Located in coastal McIntosh County, wee Darien boasts an abundance of small-town charm and ample opportunities to fill a weekend or week-long itinerary.
Unless you are fortunate enough to have lived along Georgia’s Atlantic coast, chances are you have never heard of tiny Darien, in McIntosh County, much less considered making it a vacation destination. We at Georgia’s Rural Center are here to tell you it’s high time you do just that! With about 1,500 year-round residents, Darien is one of the smallest incorporated places in the state. But what this minuscule municipality lacks in population it more than makes up for in personality.
Strategically located at the mouth of the Altamaha River, Darien has been the site of human habitation for thousands of years. In 1721, the English crown financed the construction of a small garrison near present-day Darien with the purpose of buffering the colony of South Carolina against potential attacks from the Spanish, French and Native American inhabitants to the south and west. Though Fort King George was manned by British troops for just six short years, General James Oglethorpe succeeded in recruiting a small group of Scottish Highlanders to settle in the surrounding area in 1736. It is from this hardy stock that McIntosh County derived both its name and its distinction as the second-oldest planned city in the thirteenth colony.
From pre-colonial days to the present, Darien’s and McIntosh County’s history is well represented in film, literature and in the exhibits of the Old Jail Art Center and Museum, the Fort King George Historic Park and Sapelo Island Visitors Center. All three are must-sees for anyone interested in colonial, state or national history, and a long weekend presents plenty of time to work in a visit to each. The work of local artists abounds at the Old Jail Art Center, and the Sapelo Island Visitor Center is the place to pick up a copy of McIntosh County native and prolific Georgia historian Buddy Sullivan’s myriad works. It’s also where your journey to take in the unique history and beauty of Sapelo Island begins.
Just a hop, skip and a jump from the Sapelo ferry stop is Ashantilly Center. Also known as “Old Tabby,” the former plantation was originally owned and operated by Thomas Spalding, one-time owner of Sapelo Island, early statesman and “father of the Georgia sugar industry.” While Ashantilly is open to visitors only during special events or by appointment, locals and historians alike name it among one of the most interesting and significant sites along the Georgia coast.
If the earliest years of agricultural enterprise on Georgia’s coast are intriguing to you, another necessary stop just south of Darien is the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation visitor center and museum. Originally one of the several sprawling rice plantations near Darien, the site is now operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a state historic site. Visitors to the site can view a short film about the history of Hofwyl-Broadfield, enjoy a guided tour of the original plantation home and grounds and take a few steps back in time on the natural trail that encircles the property.
We haven’t mentioned yet but must—downtown Darien is as walkable and bicycle-friendly as a place can possibly be. In fact, the 3,000-mile East Coast Greenway, the country’s longest biking and walking route, passes through downtown Darien, making the area a favorite among bicyclists. Park your bike downtown and enjoy some small-town shopping at one of several unique, locally owned shops. The Local Exchange offers a wide variety of Georgia Grown and Georgia-made products including fresh produce, while Tabby Trading Company is a great spot to pick up the work of a local artist, a handmade souvenir or a cute outfit.
If site-seeing leaves you hungry, downtown Darien is the next destination on the hungry traveller’s agenda. No matter what your craving or budget might be, there is a menu and a price-point sure to please. Soups, sandwiches, quiche and coffees are the specialty of the Shanty Café, while Blue Bay Mexican Grill serves up Tex-Mex favorites with a waterside view. The Canopy is the place for breakfast and more, while Keys North Market and Grill boasts an expansive outdoor seating area right on the river. And the “thirsty” explorer is sure to find something satisfying to whet the whistle at Waterfront Wine and Gourmet.
Ask any local or veteran Darien visitor where to eat when you’re in town—or anywhere remotely close—and their immediate reply is almost certain to be Skipper’s Fish Camp or B&J’s Steaks and Seafood. While Skipper’s is located dockside in walkable downtown Darien, B&J’s is just a short walk or ride up U.S. Hwy. 17 from the water. The star of the show at either location is the “sweet Georgia shrimp” that arrives daily on Darien’s docks in season.
Speaking of shrimp, the tiny crustaceans are big business in Darien and McIntosh County. In fact, the annual blessing of the shrimping fleet is the biggest event of the year and takes place every April. A uniquely coastal experience, Darien’s Blessing of the Fleet Festival draws thousands of locals and visitors, so make plans early if you plan to take it in. Options for overnights in Darien include a handful of small, locally owned and operated inns and B&B’s near downtown and the river, as well as national chain hotels near Interstate 95.
In fact, Interstate travelers can reach Darien via two exits–42 and 49–with each route offering a unique experience and entrée to the historic downtown. The southern route via exit 42 is the more rural, scenic route, leading to U.S. Hwy. 17 just north of Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, then north across the marshes and river into downtown Darien. If a visit to the Darien-McIntosh Chamber’s visitor center, service stations or fast food are on your itinerary, however, Exit 49 is the better option.
Regardless how you get there, we must mention two more of the myriad opportunities to indulge in rural Georgia at its finest while you’re in Darien. Before you leave the historic area near downtown, stop in at the Sugar Marsh Cottage for a sweet treat (or several!) to take home. Situated on the north side of the scenic, circular green space known as Vernon Square, Sugar Marsh Cottage offers a bounty of coastal-inspired, handmade artisan chocolates and confections, including an edible “Altie,” McIntosh County’s mysterious river monster and unofficial mascot. No visit to Darien is complete without snapping a selfie with Altie and enjoying a cup of Joe at the lovely, new Chamber of Commerce visitors center off exit 49.
Brimming with natural beauty, friendly locals, and small-town charm, Darien is definitely a dot to mark on yourmap of rural Georgia. And while virtually the whole world knows about the nearby Golden Isles, McIntosh County offers more than its fair share of opportunities with far less congestion than its neighboring vacation hot spots. While we could go on about all there is to see and do in this tiny treasure of a town, we will stop now and simply say—Darien and McIntosh County are rural Georgia gems worth discovering for yourself! Check out DiscoverDarien.com to begin planning your rural retreat on the Georgia coast today.
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Photo credits from top:
Darien River by Ralph Daniel
Fort King George, Darien, Georgia, USA by Evangelio Gonzalez Darien River by Ralph Daniel
Darien Waterfront Inn View by Joann Viera
Vernon Square by Ralph Daniel