Laid-Back Beach Town Welcomes Detouring Families
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TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. -- The Rutherfords salvaged their beach vacation this year with a little help from Miley Cyrus.
Six months ago, Beckie Rutherford paid $7,000 for a week at a beach house in Gulf Shores, Ala., where the family has vacationed for as long as her five children can remember. Then the oil started to spill.
"When my mama found out that it was tattooing people and staining them -- that wasn't something I wanted to be a part of," said her daughter Sarah, 16.
The Rutherfords swapped Gulf Shores for Tybee Island, a spit of land at the mouth of the Savannah River. When Sarah and her sister Cassie, 19, heard from their uncle that Ms. Cyrus had filmed the movie "The Last Song" here last summer, they were sold. "Miley is our favorite," Sarah said.
The drive from the Rutherfords' home in Carthage, Tenn., took about eight hours, the same as the drive to Gulf Shores. Ms. Rutherford is already thinking about a return trip at the end of the summer. "We fell in love," she said. "I don't know if I will ever go back to the gulf."
Those words underscore the damage being done to resorts in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi, but they also show how other beach towns are benefiting from the unrelenting gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.
After oil started washing ashore along the gulf, "it only took a week or so for our people to start getting phone calls," said Mayor Jason Buelterman of Tybee Island.
Tybee Island is laid-back and low-rise, purposefully quaint, with a permanent population of about 3,800 that remarked at nearly every opportunity last weekend about the influx of families like the Rutherfords. At the only grocery store in town, checkout lines snaked down the aisles. Near the pier, parking was impossible.
"I always ask, 'Where you from?' " said Jimmy Kelleher, the owner of Seaside Sweets, who has met Tybee first-timers from Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Mr. Kelleher paused to take gelato orders from a family of three. As the family sauntered back to the beach, he said: "I don't want to capitalize on their misfortune. I really don't. It's all the same country."
Mike Kirby, who usually takes his sons, ages 3 and 8, to Fort Morgan, Ala., arrived in Tybee on Saturday evening, just in time for the fireworks show, which they watched at Fannie's, a beachfront restaurant.
"I hated to cancel" the gulf trip, Mr. Kirby said. But he was worried that his kids would not be allowed to swim or, worse, that they would see dead animals on the beach. He found it easy to get his money back, except for a $170 deposit.
Ms. Rutherford had a much harder time. She said she called her rental agents seven days in a row and grew frustrated as they tried to reassure her that the beach was still open for business. She recalled telling them: "I'm not paying to sit on the beach. I'm paying to get in the ocean."
The ocean here is silty, with brown hues and perfect body-boarding waves, nothing like the clear water the Rutherfords enjoyed in the gulf. There are even some black particles in the water, though no one seemed to mistake it for oil residue.
Tybee Island was already on track to have a better summer than last year, when hotel tax revenue dropped almost 3 percent, a consequence of the economy's tailspin. Now the oil spill is sending even more tourists to beaches like Tybee Island's.
Hotels and condos here are usually at capacity on the Fourth of July weekend, but "this year we've had to turn away as many people as we take in," said Amy Gaster, the chairwoman of the Tybee Island Tourism Council and a broker who oversees 140 units.
Keith Gay, another local broker, said the tourists who were opting for the East Coast over the Gulf Coast would provide an even bigger lift to the local economy later. "Ordinarily we would not be completely booked out the next two or three weekends, but this year we are," Mr. Gay said. "It's quite unusual."
Despite the distance from the gulf, concerns linger about oil creeping up the East Coast. Tybee Island is installing a Web cam to reassure vacationers that the beach remains unaffected, save for an increase in the number of people vying for a front-row spot in the sand.
Among the transplants last weekend were Ashley Mitchell and his wife, Elisha, of Erin, Tenn., who normally vacation in Gulf Shores. This summer's vacation was particularly important because it was the first trip to the beach for their 19-month-old daughter, Neeley.
"We want it to be a good one," Mr. Mitchell said as he explained why he canceled the gulf trip.
On Saturday afternoon, Neeley took her first dip in the Atlantic, all the way up to her ankles, and she took to it with gusto.
First Published July 6, 2010 2:00 am