atlanta day trip: sapelo island's annual culture day
Unspoiled natural beauty, rural relaxation, a unique blend of African and Southern traditions, a step back in time - this is Sapelo Island. I was first introduced to Sapelo by my cuzzin Miko almost 2 years ago. She and her husband Fred were regular volunteers with SICARS – the Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society – and were then planning to have their nuptial celebration on the island. She invited me and a few other friends to go down to camp out and explore the island for a weekend and ultimately to understand why she and her husband considered the place special enough to be the location for their wedding. After that first trip, I was smitten; and since then I’ve been absolutely head over heels in love with Sapelo.
Sapelo is not your typical island destination and it’s decidedly different from the other, more popular tourist-trap islands off the Georgia coast. It’s completely unplugged from both the conveniences and hassles of city life. There are no hospitals, traffic lights, or police stations (and no need for them, thank you very much). Getting around on the island requires that you rent a bike, or chat up some of the residents to see who might be headed the direction you’re going. The only shopping to be done is at the corner store that carries everything from gum to fishing line. The luxury accommodations consist of a smattering of double-wide trailers turned boarding houses – the most well-known of those being the Wallow, which is run by local residents Julius and Cornelia Bailey . For the more budget-conscious traveler, the Baileys also accept ‘reservations’ for use of the Comyam campground (comyam is geechee speak describing non-residents, Beenyam being the term used for island descendants), where the amenities include flush toilets and hot water showers – a steal at only $10 per person/night. For a night on the town, The Trough – conveniently located on the back-side of the aforementioned store – is the place to see and be seen. You can grab a beer, shoot the shit or play some cards while listening to some down-home blues from Mr. Bailey’s collection. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to score a taste of one of Sapelo’s specialty foods – smoked mullet or low-country boil.
Each year, on the third weekend of October, Sapelo residents and SICARS volunteers host the annual Cultural Day celebration. It’s a day-long festival of food, music, vendors, and island history and culture presentations. When Miko called to inform me that she and Fred were planning on attending this year, I quickly accepted the invite. We arrived just before 8am and spent the first half of the day fulfilling our volunteer duties. The only way on or off the island is by ferry, and our job was to organize and direct the large crowds that converged on the small dock to attend the festival. Once our shift was over, we caught the ferry ourselves and spent time relaxing among the Spanish moss-draped trees, enjoying the music performances and perusing the many craft vendors. We filled our bellies with several samples of the home-cooked fare prepared by Sapelo residents - barbecue ribs and collards, fish and grits, gumbo and fresh squeezed lemonade. We sated our spirits with leisurely conversations and enthusiastic smiles and hugs traded with some new and old friends. During a momentary lull in the on-stage action, we hitched a ride with another group of regular volunteers over to Cabretta Beach, which is more secluded and less-frequented than Nannygoat Beach, but far more accessible than the beach at Chocolate Plantation on the north side of the island. We spent little over an hour enjoying the early-Fall sunshine and taking in the beauty of the white sand, sea oats and grasses, while scouting (near-perfect) seashells by the seashore. Then it was back to the festival to help break-down the site before heading off to set up camp for the evening. As the sun began to set and the mosquitoes grew more aggressive, we retired to our respective tents to rest a bit before heading over to the Trough to recount the day’s adventures over a few cold ones, some smoked mullet and several hands of blackjack. If Sapelo doesn’t sound like the kind of place that equals vacation for you – good. If you never take the time to go down for a visit – even better. I know it sounds strange, but I have to be honest with you: the love I have for this little-known jewel of the South is a jealous one. While I feel compelled to share the joys of it with you, I really just want to keep it all to myself.
Spend US$40 at the Lonely Planet Shop and receive free delivery and a free gift
For more pics of Sapelo (sorry none of ‘em feature yours truly), check out this site.