Have you ever dreamed of having a private island, a secluded paradise to call your own? Well, you can have your dream…at least for a weekend, with the Private Islands of Georgia as your host! Owner Andy Hill will make you feel like one of the ‘rich and famous’ with his gracious Southern charm and hospitality. Captain Andy, as some like to call him, owns seven islands in the back barrier coastal region of Georgia. As a guest of Eagle Island (his main lodging accommodations), you will have access to all the nearby islands and are free to explore at your leisure. When you are Andy’s guest, you have a pontoon boat at dockside, kayaks and the option of guided tours, fishing and eco-tours or you can enjoy sight-seeing on Miss Gabby, a converted shrimp boat. Once you get to Eagle Island, however, you may be reluctant to leave the peaceful atmosphere and comfortable spacious lodge.
Recently, I was privileged to be a guest on Eagle Island and when we left the dock in Darien, Georgia, I had no idea what a treat I was in for. Andy Hill is a busy man, but I never felt like he was rushing me or any of the other guests. He took the time to show us the enormous eagles nest on the other side of the island before pulling into the dock. He pointed out the blue crab trap dangling from one of the pier posts as his assistant unloaded our luggage and escorted us down the white oyster shell path to the three-story lodge. The scene reminded me of an exotic movie set with the towering palms, abundant flowers and backdrop of the jungle-like foliage surrounding us. Andy made sure we had a thorough ‘orientation’ on the island and its amenities. He showed us where the fishing equipment and bait were kept, how to use the hot tub, fans and lights and even gave us a ‘tour’ of the kitchen and its equipment and supplies and he made sure we knew the luxurious bathrobes in the bedroom wardrobes were just for us. Captain Andy leaves nothing to chance; he wants his guests to have an unforgettable stay. Satisfied that we were settled in and comfortable, Andy departed by boat, leaving us alone to enjoy the quiet November evening. As it cooled to a chilly 45 degrees (cool for the Georgia coast), one of the other guest built a fire in the massive stone fireplace and soon everyone was gathered in the ‘great room’ and soaking up the cozy glow. It was a wonderful beginning to my island experience. As I drifted off to sleep that night looking out at the stars, I couldn’t wait to explore the rest of Eagle and the other islands.
Arriving at May Hall Island the next day was like entering another world…the main house is four stories and has the look and feel of an Italian coastal villa, but the towering palms and massive oaks dripping with Spanish moss reminded me we were still in the deep South. Every detail of both Eagle and May Hall have been attended to with precision and care, nothing escapes the discerning eyes of Andy Hill. He is a master at combining disparate elements to create a totally new functional or artistic piece. Nothing goes to waste with Andy Hill, he re-purposes even the smallest ‘finds’ and gives them new life. Even discarded pickle jars become fanciful lanterns in the hands of Andy hill and his metal artist friend, Tyler Dominey. From the accessories in the main house to the antique bricks, ballast stones and other finds lining the paths, Andy loves to use salvaged nets, ship timbers and anything else he can find to adorn his island getaways.
The guest accommodations on May Hall are still being ‘tweaked’, Andy is something of a perfectionist and will not give his guests anything but the very best. So, while it looks perfect to me, Andy is still making improvements and polishing. May Hall will be featured on HGTV’s ‘Island Hunters’ on Sunday, January 19th at 10:00 pm E/P (You can go to the HGTV site and look up more information on the episode.), so you can get a sneak peek at what Andy’s guests have to look forward to. As with Eagle Island, guests at May Hall will have access to the surrounding islands. The islands of Grassie Field and Little May Hall are accessible from May Hall by 500 foot boardwalks, so you can explore all three islands on foot. Hiking through the giant palmettos and pines was a treat, I felt like I had dropped into the ‘Land of the Lost’. Keep a sharp eye out for unusual finds on the islands…you never know when you might stumble onto the remnants of a lumber mill, abandoned house foundation or even a rusty still from the prohibition era. May Hall has a fascinating history as a port for ships hauling lumber via the old mill once located on the island. Ask Andy about the stories, he loves to share the exciting past of May Hall.
With a final stroll through the elegant grounds surrounding the main house, we left May Hall and continued our tour. Next stop, Sapelo Island where you can see one of the original lighthouses on the Atlantic coast, built in 1820, the Sapelo lighthouse is the second oldest brick lighthouse in the nation. It served many years until it was replaced by a modern system. Restored in 1998, the lighthouse stands as an inspiring monument to the importance of the island in Georgia’s history. When we disembarked at the Sapelo dock, we loaded up in the back of Andy’s retro-fitted pick-up truck and enjoyed the mild autumn day as we drove to the R.J. Reynolds mansion built in the early 1800’s. First built as the Spalding plantation home, it was bought by the tobacco heir and refurbished in the 1930’s to its former splendor. My favorite room in the house is the children’s playroom, complete with a ‘circus tent’ ceiling and life-sized murals of circus folk and beasts on the walls of the indoor bowling alley and game room. The University of Georgia Marine Institute is also located on Sapelo and the historic Hog Hammock community, where most residents are direct descendants of the Spalding plantation workers. Sapelo Island is also home to Nannygoat Beach, the most extensive undisturbed natural beach dunes of any of Georgia’s barrier islands. We shared a picnic lunch on the deserted white sand beach with only the vast Atlantic and the wind for our company. Leaving Sapelo, we ventured to tiny Queens Island, Andy’s newest acquisition. Queen’s was my ‘hands down’ favorite place to spend the day – it is a beachcomber’s paradise! The little island has an unobstructed view of the open sea and as far as you can see along the beach there are shells, piled three and four feet deep in places, just waiting for someone to sift through them. We stayed until the tide forced us back to the boat. I still managed to fill a couple of mud boots (emergency shell containers!) and find three unscathed skeletons of horseshoe crabs. Having a pristine island to comb all by myself…now that’s what I call paradise!
That evening, Andy and his staff prepared fresh Georgia shrimp, blue crab and grilled oysters for our dinner. He showed us how to properly shuck the oysters and clean the crabs, so they weren’t gritty, something I’d never done before. Andy also told us the ‘secret’ behind the sumptuously sweet Georgia shrimp – they feed on a special type of algae that only grows in the back barrier waters off the coast. I learned so much listening to Andy that night, not just about the food, but the history, wildlife and lore of the islands and Georgia coast. Hearing Andy’s stories, I developed a new appreciation for that part of the state. Before he left for the evening, I asked him, “What is your favorite thing about owning the islands?” Andy hesitated and then his eyes lighting up heHis answer spokes volumes about the man and his passion. Watching Andy share his islands with us that day…I know he means what he says.
When Captain Andy dropped us off at the Darien dock a few days later, I was hesitant to re-enter the ‘real world’ again. I hope to return to Eagle and maybe visit May Hall someday…you may not be rich or famous, but Andy Hill will make sure you feel that way.