By Sam Burnham
Summer is here and for so many throughout the South that means fun in the sun and surf along the Gulf Coast. Growing up in Georgia, when people said they were headed to the beach they meant Panama City. Occasionally you'd encounter someone who was headed to Destin or maybe Ft. Walton Beach. My family had enough of a peninsular Florida influence that this infatuation with Panama City was bizarre. My childhood beach experiences included Daytona, Ormond, Jacksonville, and St. Augustine. In fact, I visited South Beach on Martha's Vineyard and a secluded beach on Salt Cay, Bahamas before I ever stepped foot in Bay County Florida.
These days, Panama City, and Daytona for that matter, is a picture of an urban center with a strip of white sand. There's just not much there for a small town guy looking for some relaxation that only comes from some peace and quiet. But all the cool kids are doing it. Even Gulf Shores/Orange Beach (our go-to since 2001) and Ft. Walton (our other choice) have really picked up in traffic, crowds and noise.
I can get all that in Atlanta and spend a lot less money.
Enter Summer 2017, stage right.
I think I have found an ABG approved option to the summer beach vacation. It's options plural, really, as is usually the case. I often say that big problems tend to require many small solutions and the beach is no exception. Let's talk about The Beaches of South Walton along scenic Highway 30A. The highway is part of what makes the area great. It's a two lane blacktop that veers off US 98 in Walton County and connects a string of small communities that each have their own feel, personality, if you will. Some of the places are old. Some are recent developments. This is by no means an exhaustive critique of the 30A beaches but I would like to offer a few of my insights on the places I was able to observe.
Blue Mountain Beach
Blue Mountain was our base of operation on this trip. Far removed from the high-rise condo structures in Panama City and Gulf Shores, this neighborhood is peppered with houses with very few businesses of any sort. The colorful structures rise up from the thickets of scrub oaks and spiky palms. But there is nary a mountain in sight. There is an ice cream shop, the Creamery, that I never made it to because the line was stretched out into the street all three times I dropped by. I'm guessing it is good. I can vouch for the ice cream at Buddy's Bike Rentals. The wait was much shorter and the treats good.
Developed by the St. Joe Paper company and designed by the same folks who produced the Disney town of Celebration, WaterColor is a lovely splash of color as well as brick streets. The community has an architecture that mashes well with the landscape. Speaking of landscape, the use of trees and other plants is excellent. The neighborhood has a very homey feel to it. It's very classy without being too posh. When I passed through on bicycle, there were people walking and biking around. There were a few places with tents set up offering kids activities and such. It's still a relatively quiet destination that is just a short walk or bike ride to Seaside, which we'll discuss next.
Seaside is a planned (er...mostly) community that you may have seen in the Jim Carey movie The Truman Show. There is talk that it earned that role because it came across as fake, almost too good to be true. If it is too good to be true, it still convinced me that it was, in fact, true. Along 30A, Seaside is the happening place. That is the one stretch of the road that had moderate traffic. It slowed but it was not the parking lot you experience in other places. It is easily navigated by bike or on foot. Much of the architecture is based on the old Florida designs and that tugged on the heart strings a bit. The community's center is a park that includes a stage area for open air music and drama, restaurants and shops, food trucks made from old Airstream campers, and a quaint little post office that I dare you to try to not photograph. I had to grab a few pictures, I just couldn't help it The interfaith chapel is a breathtaking wedding venue.
Seaside was a little crowded for my taste. A good place to drop in, have a little fun, and then slip back down to a place more my speed. A touch busy but beautiful just the same.
Let's talk about Alys Beach. When you pass through Alys, it will absolutely grab your attention. The stark white structures and statuary put a modern twist on the beaches along this highway. The cars and amenities indicate that there is money in Alys Beach. I'm honestly not a fan of the architecture. I don't think it blends well with the landscape. I don't think that I could get comfortable there. Between the harsh angles and bleached appearance, I'd be scared to sit down anywhere. It seems sterile, perhaps even starched. Don't get me wrong, it's a sight to see. I'd suggest a ride through. If you're into the modernist thing, I'd say stay there. But I'd feel much more at home in Grayton.
Grayton was my favorite of all the communities along 30A. It appears to be the oldest with the first homesteader showing up in the 1880s. The homes have a vernacular feel to them. Even the larger buildings fit neatly into the design scheme of the village. There are a few places for food and drinks. The beach offers an access for boat launching for the gulf while another ramp gives boat access to the lake on the east end of town. There is a lot of shade along the streets. The whole feel of the place is relaxed. Grayton seems to look at you from the porches and call out for you to slow down, take a load off. I'm not saying it is the 12 Southerners with a sand dune but it is about as close as I expect to get to that. I thought so much of this place that I visited it just about every day on bicycle. I'd recommend a stop there for anyone.
I plan to dive deeper into the finer points of 30A this summer. There is more to discuss but this is an overview of the area.
See you soon.
