Georgia's barrier islands are low-key, devoid of high-rises and freeways. Separated from the mainland by ecologically rich marshlands, the islands are — officially or unofficially — wildlife refuges, supporting sea turtles, roseate spoonbills, marsh wrens, oysters and hundreds of other species. The sea is simultaneously friend and foe, depositing sand to form delicate dunes in one spot while viciously eating away the land elsewhere on the same island.
Each island from Cumberland in the south to Tybee at the north end is unique and memorable. A century or more ago, wealthy industrialists built lavish mansions, summer "cottages" and hunting lodges on some islands. Others supported plantations where slaves worked crops of sea island cotton, indigo or rice. The Georgia coast was a buffer between English settlers to the north and Spanish colonists in Florida, with many landings protected by forts.
Some of the islands along Georgia's 150-mile coastline are wildlife sanctuaries or research stations not open to the public; others are private. This tale isn't a comprehensive report but a story about six islands visited over 18 months.
The Georgia coast is bookended by two airports, Jacksonville and Savannah. In addition, Brunswick — with easy access to the southern islands — has an airport.
In addition to websites for individual islands, information on some or all of the islands can be found by calling toll-free 1-800-847-4842 or looking at these websites: exploregeorgia.org and visitcoastalgeorgia.com.
Cumberland Island, the 19th century retreat of a branch of the Carnegie family, is a national seashore managed by the National Park Service, just across the Florida state line. The only places to spend the night are the inn and the campground. There are no stores. Miss the return ferry, we're warned several times, and we'll spend the night in the open with no gear or food.
With a little over four hours to spend on a cold, dreary New Year's Day, my sister and I limit ourselves to the southern end of the 17-mile-long island. That gives us time for a guided tour by a park ranger that includes the ruins of the Carnegies' Dungeness mansion, a quick hike on our own to the beach on the eastern shore where we spot a few of the island's famous wild horses and a brisk walk to the next ferry landing, about a mile north of where we first came ashore.
We start with the tour by the ranger who meets the ferry. As we walk, she fills us in on the island's history, its human residents, its plants and wildlife, and the constant cycle of erosion. This account of history and nature, peculiar to coastal Georgia, is all new to me, but as I visit Georgia's other islands, I'll hear similar stories. Most intriguing are the accounts of the conflicts between the preservation of what is natural and the instinct to preserve our own history or to intervene in nature.
Dungeness mansion was built in 1886 in the style of a Scottish castle, but burned in 1959 and was abandoned a short time later. The National Park Service acquired most of the land on the island in 1972 (the northern end of Cumberland is privately owned). Within the park system, the guide tells us, there is debate over what should be done with the ruins: Should the buildings be allowed to deteriorate until they return to nature? Or should a significant piece of Georgia's cultural history be saved?
Dungeness was once an elegant, sprawling mansion with numerous outbuildings. What remains is surreal: towers, turrets, chimney and roofless walls. Wooden outbuildings have crumbled, their timbers fallen in at odd angles, lines askew. Around back is a decrepit fountain and a flat grassy area where I could imagine ladies in hats sipping tea.
Information: nps.gov/cuis/ or (912) 882-4336, ext. 254
Getting there: A walk-on ferry departs St. Marys for Cumberland twice daily. Cost: adults $20, children 12 and under $14, seniors 65 and older $18. In addition, there's a $4 per person entrance fee (free to children under 16 and holders of certain passes). Reservations: toll-free 1-877-860-6787. A ranger who meets the ferry gives a free tour.
It is an overcast afternoon in February, not quite time for the Victorian tea with scones and finger sandwiches that is served here daily. Out on the lawn of the exceedingly civilized Jekyll Island Club, four people dressed in white are playing croquet. Jekyll Island attracts the sort of people who should know that one doesn't wear white before Memorial Day; this was once, after all, the winter home of Vanderbilts and Rockefellers.
This is my second trip to Jekyll Island but my first stay at the Jekyll Island Club. It's the off season, the weather is chilly, and a few spots are closed, but it's an enjoyable place for a getaway on a seashore that is 180 degrees different from Florida.
