Although I’ve been visiting Tybee Island for over thirty years, and we’ve owned a vacation home there for four years, I’m really not an expert on this funky, junky little barrier island off the coast of Savannah. But I do get emails all the time from folks looking for travel tips. So. Here goes my Tybee travelogue, all based on my own personal opinions and experiences.
First: try to plan your trip around the weather. We love Tybee year-round, but if you’re not used to extreme heat, humidity and yes, bugs, skip the summertime. But if you’re from the South, you’re used to the reality, so plan ahead. Just remember to take some sun-block and some insect repellent. Spring and fall are our favorite times on the island. The temperatures are usually mild. And if you love the beach in the winter, try Tybee then. Temps generally hover in the 50s and 60s, and the island is quiet and uncrowded. We love festivals and parades on Tybee, from The Beach Bum Parade, which happens the last weekend before the official start of tourist season on Memorial Day weekend, to the Fourth of July festivities to Pirate Fest in early October, to Mardi Gras, followed by Tybee’s version of St. Patrick’s Day.
Accomodations? To be honest, I’ve never stayed in the motels on the island. Until we bought our place, we always rented houses, and nearly always from our friend Diane at Mermaid Cottages, who now manages our own cottage, The Breeze Inn. Unless you’re staying only overnight, a cottage is just a way better deal, especially if you’re travelling with family. You can usually find a two bedroom cottage for under $200 a night–way better than crowding four people into a cramped motel room, plus with a house you get a fully stocked kitchen, a living room, and a place for meals. You save money even if you only fix cereal in the mornings and pack lunches to take to the beach. And most of the cottages have their own washer-dryer. Many also have screened porches and or decks, and fenced yards. Lots of the Mermaid Cottages accept pets too! (Although pets are NOT allowed on the beach.) If you rent a cottage, you’ll pay an extra cleaning fee, plus a refundable security deposit, but these cottages are spotlessly clean, with lovely, high quality sheets and towels. I know this, because I’ve personally stayed in more than a dozen different Mermaid Cottages over the years. Plus you get the amazing service of Diane and her staff to help you have a fabulous time on the island. If a condo or a larger beach house suitable for big groups is more your speed, give Tybee Island Vacation Rentals a call. There are at least three small inns on the island, and the newest one is the elegant Beachview Bed and Breakfast. I toured the guest rooms recently and this place looks divine!
Dining. Believe me when I say Tybee is extremely casual. There is no place on the island (including most churches) you can’t go in shorts and flip-flops. Our favorite restaurant, hands-down, is Sundae Cafe. This unprepossessing spot is located in a strip shopping center between a Chu’s convenience store and a liquor store, but don’t let appearances fool you. Day times you get an excellent lunch at great prices–which is why you’ll always find local cops and firemen and fishermen filling every table, plus the bar. Go early so you can get the specials which can run out fast with items like the crispy-scored flounder or the fried-oyster po-boy. Evenings are dressier, which means maybe you put on a collared shirt, or switch the bathing suit cover-up for a tee and some capris. Families with children are welcome at Sundae, which is good, because we always take our kids and grand-kids. Weekends and holidays, and all summer, you’ll want to call ahead for a reservation. But here’s a tip: you can always check the menu on-line and order your dinner to-go, which is what we do if Mr. MKA gets back late from a fishing trip, or the little ones are just too cranky to take out in public. Also? Portions are HUGE! I nearly always save half my dinner to have for lunch the next day.
Sundae Cafe’s desserts are awesome, but if you want something a little lighter, in warm weather months, take a stroll down Tybrisa Avenue to Jimmy’s Seaside Sweets for some delicious of their delicious custom-made gelato. My favorite is the chocolate Marsh Mud, or the Almond Joy–mmm, mmm, good. Their fun old-fashioned candy counter is also popular with kids.
Some of our other favorite dining options include Tybee Island Social Club, or Social as the locals call it. Very laid-back, with their version of a taco which is actually sort of a pita, with fillings ranging from barbecue duck to shrimp to fish. Prices are dirt cheap, and the house-made cocktails are fun and inventive. There’s a front porch open to the breezes, and often live entertainment. Right across the street is another fun option, Sting-Rays, with open-air seating, seafood and more live entertainment. At least once during your trip to Tybee you’ll want to watch a sunset over the Back River. That’s when you plan a trip to A.J’s. Sit on the deck, sip a cocktail, order some seafood and bust a chill, as our son, Boomerang Boy would say.
If you’re dining a little late, or you want to experience dinner looking out at the ocean, try Fanny’s On The Beach. Fare is what you’d expect, pizzas, sandwiches, some seafood entrees, but they have two rooftop decks for that all-important view. Can get noisy during the season.
