These coastal isles have long served as refuges for wildlife, havens for millionaires, and bastions of history.
By Jane De Backer
Voodoo, alligators, wild horses, African culture, and the wealthiest families in the United States — all are part of the history of Georgia’s barrier islands. They’re also still a part of the islands’ modern-day heritage.
At dawn, the mist rises on the marshes that skirt the coast of Georgia. The state has only 100 miles of coastline, but nearly 800 miles of shoreline. Seventeen barrier islands are in this complex.
The most visited of the barrier isles are Sapelo, Jekyll, Cumberland, and St. Simons. Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island are very exclusive. Little St. Simons, Sapelo, and Cumberland must be reached by boat, while St. Simons, Sea Island, and Jekyll have causeways connecting them to the mainland. Four of the isles (St. Simons, Little St. Simons, Jekyll, and Sea) and a nearby coastal town are collectively “Brunswick and the Golden Isles of Georgia.”
Sapelo Island is Georgia’s fourth largest barrier isle, and one of the most pristine. A 30-minute ferry ride from the Darien area brings you to this 16,500-acre piece of land surrounded by 16,000 acres of marsh.
The environment lures scientists from around the world to study how the ecosystems function, and the University of Georgia’s Marine Institute operates a research facility there. In fact, much of the island is dedicated to study and preservation; it was given to the state by R.J. Reynolds, of the Reynolds Tobacco Company. Reynolds’ interest in marine research aided in creating the Marine Institute in 1950. The “Big House” on the south end of the island was his; it rests where an old plantation sat before the Civil War.
Centuries ago, Sapelo was inhabited by Indians who built the largest shell midden ever found in North America. The midden was filled with oyster shells, bones, and broken pottery.
European settlers in the early 1800s found that Sapelo had the perfect climate for growing cotton and rice. Most of the descendants of the slaves who worked on the island at that time have long ago moved away, but those who have remained have been able to keep much of their culture intact. The island’s only town, Hog Hammock, has a permanent population of approximately 70. Residents still speak a combination of the Geechee and Gullah languages, and they like to be known as Saltwater Geechees. They have tried to hold on to their customs and beliefs in magic, signs, and spirits.
The lighthouse on Sapelo Island boasts a 175-year history. Over the past few years, it has been restored to its 1890s appearance. Plans are in place to build a road to the lighthouse and its adjacent buildings, and to open an interpretive facility.
To visit Sapelo Island, you take a 30-minute ferryboat from the Sapelo Island Dock. To reach the dock, exit Interstate 95 at Eulonia and turn east on State Route 99. Travel 9 miles to the Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve sign, which leads to the dock. Ferry and tour reservations are required; at the time of this writing, the fare was $10. Phone (912) 437-3224 for reservations and more information.
The next isle south is Wolf Island, a designated National Wildlife Refuge. Following that is Little St. Simon’s Island, privately owned and accessible only by boat. A limited number of guests are permitted to enjoy the beaches and woodlands on day trips and overnight stays, and reservations are necessary. Phone (888) 733-5774 or (912) 638-7472.
Another secluded but easier to reach barrier island is Sea Island, accessible via a causeway from St. Simons Island. It’s home to many nice privately owned residences, as well as an internationally acclaimed resort called The Cloister. If you’ve ever wished to leave your motorhome for a few days to stay or dine in posh luxury, here’s your chance. For more information, phone (800) 732-4752 or visit www.seaisland.com.
St. Simons and Jekyll islands straddle the Marshes of Glynn, made familiar to us by Sidney Lanier’s poem of the same name. St. Simons, the busiest of the Golden Isles, is full of bustle, traffic, shopping, and history. Take the St. Simons Causeway to the island; a small toll is charged.
Fort Frederica, Georgia’s first military outpost, was established on St. Simons Island in 1736 by British General James Oglethorpe. St. Simons was the location of the Battle of Bloody Marsh, the skirmish in which English troops defeated the Spanish in 1742. The Fort Frederica National Monument now preserves what’s left of the fort’s related shops and dwellings. A visitors center and museum are located on the site.
