Get away to Darien for history and small-town charm on the Georgia Coast

Credit: Courtesy of 365 Degree Total Marketing

Credit: Courtesy of 365 Degree Total Marketing

Town also offers spectacular sunsets, fresh seafood

DARIEN – Situated at the mouth of the Altamaha River, surrounded by the winding salt marshes of McIntosh County, is the city of Darien.

History buffs may know Darien as Georgia’s second oldest city, founded in 1736, just three years after Savannah. But centuries before it became a British holding, this area of coastal plains was inhabited by the Guale Indian tribe.

Over time, it felt the footprints of 16th and 17th-century Spanish missionaries, British soldiers and Scottish Highlanders. It was the forced home of enslaved people, a target of Union soldiers and the home of bankers and timber barons who made Darien one the world’s leading exporters of pine timber until the early 1920s.

Today, the small community of 1,500 depends on commercial fishing. Despite the increasingly fragile industry, Darien remains a dining destination for fresh shrimp, clams and fish caught just off her shores and in view of Sapelo Island.

Recent investment in downtown Darien has led to new lodging, restaurants and shops that build on the community’s attraction as a destination for exploring historical points of interest, shopping for antiques or simply watching the sun set behind marsh grass — and looking for Altie, the mysterious serpentine creature and official mascot of McIntosh County, alleged to inhabit the Altamaha River.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Layers of history

A good starting point for understanding Darien’s history is Ft. King George Historic Site. Established in 1721, it was the first English settlement in Georgia and the southernmost British Colonial outpost on the Atlantic seaboard. The fort was abandoned by the British in 1726 and resettled four years later by Scottish Highlanders brought by Gen. James Oglethorpe. This colonial settlement, originally called New Inverness, would eventually become the port city of Darien, with an economy supported largely by their milling efforts.

Today, the site includes a museum and replicas of the original fort, including barracks, palisades and a moat. Live reenactments at this once strategic defense point against the Spanish and the French take place in March and November.



One mile south of Darien on U.S. Highway 17 sits Butler Island, the former site of a large rice plantation. It is named after Major Pierce Butler, a Founding Father and U.S. Senator from South Carolina who owned the property from 1790 until his death in 1822.

During the antebellum period, more than 900 people were enslaved on the 1,500-acre property. One of Butler’s heirs, Pierce Mease Butler, has the ignominious distinction of being responsible for the largest recorded slave auction in American history. Over a two-day period in 1859, 436 people enslaved at Butler Island Plantation were sold at auction in Savannah. Husbands, wives and children were torn apart in an event referred to as the Weeping Time. Recent efforts have been made to honor the enslaved people of Butler Island. (To learn more, read “Honoring the memory of Butler Island Plantation’s enslaved people”)

Credit: The Collective & Co.

Credit: The Collective & Co.

A tall brick chimney, the remains of a steam-powered rice mill, is visible from the highway. It is one of two surviving structures (the other is remnants of a cistern) from the original plantation, which remained in the Butler family until the early 1920s. In 1926, former New York Yankees co-owner Colonel T.L. Huston purchased the property and converted it into a dairy and lettuce farm. He also built the Huston House, the white house that still stands today. Today the Georgia Department of Natural Resources manages the grounds, which are open daily to the public for picnicking, fishing, birding and walking. The Huston House, which is not inhabited nor maintained, was placed on the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Places in Peril” list in 2019.

The Waterfront Park public green space and dock path that overlook the Darien River in downtown Darien was the landing site for Union troops who burned the town during the Civil War. Ruins of historic warehouses still line the waterfront; few buildings survived the 1863 fire. One is the Adam Strain Building at the corner of Broad and Screven streets near the waterfront. One of coastal Georgia’s last intact tabby structures (a building constructed from a mixture of oyster shells, sand, water and lime), it is currently being restored and will serve as a nanobrewery and event space.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

‘Heart and soul’ of Darien

The timber industry helped to reestablish Darien after the Civil War, but when that supply was exhausted in the early 20th century, the commercial seafood industry became the catalyst for growth.

“The fishing industry, unfortunately, is dwindling,” said Kat Hoyt, president and CEO of the Darien-McIntosh Chamber of Commerce. “Fishermen are retiring and the next generation is not doing it.”

In 2020, there were only 205 registered shrimp trawlers in Georgia compared to the nearly 1,500 commercial shrimpers that held licenses in the state in the late 1970s.

The cost of fuel, boat maintenance, dockage and changing regulations have all factored into the decline of the shrimping industry that has long been associated with this coastal community, Hoyt said.

Some retired shrimp boats now cater to tourists. The Captain Gabby, for example, offers customized overnight trips for exploring the waters of coastal Georgia. The 42-foot wooden trawler sleeps up to six guests, who can bring their own food or leave the cooking to the crew.

