Hollywood has discovered the beaches along the Georgia coast. This is hardly surprising since they’re just as beautiful as those in Florida or California – just not so crowded.
The tourists are looking for the bench again. It must be here on Chippewa Square in Savannah, they think. They’re sure it was here beneath the oaks and magnolias, between the cafés and galleries, that Tom Hanks once sat in his dirty sneakers and white suit, a box of chocolates in his lap, saying in his southern accent: I’m Forest, Forrest Gump. But there is nothing here.
Everyone who lives here knows that the iconic bench has long been moved to a museum, that the bus stop itself was merely a prop and that Forrest Gump got up and walked away a long time ago. But they can understand why the tourists come. The U.S. state of Georgia has been a popular movie-making location for years; it’s where the TV series “Walking Dead” along with X-Men and other blockbusters were shot. Even downtown Savannah, a coastal city with a population of about 150 000, looks like it belongs in a historical drama with its old brick warehouses by the river, southern mansions sporting wrought-iron balustrades and ancient oaks shrouded in Spanish moss. Visitors have no trouble conjuring up the past here.
Savannah is also a good place to begin a tour of the Georgian coastline, 160 kilometers of powdery white sand and green marsh grasses bordering the Atlantic, along with some remote islands. To many, the beaches between Florida and South Carolina are still relatively unknown, but they’re hardly a secret – at least not to the Hollywood film industry.
Gazing across the beach and into the surf where wet heads glisten like small pearls in the water, Michael McCumber, 23, surveys his realm from atop his wooden throne. Bare-chested and in swim shorts, his Bluetooth radio and walkie-talkie just within his reach, the lifeguard looks relaxed. He’s been here since 10 a.m., and his shift here on Tybee Island goes until 6 pm. When he gets off, he and the other lifeguards want to go to see a movie in which he’ll recognize the pier, the windswept dunes, the palm-lined promenade. After all, the feature film remake of the “Baywatch” series was shot on Tybee Island.
“I wasn’t allowed to watch the series as a kid,” McCumber recalls, “because my grandparents thought the bikinis the women wore were too revealing.” He couldn’t believe his eyes at first, when a couple of trucks rolled into the parking lot behind his stretch of beach not many months ago and started unloading props. The filmmakers weren’t just interested in his section of beach but also in his work! In simplified form, of course, more comedy than drama, but he didn’t mind. “There’s a lot more to it than just being on the beach and making rescues,” says McCumber and talks about administering first aid, collaborating with the coastguard and the fire department. Every summer during college, he leaves Savannah, where he was born, and heads for the north coast of Georgia to earn some money for school.
McCumber and 19 other lifeguards keep swimmers safe on Tybee beach, and more and more frequently, they run into actors and film crews wanting to shoot beach scenes here rather than in Malibu or Miami, since the beaches are just as beautiful and still unfamiliar to the public. There’s only one thing that troubles McCumber: “After they’ve made a movie here, twice as many people come the following summer to see where it was filmed.” He turns his attention to a group of giggling schoolgirls who are hoping for a photo with a real Baywatch lifeguard.
Seventy kilometers to the south, beyond Sapelo Island – an incredibly beautiful nature reserve complete with turtles, alligators and pelicans – there’s another perfect film location: the Golden Isles. The difference is that the local authorities don’t allow as much filming here: The four barrier islands are primarily reserved for nature and recreation. Everything about Jekyll Island, for instance, is testament to the fact that 100 years ago, the Georgian coast was a playground for the elite. They would sail down in their yachts from New York to hunt and fish, to see and be seen. Big names like Morgan, Vanderbilt, Pulitzer and Rockefeller convened at the Jekyll Island Club to enjoy cool drinks in defiance of the muggy summer weather, build grand houses next door and ensure that the island remained exclusively theirs. World War II put an end to this alliance, the Victorian-style clubhouse fell into disrepair and homeless people moved into the once opulent drawing rooms. Not until 1985 did an investment firm rediscover the jewel, restore it to its original state and open it as a hotel. Today, white-clad guests once again amble across the manicured lawns for a game of cricket or wander down to Driftwood Beach to wonder at the bizarrely shaped trees and watch the ocean soak up the evening sun.
Cameron Ako, 29, keeps an eye on times and tides. Dressed in shorts, his hair close-cropped and his left hand on the wheel, he stands aboard the Lady Jane, a blue-and-white shrimp boat, looking out at the marshes with their knee-high grasses swaying in the wind and broad tidal creeks snaking through them into the Atlantic. The beach may be the realm of lifeguards like McCumber, but the sea belongs to Ako. For the last five years, he has piloted the Jane, a boat with whose help Georgia’s best-known delicacy – shrimp – has been brought in for years, primarily litopenaeus setiferus, or white shrimp. Generations of fishermen have earned a living from the sea in Georgia. Grandfathers, sons and grandsons would stand together on deck and drop their nets overboard so early that it was actually still night, and long before the red morning sun climbed out of the ocean.
Ako is still young, but he can remember the days when 450 boats came into Brunswick harbor carrying at least 2000 kilos of shrimp. “The shrimpers were a community, everyone knew everyone else. The catch went straight to the fish markets, which happily paid 20 dollars. Per kilo!” Today, only about 20 shrimp boats are moored along the waterfront, he says.
New government regulations, rising fuel costs and numerous breeding stations in Asia have contributed to the demise of Georgia’s main industry. That’s partly why Ako has taken on board a second catch, almost more important than shrimp: 49 inquisitive ecotourists eager to learn about shrimping, how the tides work, and how to cast nets and catch shrimp. Ako and his crew are licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry passengers, the only ones in the area. “We want to show them how important shrimp once were for the local economy and above all, how important they are for our ecosystem,” he adds, steering the boat out to sea. The tour takes an hour and a half, and the nets are dragged and raised three times, delivering baby rays, plate-sized horseshoe crabs and naturally, shrimp – to the cries of laughing gulls. While he sorts the catch, crew member Jeffery Benson explains to us why salt and sweet water mix in Georgia’s broad tidal creeks.
Ako sails the Georgian coastline all year round. It’s a lucrative business, and it also proves how important tourism has become for the entire region. To Ako, who grew up on St. Simons Island near Brunswick, the Lady Jane is a real gift because as he says: Let’s be honest, the best way to admire this beautiful and increasingly popular coast is from the water. And the tourist inside me, who began this trip looking for the famous Forrest Gump park bench, nods to himself and thinks: The captain’s got it right. After all, Forrest Gump was a shrimp fisherman, too.
Our photographer has taken many road trips in the U.S. but never one down the coast of Georgia. He was particularly enjoyed the Southern hospitality – and the top-notch seafood.