Driving north into Darien, Georgia, on U.S. Highway 17, I pass over a long bridge that crosses the Darien River, an offshoot of the Altamaha River considered Georgia’s wildest and most beautiful. To the right, clustered shrimp boats bob slightly in shimmery water, as if they are curtsying, their riggings capturing the filtered light of a spring day. With dappled clouds in the background, the picturesque scenery is striking.
Darien, at its heart a fishing village, is on the more southerly end of the long quarter-moon-shaped crescent of Georgia coast that curves inland from Savannah to St. Marys. Surrounded by wide swaths of saltwater marsh, in season either as golden as Midas’ touch or as pale green as seafoam, the prairies unfurl into Altamaha Sound, with long fingers of Spartina grass rippling in endless waves. The marsh is a secret garden, a labyrinth of water, mud and peat continually ebbing and flowing and camouflaging a hidden world of terrestrial and marine creatures of herons and wood storks, crabs and shrimp, alligators and otters.
The town proper of Darien, threaded with mighty oaks drizzled with Spanish moss, is the alpha and omega of the Altamaha River, the first community on its journey inland from the Atlantic and the last before it fans out to where the Altamaha Sound laps gently toward the ocean. U.S. Highway 17, the old coastal highway that’s a throwback to romantic road trips, slices through Darien before it runs north to Virginia and southward to Florida’s Gulf Coast.
Textured with an amazing depth of history, mesmerizing unspoiled nature and local seafood restaurants, Darien gives you an authentic taste of saltwater with fresh oysters, fish and its most famous denizen, Georgia Wild Shrimp. The shrimp flourishes in the warm waters of the sound, soaking in the nutrients of the rich Spartina grass, related to sugar cane, and a primary reason the crustaceans are so plump and sweet. You won’t need to walk far in Darien to find shrimp fried, broiled or boiled.
The Guale Indians were here first, and then the Spanish in the 1560s. The Spanish built missions along the coast, but only a smattering of colonists and missionaries settled before the British took a foothold in the Georgia soil. Nearly three centuries ago, Scottish Highlanders, under the leadership of Gen. James Oglethorpe, the British general credited with establishing Georgia, meandered down the coast from Savannah to establish a port city. Darien eventually became the second-oldest planned city in Georgia, after Savannah, with its grid-like streets, azalea-lined and shaded, neatly laid out in squares.
The disarming charm of Darien casts a long spell. Darien, beautiful and quiet, has a nice small-town feel as no factories or big businesses exist here. While it was once a thriving port and financial hub, its buildings date only from the Civil War, as the town, with its wonderful old colonial architecture, was burned in 1863 by Union troops.
Today’s Darien, with its population of about 1,500, not only pays homage to its seafaring past but also caters to visitors who come for the history, natural beauty, shrimp and shopping in its eclectic tiny downtown, which included Sugar Marsh Cottage Specialty Confections for artisan chocolates, Vintage Wildflowers Boutique for clothing and Waterfront Wine and Gourmet for a taste of Georgia and international wines.
Where to eat
Most folks, when they think of Georgia eats, think of fried chicken, pork chops and grits. You can certainly get that and more at wildly popular Sweet Tee’s Log Cabin Restaurant or B&J’s Steaks and Seafood. Sweet Tee’s buffet usually includes meats and vegetables but also extras like deviled crab or fried fish, and at B&J’s, also primarily a buffet, you can order off the menu Georgia Wild Shrimp and other bounties of the sea.
Both Skipper’s Fish Camp, on the Darien River, and Mudcat Charlie’s, overlooking the Altamaha, are casual yet a little more upscale and offer indoor and outdoor dining with a selection of cocktails. Local favorites are the shrimp, of course, plus crab, flounder and oysters. If you’re game, go for the gator tail at Mudcat Charlie’s, with its taste a mashup of chicken and fish.
For the quintessential coastal dish of rich, creamy shrimp and grits, I recommend the Oaks Club at the Oaks on the River, a small boutique hotel on the Darien River. It’s the newest addition to the Darien skyline and is the city’s tallest building, commanding three stories. It is posh by Darien’s standards, with upholstered chairs and stunning views of the marsh. The shrimp gumbo and catch of the day are also excellent choices. The showpiece Cedar Bar, adjacent to the restaurant, is carved from one single cedar tree from nearby Harris Neck Island.
What to do
While you’re likely to love Darien, it doesn’t take long to see it all, given that it’s so diminutive, so plan for a few days to explore nearby gems as well.
