Travel

Idyllic isle

I came here an overworked city slicker, and departed feeling like Robinson Crusoe - minus the shipwreck, cannibals and scheming mutineers. I had this transformational experience at Eagle Island, a private, 10-acre getaway off the Georgia coast with a rustic yet fully equipped lodge surrounded by thousands of acres of marsh.

If you're the high-maintenance type who doesn't much care for a travel destination unless it's within easy distance to trendy bars and four-star restaurants, this place probably isn't for you.

What Eagle Island offers is the opportunity to slow down, unplug, and experience what a strange and wonderful phenomenon nature can be when left undisturbed.

Eagle Island is about a 20-minute boat ride from Darien, Ga., a small fishing village about 60 miles south of Savannah.

It's where we met Capt. Andy Hill, Eagle Island's host and proprietor.

After Hill and his crew loaded up our bags, we followed him on a pontoon boat - which guests can rent for $150 a day -for the short trip to Eagle Island.

For guests who don't know their stern from their bow, round- trip boat transportation to the island is provided. And visitors who bring their personal boat to the island get a $100 discount. As part of each visit, Hill shows guests around the Darien River and local waterways, including popular fishing spots and other scenic, unspoiled islands.

As we motored away from Darien where about a dozen shrimp boats were docked along the shore, it felt a bit like traveling back in time. All remnants of development and civilization soon faded away, and time seemed to slow down as we cruised past a string of marshy, dune-covered barrier islands. The only signs of life: silver- gray gulls and white, long-legged herons pecking around for food along the island's shorelines.

Then, a bit like a mirage, Eagle Island lodge came into view, partly hidden by marshy grass and tall hardwoods. Oak trees were draped in Spanish moss.

Hill spent two years building the lodge, which was completed in 2002. In his previous life he owned a string of Wendy's franchises across the Southeastern United Sates. But his dream was always to live and work on the water. He was the captain of the water ski team at the University of Georgia, and in the mid-1980s earned boat captain and scuba-diving licenses.

He purchased 10-acre Eagle Island in 1998, and two years later sold the majority of his fast-food restaurants to build the three-story, 3,343-square-foot lodge, which is made in part with reclaimed cypress, ballast stone and brick. The lodge can accommodate up to 12 guests.

Hill is the consummate host, and takes great pains to make sure all the details are taken of. Prior to arrival, guests submit a grocery list and Hill stocks the kitchen with all the requested food items and goodies. With fully equipped indoor and outdoor kitchens, the lodge is designed for food lovers, and has all the equipment necessary for Lowcountry boils and steamed oyster feasts.

Once we settled in, the lodge's wraparound screen porch, complete with a hot tub and fireplace, became one of the favorite spots to hang out. Several of us planted ourselves on the porch's expansive swings and hammocks, and sipped adult beverages while soaking up our wild surroundings and relishing in the cool breeze coming off the water.

The porch is also a great vantage point to spot the island's namesake - a bald eagle resides in a nest situated atop a towering tree just a few dozen yards from the lodge.

In no time any stress and worry from life back home melted away as we fell into the easy, slow rhythm of the island.

And then... "Alligator!"

The kids, who had been exploring the grounds around the lodge, had spotted a baby alligator swimming in a small pond nearby.

We never did see the baby alligator's mom or dad, and the kids soon moved on to other distractions, including the lodge's ground-level playroom, which has bunk beds, a ping-pong table and board games.

Sitting around, relaxing and taking in the scenery is enjoyable for only so long, so we eventually decided to follow the kids' lead and do a little exploring ourselves.

Along the waterways

Kayaks are available to paddle along Eagle Island's waterways, and it's a great way to get up an-close look of the different habitats that thrive in the area.

Georgia's barrier islands are believed to have formed over the course of thousands, perhaps even millions, of years as the result of seal-level fluctuations caused by glacial melting.

However they came to be, from inside a kayak you can really see and feel all the primordial life bubbling just below the surface of the their waters. While we spotted plenty of recognizable marine life, such as crabs and jellyfish, there were also a few mysterious shadows that passed below our boat. In all likelihood they were stingrays. While fishing off the lodge's dock we pulled nearly a half dozen out of the water.

With deep-water access during all tides, island hopping via boat is also a breeze. We spent hours in the pontoon boat exploring the elaborate web of island waterways that flow into the area's Doboy Sound, which connects to the Atlantic via a pass near Sapelo Island, a must-see destination for Eagle Island visitors.

The 17,950-acre Sapelo ("SAP-a-low") is about 12 miles long and four miles wide. It's one of Georgia's largest barrier islands, and most of it is undeveloped. The State of Georgia owns the majority of the island, which is home to the National Estuarine Research Reserve and Wildlife Refuge.

The island is also home to the small community of Hog Hammock. Most residents are descendants of slaves. Today, about 50 people live in the settlement, which consists of a general store, bar, a few other small businesses and two churches.

Hill arranges private tours of Sapelo Island, and while we were there we had the entire beach to ourselves. Because it's undeveloped, there's a bounty of shells to be found, and in no time we had filled up buckets with sand dollars and conch shells.

Back at the lodge, delectable feasts highlighted every evening, thanks to my brother-in-law Chris, the resident cook. As we all sat around a big table on the porch dining on oysters and blue crabs caught right off the dock, we marveled at the night sky, and how the island came alive with all the creatures big and small thriving among the semi-tropical vegetation. Separated from the rest of the world by rivers, creeks and thousands of acres of marsh, we felt isolated and cut off from civilization. It was pure bliss while it lasted.

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