Live oaks, the same trees that overshadow Frederica Road, were milled for use in Revolutionary warships, including “Old Ironsides,” also known as the USS Constitution. Because the trunks and branches of this tree naturally bend, they were perfect for forming the hulls of boats.
The Village, a developed area at the southern tip of St. Simons, is home to the St. Simons Island Lighthouse, built in 1872. It replaced the first lighthouse, which was built on the site in 1810. A lighthouse museum is open daily, and a small admission fee is charged. Visitors may climb to the top of the light tower and glean a magnificent view of the marshes and Jekyll Island from the catwalk. The original Third Order Fresnel lens is still intact. This is one of five remaining lighthouses in Georgia.
Eugenia Price mentioned the St. Simons Light in her book series about this island. Her stories also make note of the settlers who are buried in the graveyard of Christ Church. The church is bedecked with lovely stained-glass windows, including a Tiffany window, though it isn’t signed. In order for a window to be signed by Louis C. Tiffany, the glass designer had to oversee its installation. The church window’s authenticity is documented, however.
From St. Simons Island, travel back to the mainland via the St. Simons Causeway and turn south on U.S. 17 to the Jekyll Causeway. As you drive across the causeway leading to Jekyll Island, tensions relax and you leave behind road rage, hustle and bustle. Just be forewarned: island visitors must pay a $3 parking fee.
The 6-mile causeway that leads to the island is flanked by tidal marshes, home to myriad waterfowl and migrating birds. Signs along the route placed there from May to July advise motorists to “Watch for Turtles Crossing the Roadway.” It is not uncommon to see a car stopped, its blinkers on and the driver walking out in the roadway to relocate a lost turtle who has wandered into the road. After gently placing it in the grass, the driver will get in his car and continue on his way.
Indians inhabited Jekyll Island several hundred years ago; in subsequent years it has been used as a place for settlers and for a Civil War encampment. The Jekyll Island Club was formed there in the 1880s when some of the wealthiest people in the United States — whose surnames included Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Goodyear, Pulitzer, and Crane — got together. The members built a fine clubhouse and a neighborhood of “cottages” to be used for a few months in the winter. (Mr. Crane’s cottage boasted 17 bathrooms.)
These vacationers came by train to Brunswick and crossed the river to Jekyll, or arrived in their yachts with family members, servants, and supplies aboard. The Jekyll Island Club Hotel was home to some of the rich and famous while their cottages were being readied. The men relaxed and hunted while the ladies had tea, planned parties, and went to the beach.
By 1942 most of these elite vacationers departed the island, never to return. World War II and the economy had taken their toll. Some of the wealthy families left their homes fully furnished, and the buildings fell into disrepair. But in 1947 the state of Georgia bought the island for $650,000 and set a provision that 65 percent of it must always remain undeveloped.
Some of the wealthy families’ cottages have been restored and are open for tours; two of them, Cherokee and Crane, are now operated as bed-and-breakfast inns. The Courtyard at Crane is open for lunch.
Across the street from Crane Courtyard is Faith Chapel, which also boasts a Tiffany window. The original installation was overseen by Tiffany himself, and the window is embellished with his signature. The Armstrong Window, which was created by a student of Tiffany, was reinstalled a few months ago, after being taken apart and cleaned piece by piece.
Jekyll is called the “Smiling Island.” It has no stoplights; the speed limit ranges from 15 to 35 mph; and you do not have to buy a beach pass. Miles of sand are accessible to everyone.
Twenty miles of flat, mostly paved bike paths encircle the island. You can spend a whole day riding beneath canopies of live oaks, along the beach, and through the historic district. Bikes can be rented at Jekyll Island Campground, the shopping mall, and various hotels around the island. Restaurants are at these stops, or you may want to tote your own meal and enjoy it at any of the many picnic grounds situated along the way. Tram tours, Victorian carriage history tours, and nature and landscape walks are available from the visitors center, located on the Jekyll Causeway.
A fishing pier is located across from Jekyll Island Campground, and fishing is available along the beaches. The Intercoastal Waterway flanks one side of the island, and charter boats leave the dock for fishing excursions and dolphin-watching tours. A water taxi departs from there to St. Simons Island, too.