Every visitor to Tybee should experience The Breakfast Club at least once. This local institution looks like a greasy spoon, but don’t be deceived by appearances. Owner/chef Jodee offers fabulous fare, always fresh, house-made sausages and sauces, and local specialties like shrimp and grits are on the menu. I love the Solidarity omelet. Portions are large, and prices are fair, but not cheap. Now, if only they’d switch their fountain drinks from Pepsi to Coke, I’d be a happy camper. Expect to run into a line of hungry folks unless you go before 8am, especially in the summer. If the line is too long, or you’ve got little ones in tow, maybe cross the street to Sunrise, which has a steam-table breakfast buffet, or you can order off the menu. Service is quick, prices are cheap, and unless you hit it Sunday morning right after mass gets out at St. Michael’s up the street, you probably won’t have to wait for your eggs and grits.
Dining in? Or picnicking? The IGA/Tybee Market right on Butler Avenue has a full line of groceries and sells wine and beer. The in-house bakery and deli is amazingly good. I’m talking homemade biscuits and cinnamon rolls in the morning, and excellent Southern fried chicken in the deli, not to mention hefty, made to order sandwiches for very reasonable prices. For a great day at the beach, call ahead and order sandwiches, side salads and/or fried chicken to pack in your cooler for a picnic. The Tybee Market’s homemade pimento cheese is the authentic, Southern real deal. Seafood there is usually fresh in season, and reasonably priced. Unfortunately, produce here can be sketchy. We like to stop at Davis Produce Stand on the way out to the beach for fresh fruits and vegetables and boiled peanuts.Note: Davis is not actually on Tybee. If you cross the Lazaretto Creek Bridge, you’ve gone too far! Or for a “big grocery shop” we stop at Publix on Wilmington Island. But if we’re cooking for a crowd, and Mr. MKA comes back from his boat empty-handed, we head down to Bowie’s Seafood, the bright blue former filling station located on “the bend” where U.S. 80 meets Butler Avenue. You’ll find very fresh local-caught shrimp, crab, fish and oysters, depending on the season. They’ll even pack you a cooler with ice and seafood to take home. Be aware though, their hours can be a little “quirky.” Which means they sometimes operate on what we like to call “Tybee Time.” Same goes for Davis Produce!
Sight-seeing. If you need a little more excitement than the waves lapping on the beach, here are some ideas courtesy of the island tourism office. . For one thing, park the car and walk or bike! Our guests at The Breeze Inn rent bikes from Tim’s Bikes and Beach Gear. (Also baby equipment, including cribs and bike-trailers) He’ll deliver right to your door, and pick up your bike again when you’re ready to head home. Tybee is perfectly flat and perfectly easy to bike–the whole island is only about 2.6 miles long. A fun stop is the Tybee Island History Center on the North end of the beach. Walk up the 178 steps of the old Tybee lighthouse and get a grand view of the ocean and the surrounding marsh. A little farther back up Highway 80 you’ll see old Fort Pulaski. A modest entry fee gets you into the old fort, which is a great spot for self-guided hikes. Since this is a barrier island, there are lots of watery activities to try, including kayaking or canoeing, charter fishing and dolphin and eco-tours.
Night-life. If you read my novel, Savannah Breeze, you know about Doc’s Bar, which is a Tybee landmark. Located on Tybrisa, Doc’s is a great spot to kick back at night with a drink, or to dance to some live beach music with the locals. It’s even cool if you’re on a chick trip, since nobody cares if you’re dancing with your besties! You might even catch local singer-songwriters performing several nights a week. You could also do karaoke at Bennie’s, or go over to Huc-a-Poo’s for pizza and some corn-hole. If you’re drinking, plan to walk back to your cottage–or take the Crab Cab. If it’s a night of dressed-up glamour you’re after, you’d best head into Savannah. For a special night have dinner at Ye Olde Pink House, or Vic’s, and go to the rooftop bar at The Bohemian on River Street, a glam spot for appetizers and stunning views of the Savannah skyline and the Savannah River.
Shopping. Of course, I’m biased, but most folks would agree with me that the best shopping on the island is at Seaside Sisters on Highway 80. Owner Susan Kelleher brings a unique mix of coastal, cottagey charm to this combination gift/home goods/art/antiques shop. Here’s where you’ll find just the right touch of Tybee to take home, whether it’s jewelry, cute bathing suit cover-ups, scented candles, funny greeting cards, or yes–vintage treasures like the ones I stock in my booth there. This is also the best spot to pick up a fun beach read–especially since Susan always stocks all the latest MKA novels, as well as Paula Deen cookbooks and food gifts. Did you know Paula has a house on Tybee? You can rent it through Mermaid Cottages. Otherwise, there are plenty of shops all over the island to buy typical tacky touristy stuff. I do like the nice bathing suits, beach gear, shoes, and sunglasses offered at The Surf Shop, and it’s fun to shop the eccentric offerings at Fish Art, which is right before Seaside Sisters on Highway 80.
So…that’s my little Tybee travelogue. Relax, kick off your flips and stay a while. And tell ’em MKA sent you!