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Loran Smith Columnist

Published Saturday, February 09, 2013

The ambience of Darien

DARIEN – Crossing the Darien River Bridge on U. S. 17 South, an uplifting scene awaits if you choose a leisurely gait in these fractured and hurried times. Park your car and take a short walk up to the bridge and become enraptured by the view — in any direction.

The unblemished marshland stretches to the tree lined horizon out to the barrier islands and beyond. This explains why countless artists have found their way here. It is a place naturalists covet since there are at least 120 species of rare or endangered plants and animals found in this area.

Darien attracted the famed botanist and explorer William Bartram, who discovered and saved from extinction the Franklinia Altamaha tree, although it does not grow in the wild anymore.

Shrimp boats are tied up along the docks on the Darien River, a reminder that the dormancy of shrimping activity in these cold days will evolve into vibrancy, anticipation and energy as the ceremonial blessing of the shrimp fleet takes place in April.

It is but one of the many festivals spawned in Darien to bring attention to a community which has often experienced hard times since its infancy when there were Indians lurking about and ambitious Spanish to the South who made the Crown nervous which is how Darien came about in the first place.

General James Edward Oglethorpe brought English debtors to found Georgia’s first colony in Savannah, but a man who won’t pay his debts won’t fight. Scottish Highlanders were sent here as a buffer to thwart any and all Spanish expansionist ambitions.

Darien’s main street, which is the 1,206 mile long U. S. 17— which stretches from Winchester, Va., to Punta Gorda, Fla., — is a wide thoroughfare without traffic lights. Darien is home to 1,975 residents, according to the last census, and also to an enterprising newspaperwoman, Kathleen Russell, publisher of the Darien News.

When you visit Darien and Kathleen, she will suggest you take a meal at Skipper’s, the restaurant on the river with an expansive deck where people gather for libations, relaxation and conversation when the spring and summer temperatures bring about those lazy, hazy days and give the atmosphere a buzz.

The only place which rivals Skipper’s atmosphere is Kathleen’s breakfast nook and den, with the view of the marsh that engenders feelings of humility and gratefulness over a Famous Grouse. On a recent weekend, she hosted an impromptu gathering of editors, which included Jim Minter, once the editorial boss of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Dubose Porter of the Dublin Courier Herald.

It all began with lunch at Skipper’s where the menu always features wild Georgia shrimp. You stand out on the deck and scan the masts of the shrimp boats and reflect on a tasty lunch of fried shrimp, thanking the hard-working men and women who, against considerable odds, still work the shrimp boats and bring their bounty to the tables of restaurants like Skipper’s throughout the Golden Iles.

They are having a hard time, those economically-embattled shrimpers. When April comes around, remember the shrimpers when you think about others out there who don’t have it so good economically.

Leaving Darien, you cross a succession of rivers (Darien, Butler and the Champney) that brings you to the Altamaha, which owes its existence to the merging of the Oconee and the Ocmulgee rivers at Lumber City. Bump into a local and they will pronounce it, “Altamahaul.”

Not too many people consider Darien a place of destination, but if you want to appreciate a spectacular view, enjoy the simplicity of life, a great meal at an arresting restaurant with the best ambience and atmosphere, you should come to Darien. If it was good enough for the Scottish Highlanders -- including Old Tom Morris’ son-in-law and William Bartram, it’s good enough for me.

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