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December 6, 2012

TRAVEL: Dunham Farms gives visitors a big view of coastal Georgia

Imagine exquisite dining and restful sleeping on a plantation loved by the same family since 1755. Dunham Farms in Sunbury, Ga., is that place - with 10,000 lush acres of live oaks, long views across riverbanks and marshes that feed seacoast ecosystems, all wrapped around a bed and breakfast inn.

The same family now sharing these woods, waters, gardens and Colonial trails started with a Kings’ grant in 1755. Official family records from the British crown can be traced in Atlanta.

Laura and Meredith Devendorf - a passionate, knowledgable mother-daughter-team - carry on a tradition, as they say, “of preserving this section of Georgia’s coast for perpetuity, and for everyone.” You'll find them walking the groomed trails, cooking in the gourmet kitchen or guiding kayakers on the waters.

The Devendorfs recently donated 2,300 acres called Melon Bluff for public access, scholarly research, conservation and education.

Visitors to Dunham Farms choose the 1840 Palmyra Plantation Cottage with its heart pine, high ceilings, twi bedrooms, kitchen, living and dining rooms. Or they might stay in one of nine elegantly furnished rooms with private baths in the barn. Some are in former stalls on the ground floor, some are upstairs in the hayloft.           

You’d never know you were in a barn if the Devendorf women didn’t tell tales about their horses when they were growing up. You can hear their passion for the undisturbed upland forests, the marsh grasses and mud, and the vast species of birds.

These innkeepers are historians, arborists, culinary artists and storytellers.

They're also good guides to a range of experiences within a 15 minute drive of the farm. Sunbury, 30 miles south of Savannah, is a happening place. Choices include:

Fort Morris State Historic Site (Revolutionary War and War of 1812): Fort Morris also tells the tale of Sunbury, a thriving cultural center 200 years ago. Laid out in city squares, Sunbury was a busy port that rivaled Savannah.

Seabrook Village: The African American living history community received one of 12 Cultural Olympiad awards when the Games were held in Atlanta in 1996. It features vernacular architecture and furnished buildings from the late 1880s, when people leaving plantations formed an enduring community they called Seabrook.   

“They had nothing,” says volunteer Florence Tate Roberts, a direct descendent of former slaves who built Seabrook with creative problem-solving skills, or what she calls “making do."

Geechee Kunda: The Gullah Geechee Center exudes passion, too, about a culture within a culture. This former 4,000-acre plantation of rice, indigo and cotton is filled with cultural treasures.

Jim and Pat Bacote are passionate about protecting, researching and sharing the heritage of the African people who lived here.

“As we teach the true history of the African presence here,” Jim says gently, “healing can come about."

“We Gullah/Geechees are African people with a distinct culture and language created by our ancestors,” he says. “We value the importance of gathering and handing down the knowledge."

Other excursions in Sunbury include the Melon Bluff Nature and Heritage Reserve; Colonial Coast birding trail sites; as well as marinas, a fishing pier, a small boat launch and boat tours.

Some visitors arrive seeking knowledge - such as the archeologists examining the Devendorf land.

David Hurst Thomas, a curator of the Department of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, documents a silver coin found at Dunham Farms to be from the Spanish reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, predating St. Augustine by 30 years.

Thomas has already spent 30 years exploring nearby St. Catherines Island and discovering the Spanish mission Santa Catalina de Guale.

Now he’s also working with the Devendorfs to determine what history awaits under their pristine land. Spanish missionaries settled as early as 1526, it seems.

These are all fine incentives for nights and meals at Dunham Farms.

Or perhaps one might choose from a big list of special events and guided hikes.

Full-moon kayaking anyone?

---

Christine Tibbetts covers travel destinations for The Tifton Gazette. Contact  at www.TibbettsTravel.com and @TibsTravel.

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