By Marcia Biggs
Special to the Times
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga.
We're gorging on shrimp and grits — not just any shrimp and grits, mind you, but blessedly big, juicy, sweet, straight-off-the-boat shrimp perfectly sauteed in butter, then a splash of white wine, topped with a light mix of chorizo, onions, peppers and roasted corn and spooned gently atop a pool of grits.
Forrest Gump would love it here, where shrimp is king and Southern hospitality is alive and well. This coastal barrier island just over an hour south of Savannah is one of Georgia's Golden Isles, along with Little St. Simons and Jekyll islands. Out the window of my room, the Atlantic Ocean dances with whitecaps as beach strollers soak up the final rays of early evening dusk. Seabirds swoop and dive, picking their dinner from the waves. They, too, are feasting on fresh seafood, a mainstay of island life since American Indians first inhabited the island around 2000 B.C.
Later occupied by Spanish missionaries who dubbed the island "San Simeon," St. Simons Island came under the control of the English in 1742 after the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Indeed, history is everywhere on St. Simons. Fourteen or so plantations once filled this 16-square-mile island, worked by slaves who harvested rice and cotton among the massive live oaks that weep with Spanish moss from one end of the island to the other. Some ruins still remain, including those of English Gen. James Oglethorpe's Fort Frederica and slave quarters at Retreat Plantation.
During a long weekend on the island, I discover a seaside escape filled with history and nature and a delicious diversity of regional Georgia foods. My retreat is the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, a sprawling enclave that seamlessly meshes its historic heritage with modern suites, condominium villas and guest cottages. Opening in 1935, this is where island society danced to live orchestras and a hidden gaming room welcomed gentlemen of the night. The resort retains much of its original Mediterranean style; it's a member of the Historic Hotels of America and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
There's not a lot to do on St. Simons other than relax, explore and eat — and that's just fine with me. The stress level begins to drop once I exit Interstate 95 less than an hour north of the Florida state line, swing through the small port city of Brunswick and turn east into the vast salt marshes. A 5-mile stretch takes me over the F.J. Torras Causeway, which looms like the Titanic from the flat marshland.
I try to call up a map on my smartphone, but I have no reception. I have no cellphone reception at all during my stay; maybe the phone really is smart knowing I need to disconnect. (Don't worry, you can always use the hotel landline, and Internet is available most places.)
Before long, island time is setting in.
Out on the balcony overlooking the ocean, guests recline on lounge chairs, putting down their books every so often to take a dip in one of two pools or sip a peach Bellini from the terrace bar. Golfers make a point of getting in a game at the scenic 18-hole resort course set amid the salt marsh and live oaks. It's about 12 miles from the beach resort on the north end of the island, but the hotel will gladly shuttle you over, and the ride is delightful. Inside the clubhouse restaurant, a picture window looks out on the lush green course, lined with dripping oaks and a pond where herons fish for a tasty morsel. I could camp out here all day, but the island is calling me.
Back at the King and Prince, executive chef Jason Brumfiel focuses his menu on Southern coastal cuisine with a creative twist and does a splendid job. Fresh seafood is a specialty, of course, but I indulge in the amazing charcuterie board with a glass of regional wine. It's a compilation of Georgia smoked and cured meats, artisan cheeses from local dairy farms, pecans, salsas, Savannah honey, jams and jellies made from local produce, even locally grown olives.
Throughout the weekend I find Southern comfort food everywhere. The breakfast buffet at the Sandcastle Cafe is groaning with eggs, waffles, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, grits, fresh berries and peach cobbler. At Tramici, a favorite of locals, platters of fresh oysters on the half shell are served family style. The number of seafood restaurants on the island is almost staggering. Fresh crabs, oysters and fish come smoked, sauteed, baked, steamed, broiled or boiled.
It's easy to rent a bike at the Ocean Motion bicycle shop a block from the hotel and head to the Pier Village, the island's quaint shopping district on Mallery Street just off the pier. There are 20 miles of paved bicycle trails throughout the island. Locals who live and work here seem downright happy to chat, give you directions to Southern Soul Barbeque ("They were on the Food Network, you know") and profess their undying love for their island home.
I know that to really learn about a new place it's best to take a guided tour. Fortunately, island native Cap Fendig is my tour guide on his Lighthouse Trolleys tours. Fendig is a font of local knowledge and folklore; he belongs to one of the island's oldest families and knows just about everyone and everything.
At the Village Pier where locals cast their lines and nets, Fendig tells us about the global shipping industry that continues to frequent the port of Brunswick. We see the ancient Indian burial site and learn about plantation life and the slaves whose families still reside on the island. We tour historic Christ Church where early settlers planted the seeds for the Methodist faith and stroll through the old graveyard.
We visit the beautifully restored lighthouse where keeper Frederick Osborne was shot dead one Sunday morning in 1880. St. Simons Lighthouse is one of only three working lighthouses on the Georgia coast and offers an excellent view of the coastline and nearby barrier islands.
Vast marshlands embrace Georgia's barrier islands, harboring an amazing diversity of marine life. Nearly 400,000 acres of marshland along Georgia's 100-mile coast represent one-third of all remaining marshland along the entire East Coast. The salt marshes stretch in a band 4 to 6 miles wide between the mainland and coastal barrier islands.
The marsh's shallow tidal water is home to the young of many marine species before they return to the open sea. The marsh serves as a nursery ground for the growing juveniles of fish and shellfish, and these fish in turn support larger fish. This enormous productivity helps to make the salt marshes primary nursery areas for blue crabs, oysters, shrimp and other fish and shellfish.
The Lady Jane shrimp boat tour out of Brunswick offers visitors an up-close look at the marine life of the salt marsh. Capt. Larry Credle's renovated 60-foot steel hull shrimp boat takes passengers out just a few miles into the marsh, where it drops a net, hauls up the catch and dumps it right before your eyes.
Guide and marine biologist Phil Flournoy fills us in on the unique ecosystem of the marshland. Picking up critter after critter from the contents of each catch, Flournoy explained its life cycle and function in the estuary. Perched on a mast above his head, brown pelican Edna would eye each crab or fish, tapping Flournoy's head and trying to snatch the catch from his fingers.
In three trawls, the net unleashed an astounding diversity, including Atlantic white shrimp, Atlantic menhaden, Atlantic croaker, Southern flounder, brown cheek tonguefish, fringed sole, Southern kingfish, Southern stingray, Atlantic stingray, bluefish, oyster toad fish, striped burrfish, cutlass fish, silver perch, blue crab and horseshoe crab. In the final trawl we discovered a juvenile Kemp's ridley sea turtle, which was immediately measured, recorded and returned to the water.
During the 90-minute cruise, we nibbled on fresh shrimp boiled Low Country style. Between the scientific show-and-tell, the sea turtle and Edna's antics, the Lady Jane proved to be an educating and entertaining excursion.
Finally it was time to leave my island getaway. But I knew there was one thing I still needed to accomplish. As I drove off the island I swung by Southern Soul Barbeque to pick up some highly recommended brisket chili to go. A taste of St. Simons Island was going home with me.
Marcia Biggs is a freelance travel writer based in Safety Harbor.