By Sam Burnham
During the Summer Road Trip Ft. McAllister State Historic Park served as our base of operations. Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites has a spacious campground and some beautiful cottages built along the coastal salt marshes in the park. The accommodations are affordable and comfortable as well as convenient to the sites we visited on out trip. We drove to each site from this location with the exception of Milledgeville, which we visited on our way to the coast.
Let me take a minute at this point to say that the people we encountered in Richmond Hill were as friendly as any we've met in Georgia. The park staff, people in stores, everyone we encountered were just good friendly folks. We definitely recommend dinner at Fish Tales on Ft. McAllister Rd. The restaurant sits right on the beautiful Ogeechee River, the food is good, the atmosphere great, and the bartender was wearing overalls and a bow tie.
Ft. McAllister is not a new site for us. We've been there a couple of times, including a Christmas road trip this past December. The Winter Muster is a great program surrounding the anniversary of the fort's capture that also ties in period Christmas traditions.
But this was their Independence Day celebration. There were fort tours, rifle and artillery demonstrations, a little music, and, appropriately, baseball.
Baseball in the 1860's was a bit different than baseball today. I'm not talking Field of Dreams and Shoeless Joe different. I mean different.
Needless to say, the game is unpredictable and full of laughs. It was a fun experience just to watch.
By Sam Burnham
The next stop on our Summer Road Trip carried us to Sunbury and Midway in Liberty County. Georgia is often noted for its strong Tory presence during the war but Liberty County was a patriot stronghold of sorts. The county's name was chosen by the fact that St. John's Parish, which would join St. Andrew's and St. James' Parishes to form one county, was the first in the state to vote for Liberty. St. John's Parish residents Lyman Hall and Button Gwinnett would join Augusta resident George Walton to be Georgia's three signers of the Declaration of Independence. Midway Church Cemetery is the final resting place of numerous warriors of the cause of Independence, including Daniel Stewart and James Screven.
Down the road from Midway is Sunbury. This town, nestled on St. Catherine's Sound, along the River Medway, was once a bustling seaport that rivaled Savannah in importing, exporting, and passenger travel. For several years, the friendly rivalry between Savannah and Sunbury urged each town to work to increase their productivity to overtake the other and be the top port. Sunbury had churhces, businesses, homes, and, of course, the protection of Ft. Morris. The depth of St. Catherine's and Medway made this river one of the deepest south of the Chesapeake. The fort was set on a location that offered it a clear line of fire on approaching ships before they could position for a broadside assault. It was an excellent site for a coastal town.
But disease and other factors took their toll and Sunbury died. The forest took back the land that once was home of Georgia's greatest port. Nothing remained but the old cemetery and memories.
But over the last several years, residential development has returned to Sunbury. People are building homes on the old development plots of the town. St. Catherine's Sound creates a beautiful view for these homes and jobs in nearby Hinesville and the Savannah area make this a great place for a home.
On the grounds of Ft. Morris State Historic Site is a memorial - a monument and a Live Oak that commemorate the first Masonic meeting in the colony of Georgia which was presided over by James Oglethorpe in February of 1734. The meeting was reportedly held in the shade under a giant oak that has since died. The new oak was planted as a suitable replacement and the monument was placed with the inscription telling the story.
Ft. Morris saw action in the American Revolution. British forces, wishing to both control the port of Sunbury and punish the rebel hotbed, came to the area in November of 1778 and demanded the fort's immediate surrender. Col. McIntosh decided he wasn't ready to leave yet and, being a typical grouchy Georgian, suggested that perhaps the British should "Come and take it!" (Emphasis his). This suggestion was not one the British agreed with considering the force they had with them. They retreated to Florida and returned the following January with more men and then did take the fort.
Ft. Morris would later serve the United States again, being renamed Ft. Defiance during the War of 1812.
One of our favorite stories however, was a true Georgia "hey y'all watch this, somebody hold my beer" moment.
There was an old cannon left over from the fort. Some folks who lived in the general area had located the old relic and decided that a good early 20th century thing to do to cure boredom might be to fire the old thing. So they came up with a makeshift cannon crew of good old Georgia boys with little to no experience or knowledge in artillery. They packed the barrel and fuse hole with powder. While the rammer was packing the barrel with a mop (in lieu of a real ramrod) the inexperienced and trigger happy guy at the fuse lit the disaster off prematurely. The rammer, scared out of his wits, fled the scene, leaving the mop shoved in the muzzle of the gun. The powder went off, Somewhere between the structural integrity of the cannon - compromised by advanced age, the muzzle obstructed by the mop, powder measured out by the 1st Georgia Amateur Artillery's Hold My Beer Battery, general user error, and Murphy's Law, that cannon went all to pieces. I don't mean metaphorically. The remains of the cannon, at least a half a dozen pieces, displayed like Tolkien's Shards of Narsil, awaiting the day when the King of Georgia will return to reforge the gun and battle the forces of evil. But he'll probably just blast the cannon into pieces again.
Jokes and funny stories aside, Liberty County, of which we've really only sampled two towns so far, is a history buff's paradise. A stop in Midway is a must and we highly recommend Ft. Morris State Historic Site.
The road continues.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire