Tybee Island, the South’s Filthy Paradise


TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. — The sun reflects off a cold perspiring glass of lemonade, as you dig your toes in the sand you feel a gentle breeze roll off the ocean waves to fan your neck, and somewhere in the air hangs the nearby echoes of police sirens arresting a few tourists who could not handle their liquor. This is Tybee Island, and it is summer.

Here locals and tourists alike can be seen enjoying a beautiful day on the beach in Tybee Island. Photo by Craig Barry

Tybee Island is not your average coastal getaway vacation destination. If Hunter Thompson had made a diary of a second rum-fueled adventure writing for a paper on an island in the Southeast, no other place would have suited him better than here.

At first glance, it does portray impressions of a hidden Southern tropical paradise; when crossing the bridge that connects you from Savannah to Tybee Island, the landscape becomes decorated with wooden docks and old fishing boats washed ashore from some storm years past now, and local restaurants with back-patios overlooking the bay so you can eat craw fish, drink a beer, and enjoy the sunset all at the same time.

Lighthouses line the waters they illuminate for boats, and everywhere people are driving around on bikes or golf carts to avoid picking up a DUI, the wiser ones at least.

Tourist Beware

There is more than meets the eye with Tybee however, in fact it is the things hidden in the fine print that define Tybee as the place it is.

If you are more perceptive than the average tourist, one of the first things you may notice about the Island are the surplus of bars and liquor stores in walking distance of each other, its shortage of violent crime, and the excess of police patrol squads prowling the streets and looking for tourists who are having a little too much fun.

Because, while this is a place where one can have the time of their life, one can also get in serious trouble for having a little too much fun.

An ambulance responds to a call at a nearby condominium for a patron who has passed out from dehydration, likely instigated by drinking too much alcohol and not enough water. Photo taken by Craig Barry

For all the good bars and places to mingle there are, this is not a place you want to risk drinking and driving, even if everything is within a mile of itself.

“Tybee, come here on vacation and leave on probation,” local Joel Smith said, sitting at a table while eating a burger in a local restaurant called “Spanky’s”.

His family has owned a vacation home here for 10 years now, and his parents made the move permanent four years ago when his last brother graduated high school and moved on to college.

“Every summer you’ll see the same story,” Smith said. “Kids in their young 20s come down to get away for a weekend, go out to the bars and get hammered, and never make the drive home. Half a mile down the road they’ll get picked up for a DUI and will spend the next week in jail, and the next year reporting to a probation officer in Tybee.”

Once you pay a few bar tabs, food checks, hotel bills, and cab fare, you start to notice a pattern; Tybee Island is a business, and its goal is to make money, and it is efficient at it to say the least.

“After what you’ll spend just on a visit coming here, if you get arrested for something as well, that is just more money they can continue to squeeze out of you, and you aren’t even here anymore and it costs them nothing. Pure profit,” says Smith.

Beach Bum Heaven

At first this seems a little greasy, but after speaking to more locals, you realize greasy is the theme on Tybee Island.

Some residents of Tybee like Daniel Schefer, a local bartender at The Sandbar, claim a few of the friendly neighborhood beach bums are actually “descendants of pirates” hiding from the British in the 1800s.  As Schefer said, “They just never left”.

tybee pier
Here you can see people relaxing and casting a few lines as they enjoy the view from the Tybee Pier. Photo taken by Craig Barry

That also accounts for how they manage to drink rum for days on end and still remain vertical. This is a claim you do not want to test for yourself, because nine shots later and one massive impending headache may have you in agreement.

For your first trip to Tybee, you may want to refrain from drinking in the popular underground local bars, and stick to the mainstream tourist spots.

Common in Western movies when a cowboy arrives new to town and walks in to a local saloon, and a deathly silence overwhelms the room as every single regular stops talking and turns around to look the stranger in the eye, so would a tourist be similarly greeted at a locals’ bar in Tybee Island. But if you don’t mind the occasional rambler who can’t hold his whisky, Tybee Island can have a sideways appeal.

What to do and How to be Safe

If you can get past the backward ways and manage to stay out of trouble though, Tybee is a fun place with some wonderful attractions. Luckily, since people drink so much here, there are many bike and golf cart rentals around so you can explore the Island with legal transportation. “Honestly getting from A to B should never be hard. If you just look a little you can find a place to rent bikes or cars any day of the week,” says Fat Tire Bikes Rentals employee Spencer Hines.

Here is a local business that rents bikes to tourists on vacation in need of transportation. Photo taken by Craig Barry

After you decide how to explore the island, you can go down to the beach where there is no open container law, as well as on all sidewalks, so you can walk around and enjoy the scenery with your drink as much as you’d like.

Also on the beach is the Tybee Pier, which is a great spot to toss some fishing lines out and wait for a nibble while you enjoy an ice cold brew from one of the vendors, and listen to the entrancing rhythm of the waves breaking against the sand.

For the tourist looking for a summer fling or one-night stand, this is the right place. Any popular tourist hangout like the Rockhouse Lounge will be crawling with intoxicated singles looking for someone to sleep next to at night, but both will wake up sober the next morning eager to split ways and wash away the greasy feeling still clinging to their hair from the night before.

So if you are planning a vacation to Tybee Island, know that it is a beautiful place to relax and have fun, but don’t be blinded by the alcohol.

Do not let too much partying and having a carefree time be your downfall, and become the thing that ruins your good time, and possibly your future. Nothing kills a buzz more than trying to find a comfortable positon to sleep on the floor of a jail cell.

If you are going to drink, do not drive. You can walk practically walk anywhere, bike rentals are everywhere, and cabs run late at night. Pace yourself and do not instigate arguments with locals, stick to the main tourist frequents.

Residents of Tybee Island are a different breed. Many enjoy their alcohol and become reckless when under the influence. You do not want to become another one of Joel Smith’s sad stories of a summer romantic “coming to Tybee on vacation and leaving on probation.”





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