AJ's Dockside is an ideal place to watch the sun set over the back river.
As much a state of mind as a geographic location, Tybee Island has an undeniable allure.
Reminiscent of the Florida Keys before those islands were spoiled by glitzy commercialization, Tybee is an easygoing, free-spirited beach town with an unpretentious, laid-back vibe guaranteed to loosen the kinks and refresh the soul. Separated from Savannah by 18 miles of salt marshes and sky, the little barrier island is just under three miles square and has a year-round population of about 3,400 residents. With a wide, three-mile long beach with multiple public access points, fishing charters, boat rentals, dolphin cruises and historic sites, it’s a great sun ‘n’ surf destination for families on vacation.
For all the comforts of home, there are many agencies on the island that rent charming, fully furnished Tybee abodes. As we recently discovered, Tybee is also an ideal spot for a long, lazy weekend getaway for two. A friend had recommended Mermaid Cottages, and owner Diane Kaufman fixed us up with a snazzy three-level home called Shore Leave. With soaring cathedral ceilings, cheerful, attractive furnishings, a large modern kitchen, wet bar, second-story deck, small screened porch and fenced yard for our two dogs, there was plenty of room to unwind after the five-hour drive from east Cobb. It was the perfect home base for exploring what the island has to offer. I’m often accused of “traveling on my stomach,” meaning I tend to scope out potential eateries at a vacation destination before I look for area attractions or prospective lodgings. I’d picked AJ’s Dockside Restaurant as the logical place to kick off our sojourn, not only because of the gorgeous sunsets over the Back River, but also because of its on-line menu. A delightfully unassuming little place with plenty of local color, AJ’s has a small kitchen that turns out a respectable variety of dishes. We took an outdoor table near the boat docks and watched pelicans settle in on pilings and the last rays of sun turn the horizon pale mauve as we decided what to eat. We went for the deviled crab and crab stew, made with local blue crab, both lump and claw meat; grilled local mahi mahi; and grilled corvina with lump crab meat and Cajun cream sauce. The corvina, flown in from California, was a revelation. In taste and texture it resembled sea bass. We’ll be looking for it on menus elsewhere. A word to the wise — make sure you get AJ’s house made remoulade sauce with your seafood. This non-traditional version has capers, lime juice and “a little bit of this and a little bit of that,” according to our waitress. Put simply, it rocks. The next day was warm and breezy and the ocean’s siren song lured to us Marlin Monroe’s Surfside Grill in the Beachside Colony condos. On an open air wooden deck with an unobstructed view of the Atlantic, surrounded by sand dunes and sea oats, we sampled some of chef Ellen Anderson’s signature dishes. Oysters on the half shell topped with tri-color sweet peppers, crumbled bacon and fontina cheese were tasty. A rack of ribs with a sweet and spicy sauce was accompanied by some of the best sweet potato French fries I’ve ever had. Ellen’s mojo hen, a house specialty, is a split Cornish hen rubbed with citrus and spices and baked to a juicy tenderness. Warm peach pecan chutney complements the fowl, as do sides of collards and fried cakes of jalapeno cheddar grits. Tucked away on Tybrisia Street near the pier on the island’s south end is the Irene Sullivan Gallery. Sullivan, a poet and painter, represents more than 20 artists who work in oils, acrylics and watercolor. We particularly admired some whimsical koi fish done by Mica Weeks in watercolors on canvas, as well as some beautiful impressionistic florals painted by artist Tiffani Taylor. Hunter House Inn is an easy walk from the gallery, and it is like nothing else on the island. Built almost a century ago as a family beach house, the three-story structure went through several owners and when John Hunter bought it in 1988, it had been converted into a low-rent apartment building and fallen on hard times. Hunter fully restored the structure and now lives on the top floor. Below is a gracious four-room inn, restaurant and bar. Hunter’s business partner, Espy Geissler, is a self-taught chef who wants diners to feel as if they were guests at a dinner party in his own home. His food is American classic with Southern influences, and boldly seasoned. A rich seafood bisque of tomato, basil, cognac with shrimp and lobster essences and fresh crab meat practically explodes with flavor. Cajun-spiced crab cakes are chock full of lump and claw meat, lightly fried and served with Geissler’s homemade tomato chutney, a robust concoction that perfectly accentuates the crab. Thick slices of fried green tomato have more texture and tongue-pleasing acidity than most versions. While Hunter House offers fine dining, dress code is island casual. Most restaurants on Tybee are even more free and easy, if not downright funky, such as our next stop. Café Loco is almost hidden beneath the bridge over Lazaretto Creek, which marks Tybee’s city limits. The view from its top floor dining deck includes a small marina, marshes and an expansive swath of water, another wonderful place to watch sunsets. In the downstairs bar and restaurant we met owner Joel Solomon, a 1987 Marietta High School grad who served in the Coast Guard at Tybee and came back to open his eatery because he couldn’t resist the island’s joie de vivre. “People are really different here. I like the Key West-style atmosphere,” he says. If you’re a shrimp fan, this is the place to come. Solomon buys it daily from two trawlers docked outside his back door. We couldn’t stop eating his steamed shrimp flecked with peppery spices and served with drawn butter for dunking. Café Loco is also known for its wings, which are excellent. On our last day on Tybee we sought out Seaside Sisters, a marvelously fun shop full of whimsical art, coastal cottage furniture, colorful jewelry and eclectic décor and accessories. The ladies who run it are friendly and warm, the reigning attitude here on the island. It’s almost impossible to browse through the appealing merchandise without buying. I came away with several interesting necklaces and some wind chimes with a particularly melodious tone. For our farewell meal, we went to MacElwee’s Seafood House for some fresh oysters on the half shell. Owner Lynn Zeigler is a happy dynamo with a jovial laugh bigger than she is. It was much in evidence as she and daughter Audrey bustled back and forth from oil cloth-covered tables to the kitchen, bearing platters of several kinds of fish and shellfish, steak, chicken and pasta to appreciative customers. Fried asparagus spears with horseradish dipping sauce were a real treat, as was blackened mahi, gently seasoned so as not to overwhelm the fish and cooked just right. But Zeigler’s home run, as far as I’m concerned, is her take on a beloved coastal dish known as low country boil. She sauteés local shrimp and sausage together and serves them over a bed of freshly cooked chopped collard greens and homemade red rice full of onion, celery, bell pepper, bacon fat and seasonings. Unusual and inventive, this dish has an absolutely stupendous flavor that I won’t soon forget.