Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Wonderland on a Private Georgia Island

        I felt like I’d fallen through the looking glass.  At the end of a thirty minute boat ride from Darien, Georgia, we stepped onto the dock at Eagle Island.  Our first impressive sight was an array of tree pots: upended trees with their towering roots filled with cascading green foliage.  A parade of come-to-life, upside down palmettos parading past the arbors of woven wisteria vines like fancy women in Easter bonnets. 
        This is a private island, a total escape, only me and the four women I came with. There’s one house with no others in sight surrounded by endless marshes and ten acres to explore.  Everything we needed to be content was included, even unexpected amenities like a hotel-size ice maker, groceries, ping-pong, a fabulous outdoor kitchen, a fire pit, indoor fireplace and more kitchen equipment than most houses.  The crab traps were already catching crabs.  Happy hour started before the drinks hit the blender. 
        Daydreams started bubbling in our minds as we settled into the rhythm of Eagle Island.  Who could help it with inviting places to relax like the comfy swinging porch bed, the hot tub, the fanciful outdoor shower and the bench by the pond?  We meditated in the porch swing at the end of the dock where 360 degree marsh views lulled our minds into another dimension.  Each night our dreams were filled with exotic images inspired by the Indonesian furniture in the four bedrooms and the quiet sounds of nature.
        Our host, Andy Hill, is a Renaissance man and collector of islands. He would not be the least bewildered, as Alice in Wonderland was, when she was asked “Can you row?” and handed a knitting needle.  Andy relishes reinvention.  The dock is lined with pickle jars turned into artistic turtle lanterns.  The dock itself is made from salvaged lumber.  There’s a book shelf made from a boat, driftwood chandeliers and a bow of a ship waiting to be turned into an oyster table.  The ultimate repurposing though is Andy’s amazing oyster steamer.  It’s the size of a bed, powered by propane and it used to be an immense restaurant deep fryer.  When the pneumatic lid was opened, a billow of steam enveloped us.  Andy and his helpers use it to make his “Eagle Island Five Moon Oysters”.  “We’re not a five star resort” Andy says.  “We’re a five moon destination.” 
     We watched the crew steam the oysters and then put them on the half shell into a cast iron frying pan, cover them with cheese, scallions, bacon and jalapeno peppers.  Then, with a flourish, he poured in a conch shell full of bourbon.  Covered and fired over a propane flame, they became pillows of marshy succulence.  (see complete recipe below). All of this was done downstairs in the outdoor kitchen surrounded by turtle lanterns and moonlight, seagrass and seashells.  Right out of Southern Living.
        Included in the trip to Eagle Island is the opportunity to explore the surrounding area such as Sapelo Island and Andy’s other project at May Hall Island where he has been building a Wonderland vacation house for his family for several years.  Visitors can rent a pontoon boat from Andy, bring their own boat or hire him to tour the area.  There are also kayaks provided with the house.  On Sapelo Island we drove along the rough road to see the Reynolds Mansion and the small hamlet where 45 islanders live.  Hitting the beach, even those of us who live on the coast gathered up the huge seashells that looked like they’d eaten Alice’s mushrooms and grown enormously. 
        The visit to May Hall really showed Andy’s creativity.  “Sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” the Queen told Alice.  Andy can top that.  He told us that for many years any time something was demolished in the area, he’d get a call to salvage the materials.  Throughout the island are piles and piles of sorted tiles, lumber, plants, bricks, tree trunks and barrels that he hauled over by barge.  They’re all waiting to be reinvented.  An elaborate tile mosaic covers a huge patio and outdoor fire place, slate seats dot the forest trails, the entire waterfront is bordered by salvaged ballast rocks and more parading tree pots.  Curiouser and curiouser.  His fantasy doesn’t end there though.  Across long boardwalks are his other islands cheekily named Mick and Jagger where the Lowcountry forests remain, so far at least, untamed.   
        And so we left this magical place where one thing is transformed to another and trees come to life.  Alice asked the Cheshire cat “Where should I go?" "That depends on where you want to end up." The Cat replied. We’d ended up on Eagle Island.  It’s just a three hour drive,  half hour boat ride and through the looking glass from Charleston.
If You Go:  Eagle Island is accessible only by boat. Transportation to the island is included with the island house rental.  For more information see http://www.privateislandsofgeorgia.com/
 Eagle Island Five Moon Oysters
  • One bushel of oysters
  • 1 conch shell--cleaned and sanitized for use as a measuring cup
  • 4 ounce bag of Mexican 4-blend cheese
  • 4 bundles of fresh scallions, finely chopped
  • 2 pounds of bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 10 jalapeno peppers, sliced
  • 1 box of saltine crackers
  • 3 cups of your favorite bourbon
Captain Andy recommends a Low Country boil pot on a propane stand to steam the oysters.  Place a brick in the bottom of the cook pot, fill the pot with water to the top of the brick.  Bring the water to a boil and add 3 cups of bourbon, measured in the conch shell.  Set a basket of 25-40 oysters on top of the brick.  Place the lid on the pot and steam for 10 minutes.  Shuck the oysters, leaving them on the half shell, and fill a skillet or large sauce pan with as many as will fit in a single layer. Cover each oyster with shredded cheese, diced scallions, crumbled bacon and a jalapeno pepper slice.  Cover and cook over medium to low heat long enough to melt the cheese.  After the cheese has melted, turn the heat off and keep covered for another 2-3 minutes to allow the flavors to blend.  Then spoon one out onto a saltine cracker and experience your first, but not your last, Five Moon Oyster. 
 More photos of Eagle Island are available here:  Eagle Island photos
This article was published in the Island Connection and the Island Eye