Mermaids on Tybee Island
Experience an original beach town (and maybe run into author Mary Kay Andrews) with a rental from Mermaid Cottages.
by Erin Z. Bass
Tybee Island was Savannah’s beach community. Used to be, it was the tackiest beach community on the whole East Coast, with a grimy little street carnival, cheap T-shirt shops, and an abundance of cheesy mom-and-pop motels and all-you-can-eat family restaurants. The houses were hit-or-miss affairs. Along the ocean side you did have some turn-of-the-century beauties, but the rest of Tybee was mostly ramshackle wood frame cottages or concrete block bungalows straight out of the fifties.” – “Savannah Blues” by Mary Kay Andrews
The cottages and bungalows that Georgia author Mary Kay Andrews describes in her 2002 book “Savannah Blues” are exactly what Diane Kaufman loves so much about Tybee Island. After working in sales and marketing for Marriott hotels for 26 years, Kaufman made a permanent move to Tybee and began buying and selling what she describes as “fixer-uppers.” Her hobby turned into a new career when she was asked to manage a vacation rental for a friend of a friend. That was almost nine years ago, and now Kaufman manages 50 rentals through her business Mermaid Cottages.
Kaufman wanted to evoke a special feeling for guests through the name of her business. “I like what mermaids symbolize to people,” she says. “I like the fact that when you think mermaids, you think sea, you think ocean.” It was also important to her that the word “cottage” be in the name, because she wanted to make it clear that she wasn’t renting condos or fancy beachouses. “I will only manage homes that fit who I am as a person,” she says. “These are cozy cottages and historic homes.” And with names like Mermaid Manor, Fish Camp, Heron Hideaway and Made in the Shade, how could they not be cozy?
The fact that some of them are owned by the likes of Mary Kay Andrews and Paula Deen is just an added bonus for Kaufman’s business. It all started with Mary Kay Andrews’ Breeze Inn, named after the 1950s motor court hotel in her book “Savannah Breeze.” With three bedrooms and three bathrooms, the circa 1942 cottage is two blocks from the beach, offers shelves full of beach reads and is decorated with vintage and antique pieces Andrews collected from estate sales and flea markets.
“Mary Kay is very involved in her houses,” says Kaufman. “It’s all her junking treasures, and she has put a lot of personal time and love into her houses.” (Andrews’ book signing party at local shop Seaside Sisters is July 5.)
Andrews recently added a second cottage to Kaufman’s collection called Ebbtide. Purchased in January, the cottage has been receiving a makeover by Andrews and her husband and is named after the beach house in her New York Times bestseller “Summer Rental.” A circa 1932 beach house, Ebbtide is larger than Breeze Inn and features original board and batten wood paneling, a clawfoot tub and an enclosed porch with views to the beach.
But it’s Paula Deen’s beach house that has gotten the most buzz for Mermaid Cottages. “We actually have a separate Facebook page for Paula’s vacation home, and we have almost 15,000 people that like it,” says Kaufman. In fact, the name for Deen’s house was narrowed down to three choices by Facebook fans, with “Y’all Come Inn” being the favorite. Full of her own line of furniture, Deen’s house is also stocked with her collection of cookbooks and each rental includes a special welcome gift of Paula Deen goodies, a personalized cookbook and guaranteed reservations at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House and The Lady and Sons Restaurant.
While having celebrity clients is certainly good for business (as are recent photo shoots with Kohl’s, Barn Light Electric and a call from Target), Kaufman is quick to tout Tybee’s authenticity and charm as an original beach town. “If you look around the country, it’s hard to find a beach town that is still a small beach town without high-rises or big condo complexes or shopping malls, and we are a small, 3.5-mile island beach town,” she says. Since Tybee was developed as a beach town 130 years ago, many of its houses and Kaufman’s cottages aren’t on the beach. They’re a few blocks up, in neighborhoods, as they were originally built for people who lived there.
“We just got a new house called White Caps that was built in 1897, and that was built back when Tybee first began,” she says. “It’s a big old wonderful beach house that, again, is not on the beach, it’s several blocks back, but you walk in and feel like you’re in just a classic beach place.”
Kaufman’s recommended – and preferred – mode of transportation on the island is on two wheels. “Tybee is so perfect to bike ride,” she says, “and my bike is so beat up, but the tires are pumped up firm and the seat is nice and flat and wide.”
When Kaufman isn’t handling rental calls or checking on a property, she can be found in her favorite spot on the very South end of the island. “It overlooks Little Tybee and it overlooks the tip of the Atlantic Ocean, and it’s just this incredible spectacular expanse of land and sea,” she says.
When To Go
The peak summer months for Mermaid Cottages are June, July and August, which are booked up to a year in advance. It’s easier to get a rental in the spring or fall, and last-minute bookings are welcome during slower times. Turtle season is May 1 through October 1, and the bulk of the females come ashore in mid-July.
Mermaids Give Back
Part of the proceeds from each rental goes toward sponsoring a guide dog puppy, Kaufman’s charity of choice, and most cottages are dog friendly, coming stocked with a jar of Beach Bum dog biscuits. Cottages also include Mermaid Morning Bliss Coffee, made in Savannah, and available at Seaside Sisters. Coffee sales support the Tybee Sea Turtle Project.
Mermaids Who Create Retreats
Are you a writer, photographer or artist? You could be a guest of Mermaid Cottages’ annual artistic retreat in January. Enjoy the complimentary use of a cottage as a getaway to write and create new literary and other works of art that revolve around Tybee Island. Get more info here.
All photos courtesy of Mermaid Cottages. From top: Mary Kay Andrews’ Breeze Inn, Blue Moon Over Tybee, Mermaid Manor, Ebbtide dining room, Paula Deen’s Y’all Come In, White Caps porch and shell sculpture over the living room mantle, Tybee Pier and Diane Kaufman with her labs Danny and Boomer.