Jekyll, now a state park, is a 7-mile-long barrier island with beaches of fine white sand, just under 1,000 residents, a convention center under construction and several hotels planned. It was once a hunting retreat for prosperous business leaders from the Northeast, including William Rockefeller, William K. Vanderbilt, J. Pierpont Morgan and Marshall Field. The hotel began as a clubhouse for the group, and members built "cottages" nearby, some of which still stand. That area is now a historic district, and visitors can take trolley tours that include several of the cottages.
The next day I drove to Clam Creek at the island's northern tip for a nature walk. The volunteer tour guide told us about how whelks lay eggs, how hermit crabs live and how mesh bags of oyster shells are piled on the sand to reduce erosion. At the end of the island is an enormous fishing pier, partly covered. Beyond it, we could see St. Simons Island, my next stop.
Getting there: You can drive to the island, which is about 12 miles off Interstate 95 at the Brunswick exit and across a causeway.
What to do: The Tidelands Nature Center offers daily nature walks (tidelands4h.org; (912) 635-5032). Adults $5, children 8-18 $3. Georgia Sea Turtle Center, 214 Stable Road (georgiasea turtlecenter.org; (912) 635-4444). Adults $6, seniors $5, children 4-12 $4, children 3 and under free. Open daily.
St. Simons Island
St. Simons Island, with between 13,000 and 14,000 residents, is the most populous of Georgia's islands. It also provides the land link to two others, Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island. Historically, it is important for its role in the battles between the British and the Spanish, and for being home to John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, as well as the Timucuan tribe. The live oaks here were used to build ships, including the USS Constitution.
Most of the island's east coast abuts marshes, but near the southern end is a long, wide beach at Massengale Park. Late on a September afternoon, there are few people on the beach.
The tourist district, called the Village, is at the southern end of the island, near the St. Simons Lighthouse, which is 101 years old and open to people who want to climb its steep, narrow 129 steps. There are shops that sell fudge and beach-themed souvenirs, a coffeehouse with live music at night, a trolley tour of the southern end of the island.
The centerpiece of the Village is the pier, which was almost empty of people late in the afternoon. The tide was out, exposing a wide stretch of sand where waves had been crashing against the seawall the night before.
As sunset neared, people suddenly appeared. Watching men with fishing poles and couples stroll the pier, I realized this was an old-fashioned promenade, people coming out to take in the sea air, to greet acquaintances they perhaps didn't know well enough to call on at their homes.
Getting there: Drive to the island, which is about 17 miles from I-95 at the Brunswick exit.
What to do: St. Simons Lighthouse and Museum, 101 12th St. (saintsimonslighthouse.org; (912) 638-4666), was built in 1872 and is open daily. Various admission packages are available, but basic admission is $6 for adults or $10 for the Lighthouse Museum and adjacent Maritime Museum. Trolley tours leave from the pier at 117 Mallery St. (stsimonstours.com; (912) 638-8954). There is one 90-minute tour daily at 11 a.m. Adults $22, children 4-12 $10, children under 4 free.
Tradition is important on Sea Island, whether it involves architectural detail, bingo games, single-malt scotch and cigars in the Smoking Room, or the Gold Brick Sundae at the Beach Club. It was developed as a resort for the monied classes and remains so today. Room rates in May at the Cloister start at $395, meals not included.
The skinny, 5-mile-long resort island is lined by beaches on its Atlantic Ocean side; to the west are salt marshes and St. Simons Island, to which it is connected by a causeway, its only land access.
The original Spanish-style Cloister hotel opened in 1928 as a temporary hotel on Sea Island. Seventy-five years later, the "temporary" hotel was dismantled and rebuilt. The new hotel echoes the elegance of the old with a design inspired by Mizner. It has planks hewn from ancient logs and salvaged from old buildings, more than 600 rugs woven in Turkish villages, art from the old hotel, a restaurant with hand-painted china and jackets-required dress code, butler service, a shooting school that includes skeet and clay targets, and a dramatic three-story lobby and sitting room.
