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Tybee Island — ruined or just different?

Until this summer, I’d convinced myself that Tybee Island is too close to home to be the destination for an overnight getaway; that if I go to the trouble of securing pet sitters, I should get further out of town.

Plus, Tybee’s changed, right? Too many condos, too much bad development. The Desoto Beach Hotel is gone, along with the 16th Street carnival and the miniature golf course. And, can you believe the real estate prices?

Ignoring the fact that, year round, I keep finding myself crossing Lazaretto Creek Bridge for all kinds of reasons—sunset supper at A.J.’s, gatherings with visiting cousins, a late afternoon on the beach with a book.

As a “from here” Savannahian, Tybee Island summers are part of my backstory. Our family would move for a month to our “cottage” on Second Avenue, built in the 1940’s, with the standard wraparound screen porch.

Postcard memories recall making castles on the beach with the soupy, tidal pool sand. Nighttime games of “capture the flag” in the dunes. Soft serve vanilla ice cream from the Sugar Shack. The creepy mechanical fortune teller at T.S. Chu’s.

Most of that has changed or disappeared. Those were the good old days, I told myself. But lately, I’ve been hearing the “Tybee is ruined” refrain in other places, and I’m realizing that, for me, that old song is out of tune.

This week I took a mini vacation on Tybee Island for the first time in thirteen years, invading five friends midway through their week long retreat, visiting long enough to realize that despite all those condos and the high cost of real estate, these are the good old days of Tybee Island.

My friends’ cottage is outfitted with air conditioning, a dishwasher, washer and dryer and two full bathrooms. These staples of contemporary living are a one thousand percent improvement over the old family retreat, where the lone air conditioned room was off limits to us kids, and the one bathroom was in constant demand.

Those good old days were lazy because, with only box fans to stir the muggy air, it was usually too oxygen-deprived indoors or out to do anything except eat, nap and escape to the beach.

Last week’s Tybee meals were many and varied. Pulled together dinner of sautéed veggies and broiled fresh fish, an hour after grazing on boiled peanuts from Davis’ Produce. On the beach we feasted on take out lunch of fish tacos and red beans and rice. The most difficult decision was where to go for supper Thursday, rejecting leaving the house to dine on fresh seafood or Thai cuisine for a stay at home delivery of Pizza On Wheels.

The “old days” meals lacked such variety, and were always prepared at home, because there was no where to go on Tybee for eating out. No where.

And then there’s the beach. It was there in the old days, and it’s there now. Water, sand, dolphins, birds. The wooden walkways across the dunes make easy work of access to the sand. No more hot, slow treks dragging our chairs and coolers through the sand spurs, simultaneously burning our feet and destroying wildlife.

The beach seems cleaner now, and recycling soda cans is a breeze in the bins located at the foot of each crossover, and at the beach house in the City of Tybee’s curbside recycling tub.

The new Tybee Island offers choices that the old Tybee could never imagine. Basics like an ATM machine, and a bank. For those so inclined, there’s a YMCA for air conditioned workouts. There’s even a seven a.m. yoga class on the North Beach three days a week.

The new Tybee offers all of this to everyone, including to people who were once unable to visit or live on the island.

In June, at an informal island lecture, I heard a speaker begin her remarks with an expression of thanks at being invited to Tybee, recalling a time when she was not welcome there. Now 70 years old, she alluded to the time before desegregation, when the only African Americans on Tybee Island were servants.

Like my other selective summer memories, all-white Tybee is a part of my backstory that I’ve naively and ignorantly overlooked.

Thursday, sitting on the beach, I watched a middle aged African American man set up his tripod in the dunes, point the camera at his wife, then run to her side and freeze for a self portrait with the lighthouse in the background. Their corny touristy photo op is a sweet addition to my new backstory.

These days, two of Tybee’s most popular restaurants are African-American owned. By coincidence, the weekend offered an exquisite and unexpected Saturday dinner at Georges’ and an unplanned Sunday night stop at the North Beach Grill, where the wacky clientele is as much a part of the draw as the freshly prepared food or the music.

Beach bums, hippies, families with toddlers, the current generation of old Savannahians, musicians and visitors from Atlanta andVirginia. Latino, African American, white. Roger Moss and his quintet offered three hours of “Moon River,” “Georgia on my Mind,” and “At Last” for the price of an iced tea and a tip.

Is the new Tybee perfect? Hardly. I still miss the Desoto. Some of those condos are just plain ugly. And despite the changes in the real estate market everywhere, Tybee’s sky-high property prices seem here to stay.

But with all that, I’ll take the new reality of Tybee Island over the haven of my selective memories. Sometimes, change is good. I think this is one of those times.

E-mail Robin at rgunnsav@bellsouth.net


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Robin Wright Gunn

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