The place to experience the continued importance of fishing as an economic and cultural driver for Darien is along the docks of the Sapelo River in Townsend, 14 miles north of Darien. Here, you’ll find fishing operations like Sapelo Sea Farms, which grows clams and harvests wild oysters in nearby waters, and the adjoining Fish Dock Bar & Grill. Besides serving freshly caught fish and seafood from the boats that unload just steps away, the Fish Dock offers idyllic views of the river and the processing facility where littleneck clams are sized and graded.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

“Being a fishing community is still the heart and soul of Darien,” said Hoyt.

For the last 55 years, the city has celebrated the local shrimping industry with the Blessing of the Fleet. The three-day festival, taking place this year April 21-23, marks the unofficial arrival of shrimping season. The event features live music, food, an art fair, fireworks, a 5K race and a pancake breakfast for fishermen hosted by the local Lion’s Club. It culminates on Sunday when fishing boats line up on the Darien River and sail to the apex of the bridge where a minister blesses them so they might have a safe and bountiful season.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Exploring downtown Darien

When the town isn’t swelling with thousands of visitors for its annual spring festival, the pace is slow and with a neighborly kindness. “We have that Mayberry feeling here,” Hoyt said. “Anywhere you go, you’re going to see somebody you know. You’ll get called by name, invited to sit at tables. I think I have only eaten by myself unintentionally once without someone inviting me to eat,” said Hoyt, who lived in the area as a young girl and returned eight years ago.

In Hoyt’s estimation, “The best way to experience downtown Darien is to walk.”

A stay at the well-appointed Open Gates Bed & Breakfast puts you squarely in the Vernon Square–Columbus Square Historic District on the city’s eastern side. Both squares were part of the original 1805 city plan modeled after Oglethorpe’s plan for Savannah.

A must-stop on Vernon Square is Sugar Marsh Cottage. Owner Dale Potts welcomes tour buses into the colorful chocolate shop of this 1935 historic home to load up on small-batch sea life-shaped chocolates, toffee, bonbons, truffles, shortbread and other sweets.

Another stop when ambling around Darien is the Old Jail Art Center Gallery & Museum. Located on North Way (U.S. Highway 17), the building was erected in 1888 and used as the jail for the city and county until 2003. Today, it is home to the McIntosh Art Association. Free and open to the public, the first floor holds gallery space with coastal-inspired works by local artists as well as the Painted Palette gift shop. Jail cells on the second floor are used to display local history with documents, photos and other artifacts from Darien’s history.

Storefronts on Broad Street and North Walton offer fun browsing. Poke around at shops like Broad Street Antiques, the Local Exchange general mercantile, the Studio art gallery and Marsh Hen Studio Gallery.

When hunger strikes, restaurants are just steps away. Get close up to the banks of the Darien River on the outdoor deck at Skippers’ Fish Camp. Try the crab cakes or splurge on the Captain’s Platter piled with Georgia shrimp, oysters, scallops, calamari and the catch of the day.



B & J’s Steaks & Seafood is a favorite among locals. Fill up on homestyle coastal dishes at the daily lunch buffet or the seafood dinner buffet Fridays and Saturdays. If you opt for a la carte, the fried shrimp or fried oyster basket will not disappoint.

Located in a restored late 19th-century home, Canopy showcases seasonal ingredients on a chef-driven, New American menu. The friendly, family-run eatery serves scratch breakfast and lunch daily and dinner on weekends. Highlights from the spring dinner menu include crab-stuffed chile relleno, rose petal chicken and rabbit cacciatore with wild mushrooms and polenta. Pair it with a glass of affordably priced wine or craft beer.

For a caffeine pick-me-up, check out the Shanty Cafe, which offers a variety of coffee beverages, house-baked goods, and soup and sandwich lunch specials.

Credit: Courtesy of 365 Degree Total Marketing

Credit: Courtesy of 365 Degree Total Marketing

‘Energy in its step’

Whether walking down the street under the canopy of centuries-old live oak trees or crossing the Darien Bridge on U.S. Highway 17 on the way into town, it’s impossible to miss the largest new addition to Darien’s waterfront: the Oaks on the River Boutique Resort. Open since November, the full-service hotel boasts 53 rooms, all with balconies and some with river views. Amenities include the Oaks Club Restaurant and Cedar Bar, a spa, outdoor heated pool and a private dock. In partnership with Georgia Tidewater Outfitters, the resort also arranges for guided nature tours, a beach day at Sapelo Island and other public and private boat charters.

The resort is the most recent project by local real estate investor Art Lucas, who grew up on a farm in McIntosh County and returned to the Golden Isles in 2009 after retirement.

“I wanted to give something back to this community,” said Lucas, whose other real estate developments in Darien include condominiums to the east of the hotel and the Keys North Market & Grill to the west.