In the last decade, Sea Island also updated its three golf courses (one hosts a PGA tour event), built the 40-room Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club, a 65,000-square-foot spa and the Beach Club, which with three pools is the heart of the resort's recreation program. Also on the island are about 750 private homes and condos, about 170 of them available for vacation rental.
Information: seaisland.com or toll-free 1-866-879-6238
Getting there: Drive over a causeway from St. Simons Island. However, only residents, guests and staff at the resort have access.
I came to Sapelo Island primarily to see Hog Hammock, Georgia's only remaining Gullah community, inhabited by the descendants of slaves. Yet here I am in the basement of the Reynolds Mansion, ogling the bowling alley, pingpong table, bar and billiards table and wondering if I have 15 fun-loving friends who'd want to join me in renting the place for a couple of nights.
The two locations are linked by history.
In the early 19th century, Thomas Spalding, who owned several hundred slaves, farmed cotton and sugarcane on the southern part of the island. After the Civil War, the former slaves formed communities on Sapelo, where they spoke their own language, Gullah. Hog Hammock is the only one remaining. It has dwindled to about 55 residents who hold the only private property on the island. The rest of the island is owned and administered by the state and the University of Georgia, which has marine research facilities here.
Spalding's mansion passed through several owners, during which time it was rebuilt, enlarged and renamed. Today the home is open to the public for tours, and can be rented by groups.
Physically getting to Sapelo isn't difficult — the Georgia State Parks Department runs a ferry from Meridian. But getting permission is another matter. You can book one of the tours offered by the parks department twice a week (three times a week in summer). You can get invited by a resident, a few of whom rent rooms and conduct private tours for a fee, or camp, with a reservation. Or you can rent the Reynolds Mansion. Otherwise, you won't even be allowed on the ferry.
Information: sapelonerr.org/visitorcenter.htm or gastateparks.org/sapeloreynolds or (912) 437-3224
Getting there: Access is only via boat. A walk-on ferry leaves daily from the Sapelo Visitor's Center in Meridian, but visitors must be on a tour, be invited by an island resident, or have reservations at a campground or the Reynolds Mansion. Public tours cost $10 (ferry included) and are conducted Wednesday and Saturday mornings. From June through Labor Day, an additional tour is conducted on Friday mornings. A longer tour is conducted the last Tuesday of the month.
Locals call Tybee Island Savannah's beach — it's only 18 miles from Savannah, just south of the South Carolina state line.
The town has the ambience of Old Florida beach towns. There are no high-rise hotels and few chain restaurants or lodgings. Instead of club hopping, there are turtle talks and beach walks.
One highlight, I'm told, is catching the sunset, so one night I have dinner at AJ's Dockside Restaurant on the island's western edge. From my wooden table on the dock, I look across marsh and water as I eat deviled crab and salad topped with fried oysters. Boats are moored at long docks that jut out across the marsh, connecting solid land and the water. The sun sends its rays in sideways under my umbrella.
The sun still has not set by the time I've finished my dinner, but I've lingered as long as I reasonably can. A few minutes later, driving along the western edge of the island, I spot a smaller fishing pier where I can watch the sunset instead.
My patience pays off though. The sun is finally setting, suffusing the sky with broad streaks of soft orange and pink, like a watercolor wash. The fading light illuminates the marshes, a young boy awkwardly casting his line, a wading bird dipping his beak in the water, the silhouette of a palm tree and a boat moving slowly through the water — a perfect snapshot of the Georgian isles.
Getting there: Drive from Savannah on U.S. 80.
What to do: Tybee Marine Science Center, 1510 Strand Ave. (tybeemarinescience.org; toll-free 1-866-557-9172) has small exhibits and offers beach discovery walks. Fort Pulaski National Monument (nps.gov/fopu/; (912) 786-5787) is on U.S. 80 E, between Savannah and Tybee Island, and offers living history programs, guided tours, musket firings, fishing, bird-watching, hiking and other activities. Adults $5, children 15 and under free. Open daily.