Friday, February 22, 2013

A Seafood Extravaganza - Part 2

Dateline: Savannah, Georgia and Mount Rainier, Maryland

The rest of my seafood extravaganza was not to be!

I departed Gainesville as planned on a very cold yet sunny day. The temperature was hovering just above the freezing mark and there was frost on the ground as I began my northward journey up Florida Route 24 and US 301, through the speedtrap hamlets of Waldo and Lawtey. I passed several strawberry fields in Alachua and Bradford counties on my way to Jacksonville, most of which were encrusted with ice. I thought to myself . . . there is something dreadfully wrong with this picture. Just a week before I had passed this way on my southbound journey and the temperatures were hovering around 80F at sunset. The week I spent in Florida most days were lucky to climb into the 60s, if that.

But I had other things on my mind. I was up- and outward bound with the idea of dining on some fresh Georgia seafood by lunchtime. A little over two hours after departing Gainesville, I was crossing the St. Marys River and passing from Florida into Georgia. The St. Marys region is the gateway to Cumberland Island, Georgia's largest and southernmost barrier island which is home to pristine maritime forests and marshes and undeveloped beaches and almost ten thousand acres of Congressionally designated wilderness area (one of the few things I can thank Congress for these days). Unfortunately for me, Cumberland Island is only accessible by ferry and my timetable did not allow me to return to the island I first visited forty years ago this month, around the same time the island, which was once owned by the Carnegie family, was deeded to the US government and designated by Congress as a National Seashore managed by the National Park Service. I am sorry I did not have a chance to return and see what it looks like today.

I continued up Interstate 95 to Brunswick with the intention of visiting Jekyll and St. Simon islands, two more of Georgia’s famed barrier islands, which I also first visited forty years ago. This is a region of unsullied marshlands and small islands known as hammocks, extending out to the barrier islands and populated with birds, fish and other marine life.

The southernmost island of Georgia’s Golden Isles is Jekyll Island which was originally purchased in 1886 by a group of wealthy families as a private retreat. By 1900, The Jekyll Island Club included representatives of the Rockefeller, Morgan, Crane and Gould families which at the time represented almost 20% of the world’s wealth. The Club closed in 1942 and Jekyll Island was purchased by the State of Georgia in 1947 and is presently managed by the Jekyll Island Authority. When I first came here in the late winter of 1972, I don’t recall it being very developed . . . it was well-known for beaches and its wide variety of seashells and sand dollars. So I thought it would be fun to have a look around the place and perhaps sample the local seafood. I followed the causeway out to the island until I arrived at the entrance gate where I would be charged what I considered to be an exorbitant rate to just drive around the island. On top of that there was a $6 daily parking surcharge. It seems to me the State of Georgia wanted the Rockefellers and the Morgans to return.

I took the first available u-turn and backtracked along the South Brunswick River to the Sydney Lanier Bridge, Georgia’s longest (7780 feet) and tallest (486 feet) cable-stayed suspension bridge providing easy access to Brunswick and St. Simon Island. It is named in honor of the Macon-born poet (1842-1881) who wrote the “Marshes of Glynn” (1878), an evocative long poem featured in "Hymns of the Marshes," an unfinished set of lyrical nature poems about the beautiful marshlands of this region. After crossing the bridge I actually crossed over the Marshes of Glynn on the Torras Causeway (there are designated “Terrapin Crossings” during the May-July migration) to St. Simon Island, the largest of the Golden Isles. Here I drove though the winding Spanish moss-draped roadways into the village at the southern end of the island surrounding the 1872 lighthouse still in operation. The original lighthouse, constructed in 1810, was destroyed by Confederates in 1862 to prevent its use by Federal forces.

I parked here and wandered around the lighthouse and the village pier which afforded me a broad panorama of the Brunswick River estuary. I browsed through the shops and galleries along Mallery Street, the skies remaining sunny yet the temperature hovering only in the mid 50s with a crisp breeze coming off the water.

I finally settled into a local eatery for a platter of large succulent oysters. Hoping they were local, but learning they were from Galveston, Texas, they were too good to pass up. I followed this with a generous portion of local wild Georgia white shrimp wrapped in Southern-cured bacon served with various dipping sauces and all washed down with a delicious toasted lager.

After lunch I resumed my northward journey, returning to the mainland and following US Route 17 to Darien, on the banks of the Altamaha River. I poked around the waterfront shrimping operations and Fort King George, which is Georgia's oldest fort constructed in 1721 and at the time the southern-most outpost of the British Empire in North America. The fort was abandoned in 1727 following attacks from the Spanish. The town, establish in 1736, is the second oldest in the state. Darien and McIntosh County registered some of the highest oyster harvests in the world in the late 19th and early 20 centuries, rivaling even the Chesapeake Bay, yet the industry went into a long decline after 1910 as a result of over harvesting (which perhaps explains why I could not find local oysters during my recent lunch stop). As the oysterbeds declined, a new commercial wild shrimp fishery developed, and by the early 1960s, Darien and McIntosh County had the largest shrimping fleet along the Georgia coast. Yet today, Georgia's shrimping industry struggles to survive against foreign competition, a story you hear up and down the Atlantic Seaboard.

From Darien I took scenic Georgia Route 99, the old Ridge Road, running along the edges of the coastal marshes between the mainland and Sapelo Island, one of the northernmost of the Golden Isles of Georgia which for many years was the private fiefdom of the RJ Reynolds family and is now the home of the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve. I eventually wound my way back to I-95 and from that point it was a short hop up to Savannah which was my day’s destination.

I settled into my motel looking toward to an evening exploring the older precincts of the city bordering the Savannah River. I was particular excited with the prospects having never really visited the city after closely bypassing it all these many years. Two years ago we were suppose to spend a few days here while I was attending a literary conference, but our plans changed suddenly when we had car problems on the way down and we never made it. I had dinner reservations at a fantastic place recommended by a friend and I thought this would be a perfect end to a most pleasant day. Alas, it was not to be. I began feeling ill - it turned out to be a touch of the flu - and it only got worse as the dinner hour approached. To make a long story short, I canceled the reservation and spent a long and most unpleasant evening in my hotel room. There is nothing worst than falling ill on the road.

The next morning it was only worse. There was no way I was going to make it to Charleston and to the Outer Banks as planned. Instead, I steeled myself and set out on a nine-hour, 600 mile trip up I-95. I figured, if I am going to be sick, I would rather do it at home. To make matters worse, it rained almost steady all the way home.

Now I sit here drinking tea and eating nothing more adventurous than chicken and beef broth and pots of tea. No more oysters, crab, shrimp and other bounties of the sea for me. That will have to await another time and opportunity.

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