Start with a pedestrian-friendly, self-guided walking tour of the town. Pick up a map at the Darien-McIntosh County Visitor Center and then hit the bricks. Along the way, amble along the waterfront dotted with tabby ruins – tabby is so-called “coastal concrete” made of lime, oyster shells and water – before visiting nearly two dozen points of interest, each marked with a plaque, including the First African Baptist Church, the 1836 St. Andrews Episcopal Church, the Old City Cemetery dating to 1736 and the Grant House, the only residence to survive the 1863 destruction by federal troops.
Round out the history tour with a stop at Fort King George, established in 1721. It was the first English settlement in Georgia before Scottish Highlanders took it over in 1736. Scattred on the site is a museum and replicas of the blockhouse and barracks.
The Oaks on the River partners with Georgia Tidewater Outfitters, or you can book on your own, for cruises aboard the Delta Belle, a 30-foot custom catamaran. Options include a wine tour with wines from Waterfront Wine and Gourmet, nature tours of the Altamaha River sound or private charters that take you to remote beaches, far stretches of the sound or excellent birding sites. The painted bunting and roseate spoonbill are among the coast’s most vibrantly-hued feathered creatures.
Also take a tour on the Captain Gabby, a 42-foot hand-built wooden trawler. With room for up to six guests, the tours can last a few hours or even overnight. The experiences are personalized, including kayaking, paddleboarding, fishing, birding and photography, and give you a chance to get close with nature in the swirls of creeks and marshes around the sound.
Within a few minutes’ drive of Darien are Ashantilly Plantation, built about 1820 by coastal planter Thomas Spalding; Butler Island Plantation, dating to the late 1700s and initially owned by Revolutionary War Major Pierce Butler; and Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, a former rice plantation that’s now a state park. Tours of Ashantilly, open only during events, can still be arranged by calling the home, while Butler Island can be explored by foot or car. Hofwyl-Broadfield is open for regular hours.
Sapelo Island, one of the pearls in the necklace of barriers islands that speckle Georgia’s coast, is but 6 miles from Darien. The state-protected island probably hasn’t changed much in a thousand years. The deeply forested island is still unspoiled and uncrowded with mazes of mostly unpaved roads and remains the home of one of the last Gullah communities along the coast. Get to Sapelo only by ferry or private watercraft.
Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge, about a half-hour’s drive north of Darien, was once a rice and cotton plantation and later Harris Neck Army Air Base. Here, hundreds of once-endangered wood stork come to build their nests and raise their young. Some 350 species of birds visit seasonally, and at the height of its population, the refuge transforms into a chaotic orchestra of avian song.
Where to stay
Cradled by the high bluffs of the Darien River and freckled with ancient oaks, the Oaks on the River, with 53 rooms, is the talk of the town at the moment, having just opened in November. It’s luxuriously appointed with hardwood floors, pretty rugs and a waterfront pool. The resort’s spa, though small, offers locally themed treatments including the Ashantilly Facial and Sapelo Massage.
If waking to the aroma of freshly ground coffee brewing entices you, stay at Open Gates Bed and Breakfast on Vernon Square in the heart of Darien. Shaded by oaks and magnolias, the five-bedroom Italianate inn, beachy, colorful and airy, was built in 1876 and is filled with antiques. A full breakfast is included with Southern goodies like biscuits, waffles and the Darien Shrimp Delight, a panko-encrusted shrimp cake similar to eggs benedict.
The cozy and romantic Darien Dockside Inn, also in downtown, has six individually decorated rooms and suites, all featuring views of the river and marsh. It is housed in a tabby building more than a hundred years old. Nearby, Darien Waterfront Inn offers a welcome cocktail, full breakfast and the use of bicycles, plus a two-bedroom cottage or a riverfront condominium for rent. With a two-night stay on Tuesday and Wednesday, guests are provided a free tour of Sapelo Island.
The last word
Every place evolves, but at different speeds. Darien, looking much the same as it did when I first saw it decades ago when I drove over that same bridge, does it more slowly and eloquently. If there is a bigger picture for Darien down the road, the town, respectful of its storied past, isn’t in a hurry to get to the future.
If you go
For more information, contact Discover Darien at www.discoverdarien.com or call 912-437-6684. Darien is located about halfway between Savannah, Georgia, and Jacksonville, Florida. Both cities have international airports served by most major carriers. Major roads are Interstate 95 and U.S. 17. Annual events include the Blessing of the Fleet, a spring festival honoring the shrimping and fishing industry; a Fourth of July celebration; and the Darien Fall Festival featuring classic car shows, boat tours and street vendors. Other accommodations include private homes, cottages and cabins, campgrounds and RV parks and several chain hotels.