the Y’all Come Inn. As for me, I fell for the timeless elegance of Eisenhower’s Retreat.
Built in 1896 before Tybee’s heydays as a bustling resort destination, this home was one of an original row of summer cottages that comprise the Historic Tybee Strand District, developed after construction of the Savannah-Tybee Railroad, and now listed on the list of National Historic Houses by the Department of the Interior. Formerly known as the Dixon Cottage, the name references President – then General – Dwight D. Eisenhower’s stay in 1947.
Situated only steps from the serenity of the ocean yet far enough from the nighttime revelers, the cottage is bedecked in bright orange appliances including a retro Frigidaire outfitting the vintage-inspired kitchen. Eight can sleep comfortably and a large screened-in veranda spans the beachside of the house.
For larger house parties, Tybee Joy Vacations offers a more modern option like the Happy House, a sunshine yellow, three-story rental with spacious luxury accommodations for 27 guests.
Rise and Dine
Resist the natural pull of Tybee Time to take in all the island has to offer, starting with a spot at The Breakfast Club. The best seat in this diner is at the counter, where chefs act like comedians without missing a beat on the line. In peak season, the line of hungry patrons begins wrapping around the sidewalk for omelets, grits, toast and “awful good” pecan pancakes. The owner’s claim to fame was originally his assistance in catering JFK Jr.’s wedding, but the multiple “Best Breakfast” and “Reader’s Choice” awards now speak for themselves.
Across Butler Avenue, more early risers line up outside Sunrise Restaurant, where the fine Southern cooking has earned a reputation of its own. The signature hash brown deluxe or shrimp and grits are surefire ways to start the day deliciously. And late-risers don’t sweat it: both keep serving up the sizzling goodness until 1 and 2 p.m., respectively.
To burn off the well-indulged calories, spend a day or even a few hours with Sea Kayak Georgia. Coowner Marsha Henson and gifted naturalist Dan Genrich led our ecoadventure. Even when the waters get choppy, certified instructors can help first-time kayakers get comfortable en route to the uninhabited Little Tybee Island. If standup paddle boarding is on the beach bucket list, Sea Kayak Georgia offers that too.
One of my favorite porches is atop Coco’s Sunset Grille, an unparalleled locale for spotting dolphins and watching the sun slowly melt into the marshland. Each night, the bar celebrates the end of the day with a fruity concoction called “Cocotail” and, oftentimes owner Tracy McMahon leads the toast while tooting a conch shell. Besides the view, Coco’s wild Georgia shrimp, caught fresh in the adjacent Lazaretto Creek, is certainly memorable.
Found inside Dolphin Reef, the bar and restaurant of Ocean Plaza Resort, the tall glass windows overlooking sea, sand and pier will surely put anyone in an island mindset. Ocean Plaza replaced the legendary Tybee Hotel, and although the building itself has seen plenty of renovation, the charm remains retro and the view timeless.
After the sun goes down, nightly entertainment heats up at Tybee Island Social Club, which husband and wife duo Kurtis and Sara Schuuman opened as a marriage of their backgrounds. Kurtis is a singer/songwriter hailing from Nashville’s Bluebird Café and Sara previously owned an interior design shop in downtown Savannah. The result is a posh spot that feels like a surf bungalow, bringing in the best local live music from the mainland and a menu to please discerning foodies.
The couple also added a sister restaurant, Tybee Island Fish Camp …sounds like a good excuse for more Tybee Time soon.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: visittybee.com
[Photography courtesy of Anna Morales; Mermaid Cottages; Sea Kayak Georgia; Coco’s Sunset Grille; Tybee Island Social Club | A version of this article originally appeared in Points North Atlanta Magazine]