Because Jekyll Island Campground is convenient to St. Simons and a little more than an hour away from Sapelo and Cumberland islands, you might want to establish a base camp there while visiting the other isles. (See the area campground listing at the end of this article for more information.)
From St. Andrews Point, at the southern end of Jekyll Island, you can see the northern shore of Little Cumberland Island, which is privately owned and off-limits to the public.
However, Cumberland Island, home to Cumberland Island National Seashore, is quite a place to investigate. By road, it is a little more than an hour’s drive from Jekyll Island to the town of St. Marys, from where you can take a ferry to Georgia’s southernmost barrier island. If you’re traveling on Interstate 95 and wish to reach the island from there, take the Kingsland exit and turn south (east) on State Route 40, which ends a few blocks from the ferry.
Only 300 people per day are permitted to visit Cumberland Island National Seashore. No restaurants or food concessions are available on the island, so food must be packed in and all garbage must be carried out. Some parking is available for smaller motorhomes and cars a few blocks away from the dock in St. Marys.
Bicycles and cars are not permitted on Cumberland Island. The passenger ferry ride costs $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, and $7 for children ages 12 and under. Be sure you have reservations for the ferry ride so you won’t be disappointed — phone (888) 817-3421 or (912) 882-4335.
The ferry ride takes 45 minutes, after which you are greeted at the Cumberland dock by a National Park Service guide. A park entrance fee of $4 per person is charged. After an orientation, your guide leads you through trees to the ruins of Dungeness Mansion.
In the early 1700s the British built forts on Cumberland, including a hunting lodge called Dungeness. In 1796 construction of Dungeness Mansion was begun; it was situated near the then-abandoned hunting lodge. The place was the scene for many social functions, until it burned to the ground in 1866. It’s not clear whether the fire was an accident or purposely set.
In 1880 Thomas Carnegie purchased most of Cumberland Island and built a 59-room castle complete with a 100-foot tower, a pool house, a golf course, and 40 outbuildings. That home burned in 1959. The Carnegie family donated most of the island to the U.S. government in 1972 for use as a national seashore.
Once inside the old mansion’s gates, you can just imagine the grand parties that were held there. Along the lawn are the remains of terraces, fountains, gardens, and greenhouses. Wild horses nibble on the grass, their colts frolicking at their side. Beyond the grounds are the servants’ houses, carriage house, and stables.
Down a lane is the cemetery. General Harry Lee, father of Robert E. Lee, died at Cumberland in 1818 and was originally buried there. (His body was re-interred in Virginia in 1913.) At the graveyard, the guide directed us to the beach and left us to wander at our leisure. We walked through the maritime forest, passing an armadillo along the way, and arrived at the dunes and a practically deserted beach. We identified the tracks along the way, as horses watched us from the dunes above.
After about a mile, we arrived at the post marking the path back to the boat dock. The trail wanders through the primitive campground draped with tents and one of the two rest rooms we encountered.
The boat dock is the starting location of another nature talk given by a Park Service guide, which you enjoy as you rest and wait for the ferry. The enchantment of a practically undeveloped island gives you the opportunity to imagine what all of Georgia’s barrier islands must have been like hundreds of years ago. Once you visit them, chances are you’ll want to return.
Brunswick & The Golden Isles Visitors Bureau
4 Glynn Ave.
Brunswick, GA 31520
Georgia Department of Industry, Trade, & Tourism
P.O. Bo 1776
Atlanta, GA 30301-1776
The following is a sampling of area campgrounds and may not be a complete list. Please consult your favorite campground directory or Family Motor Coaching’s “Business Service Directory” for additional listings.
Altamaha Regional Park
1605 Altamaha Park Road
Brunswick, GA 31525
Blythe Island Regional Park Campground
6618 Blythe Island Highway, State Route 303
Brunswick, GA 31523
Crooked River State Park
6222 Charlie Smith Sr. Highway
St. Marys, GA 31558
Golden Isles Vacation Park
7445 Blythe Island Highway
Brunswick, GA 31523
Jekyll Island Campground
1197 Riverview Drive
Jekyll Island, GA 31527
(877) 453-5955 (4JEKYLL)
Lake Harmony RV Park
Route 3, Box 3128
Townsend, GA 31331