Wish You Were Here. Welcome to Sapelo – The Most Beautiful, Haunting Island on the East Coast.

by Chris Dixon

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When I lived in California, one of the most common misconceptions I heard from Californians who had never visited the East Coast (and there are plenty – even surfers, who have never set foot in the Atlantic) was this general theme: “Dude, it must be a bummer to live on the East Coast because it’s all industrial and developed.”

In fact, that’s not the case – at all.

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One of the Sapelo Ferries. Photo: Chris Dixon

Sure, there’s mile after mile of developed shoreline along the East Coast, especially in Florida and along the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic corridor. But even along those coasts, there are state parks, National Seashores and plenty of empty coastline – if you know where to look. But it’s when you get to the southeastern coast – from just south of Georgetown, South Carolina down to Cumberland Island, Georgia, that huge stretches of seascape remain positively primeval.

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Heading to the Island. Photo: Chris Dixon

A couple of months ago, I traveled to Sapelo, a remote barrier island off the coast of Georgia on an assignment for Garden & Gun magazine. I was there to profile a gracious and fiercely intelligent woman named Cornelia Bailey, who is the matriarch of an astonishing little island community called Hog Hammock. I first visited Hog Hammock many moons ago with my good friend Marla Henderson when I was just out of the University of Georgia. It’s the last true “Gullah Geechee” barrier island community along the east coast. A moss-shrouded little village that’s almost exclusively the domain of folks who can directly trace their ancestry to slaves who worked the island’s forests and fields hundreds of years ago – growing cotton, citrus, and the very first commercial strain of sugar cane in the United States.

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Sapelo’s main road. They call it “The Autobahn.” Photo: Chris Dixon

Today, nearly all of Sapelo is protected from development, with Hog Hammock remaining a tiny private inholding of forest, field, marsh and tiny homes. Over the generations, the community’s population has dwindled, as locals have aged, followed opportunity off the island or sold out to people from ‘off.’ Lately though, Bailey has been working with a dedicated team of locals and off-islanders that include an Atlanta physician “Doc” Bill Thomas, genius food historians David Shields and Glenn Roberts and Stephen Kresovich, one of the most highly regarded geneticists alive – to bring back the heirloom crops that once sustained the island.

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Sapelo Island “Geechee Red Peas” are a favorite of Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins. Photo: Chris Dixon

Their hope is to return Sapelo to its roots by bringing agriculture back on a scale that it will not only gain the attention of chefs and foodies (it already has in fact, Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins is a primary customer of Bailey’s “Geechee Red Peas”), but that it might lure back some of those who’ve left.

Here’s a collection of photos I took of a very beautiful place. Scroll down for info on how to visit, and a link to my story in Garden & Gun “The Heart of Sapelo,” and a seriously gorgeous series of photos by G&G photographer Imke Lass.

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill’s” Sapelo Island Bird Houses. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Nannygoat Beach. Yeah, you can surf and fish here. Photo: Chris Dixon

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“Doc Bill” and Cornelia. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Hog Hammock. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Lula’s Kitchen – with some of the best southern cooking on earth. Hog Hammock. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Graball Country Store. Hog Hammock. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Wallow. Hog Hammock. Photo: Chris Dixon

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On the edge of Hog Hammock. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Pine and wiregrass savanna outside of Hog Hammock. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Sapelo’s “Behavior” Cemetery. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Road to Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Road to Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Road to Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Road to Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Road to Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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The Road to Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Cabretta Beach. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Cabretta Beach. Photo: “Doc Bill” 

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Click here to read my story “The Heart of Sapelo” from Garden & Gun magazine.

You can visit Sapelo, by staying with the Baileys at their in “The Wallow,” or renting a golf cart from them for a day trip to Nannygoat beach, or by visiting “Doc Bill’s” incredible Sapelo Bird House cottages, 912-223-6515 info@sapeloislandbirdhouses.com. You must have an island reservation with one of these locals to ride the ferry out to Sapelo – and your hosts will set up your ferry ride too.

Cornelia Bailey also wrote a fascinating book called “God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man.” It’s all about her life growing up on Sapelo.

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