He calls Oaks on the River the “crown jewel” of his development efforts. “I wanted to build a destination hotel,” he said. “When people come here, they kind of get blown away. They don’t expect this kind of place in the area.

“Darien has some energy in its step now,” said Lucas, noting the influx of retirees and people moving to the Golden Isles from cities like Atlanta and New York. More economic drivers in the region — like the $5.5 billion facility in Bryan County where Hyundai Motor Company plans to hire 8,100 employees to manufacture a line of electric vehicles — are expected to trickle down to this area of the Georgia coast, he added.

“I think it’s good growth. But I hope we don’t lose the quality as we’re growing,” said Lucas. “I don’t want Darien to lose its charm.

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Off the beaten path

Preservation is at the heart of efforts at nearby Sapelo Island National Reserve and Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. Sapelo Island is a state-protected barrier island and the site of Gullah community Hog Hammock. Accessible via ferry from the Sapelo Island Visitors Center, visitors are required to obtain a permit issued by state tourism authorities. For details go to

Even without a permit, galleries at the visitors center in Meridian, 8 miles north of Darien, offer interpretive exhibits about Sapelo Island’s rich cultural history and conservation efforts at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System.

Harris Neck, another destination for naturalists, encompasses 2,700 acres of saltwater marsh, grassland, woods and cropland on an abandoned military airfield in Townsend, 24 miles north of Darien.

Don’t leave Townsend without ducking inside the Smallest Church in America. Also known as Christ’s Chapel in Memory Park, the nondenominational, 12-seat church was built in 1949. On your way out, sign the guestbook — and take a turn ringing the church bell.

If you go

Darien is a 275-mile drive southeast from Atlanta, accessible from I-95, exit 49, or U.S. Highway 17. Direct flights are available to Savannah or Jacksonville, Florida, which are both a one-hour drive away.

Things to do

Blessing of the Fleet. April 21-23. The annual festival that celebrates the local shrimping community is one of the largest of its kind on the East Coast.

Butler Island Plantation. Free. 7777 Butler Island Road, Darien.

Captain Gabby. Offers multi-day, customized private charters on a former shrimping boat with sleeping quarters for up to six people. $400 and up per person.

Fort King State George Historic Site. $7.50 for adults, $4.50 for youths, free for children under 6. 302 McIntosh Road SE, Darien. 912-437-4770,

Harris Neck Wildlife Refuge. Free. 5000 Wildlife Drive NE, Townsend. 912-832-4608,

Old Jail Art Center Gallery & Museum. Free. 404 North Way, Darien. 912-437-7711,

Sapelo Island Ferry & Visitor Center. Visitors center is free. Ferry ride with tour of Sapelo Island are $15 for ages 13 and up, $10 for children ages 6-12 and free for children under 5. Reservations required. 1766 Landing Road SE, Meridian. 912-437-3224,

Smallest Church in America aka Christ’s Chapel in Memory Park. Free. 23478 U.S. Highway 17, Townsend.

Where to eat

B & J’s Steaks & Seafood. A favorite among locals for seafood ($15.95 and up), this laid-back restaurant features a daily homestyle lunch buffet ($12) and seafood dinner buffet ($42.95) Fridays and Saturdays. 901 North Way, Darien. 912-437-2122,

Skippers’ Fish Camp. You can’t dine any closer to the downtown riverfront than at this casual, family-friendly restaurant whose broad menu has something for everyone. Entrees $24.99 and up. 85 Screven St., Darien. 912-437-3474,

The Canopy. Serves a homestyle breakfast, lunch and brunch, as well as elevated New American dinners in a restored late 19th-century home. Dinner entrees $22 and up. 306 Fort King George Drive, Darien. 912-437–7605,

The Fish Dock Bar & Grill. Local fish, clams and shrimp are unloaded from the docks next door to the restaurant, which offers indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the Sapelo River. $12-$46. 1398 Sapelo Ave., Townsend. 912-832-4295,

Where to sleep

Darien Waterfront Inn. Five guest rooms feature a king bed and porch access with views of the river. $155, including full breakfast. 711 Fort King George Drive, Darien. 912-437-1215,

Oaks on the River Boutique Resort. Adjacent to Waterfront Park in the heart of historic downtown, the 53-room hotel with executive suites, also had a restaurant and bar, spa, outdoor heated pool with bar and private dock. $289 and up. 205 Fort King George Drive, Darien. 833-550-6257,

Open Gates Bed & Breakfast. The 1876 home in historic Vernon Square has five guest rooms, two with an extra twin bed. Enjoy a full hot breakfast by Zach Rath, who operates the inn with wife Carrie. $155 and up. 301 Franklin St., Darien. 912-437-6985,

Tourist info

Darien-McIntosh Visitor Information Center. 1111 Magnolia Bluff Way SW, Darien. 912-437-4837,