Tuesday, March 13, 2007

St. Mary's, Georgia and Crooked River State Park

Having about ten days off between bluegrass festivals, we decided to check out a state park in Georgia we had heard of from a neighbor camper last year. Located in the southeastern part of Georgia just north of the Florida line, Crooked River flows through tidal marshes behind Cumberland Island National Seashore, a barrier island thankfully left completely undeveloped and reached only by a ferry that carries visitors to the island twice a day. The Cumberland Island itself has no conveniences except fresh water and some toilets. Visitors must carry whatever food, drink, clothing, and sun block they will need for a day. People wishing to camp there for the night must bring everything they will need. Because Cumberland Island does not offer the usual Atlantic coast beach access, high rises, and cottages, the little village of St. Mary’s is largely unspoiled. There’s not a single Whales beach store in town.

Crooked River State Park is a short drive north of St. Mary’s past the King’s Bay Submarine Base, home base of the Triton nuclear subs. This small park contains 42 campsites, mostly with electric, water, and basic cable TV on two small loops. Each loop has a restroom-shower complex in the middle with convenient washing machines and dryers. Georgia State parks take reservations, but campers cannot reserve specific sites. On arriving, you’re given a card with your name and date of departure on it. You then drive through the park and place a reservation card on a post at the end of the site you want. There are a few large sites fronting directly on the tidal marsh with great views of the river, the marsh, and the birdlife that lives there. During our stay the park was quite uncrowded during the week, but nearly filled on the weekend with local campers. This is a lovely campsite with two pretty big reservations. First, the gnats are terrible! Even with our screen room, liberal doses of insect repellant, burning Coleman bug repellant coils, and fogging, the bugs proved too much for Irene, who was forced inside much of the time. Very few people sit around outside at Crooked River. Either they’re up and moving or inside. Second, the rest room complexes are not kept as clean as they could be. Washing them is sporadic and provisions for toilet paper and such are not always made on time. Despite these two setbacks, Crooked River State Park offers easy access to the Golden Isles just north and the Okeefenokee National Wildlife Refuge as well as Cumberland Island and the village of St. Mary’s. It’s also a convenient and inexpensive stop for those heading up or down I-95.

Georgia route 40 runs directly from the sprawl surrounding I-95 exit 3 into the village, narrowing to two lanes just before entering town. Passing the Public Library, which provides daily except Sunday free computer access including Wi-Fi, the road curves past an ugly factory into a neighborhood filled with towering live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. Several 19th century buildings now serve as bed and breakfasts and there are a number of very pleasant looking restaurants as well as shops, a cut above the normal tourist oriented places. There are two book stores and a couple of consignment/antique shops specializing in Red Hat accoutrements. A well-equipped canoe and kayak shop called “Up the Creek” sponsors trips into the surrounding waterways as well as a weekly trip to the Okeefenokee swamp. We ate an overpriced and small lunch at Lang’s seafood restaurant. Out the back door is a ramp leading to the marina, well stocked with impressive looking yachts cruising the Intracosatal waterway.

A visitor can take a leisurely stroll through the town, visit the shops, eat a meal at one of the dozen restaurants in town, stop at the Submarine Museum, or take the ferry out to Cumberland Island. A walk through the village takes a visitor past lovely old and newer homes shaded by some of the finest live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss that can be found anywhere short of New Iberia. All-in-all, St. Mary’s and environs is worth a couple of days. While we didn’t stop there to eat, an unobtrusive restaurant called Aunt B’s Country Buffet at a small strip mall on Spur 40, the direct route to the Base gate, seems to be a local favorite. As I sat in front of the very nice Internet cafĂ© a few doors down on Sunday morning, dozens of folks fresh from church or ready for a day off in shorts and jeans came in for Sunday dinner. They all spoke of the quality of the food. If it weren’t for the beastly bugs, St. Mary’s and Crooked River State Park would be one of the great stops.