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CUMBERLAND ISLAND, GA. // A Well-Kept Secret

No sooner had the morning ferryboat chugged out of the Fernandina Beach marina when somebody popped the question.

"All right, let's get this over with," said Jerry, a brash, 40-something businessman on vacation from Atlanta. With a cold Busch beer in one hand and a bag of boiled peanuts in the other, he looked at the young woman in the Greyfield Inn uniform, offered a charming, crooked smile and asked, "Did you see any of them from The Wedding?"

All seven of us on the boat to Cumberland Island knew exactly which wedding he meant: The one that starred John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette. The ceremony managed to remain surprisingly private, partly because it took place on that remote and little-known barrier island off the Georgia coast.

But Cumberland was something special long before the Kennedys put it on the map. The wedding was simply the latest chapter in a colorful history that dates back about 4,000 years, when the Timucuan Indians roasted oysters on the beaches. Over the past 400 years, the island has been home to Jesuit missionaries, French, Spanish and English explorers, Revolutionary War heroes and another famous American family. Having made their fortune up North in steel, the Carnegies came down and made Cumberland their private homestead.

What distinguishes this historical island from others nearby, though, is the fact that it is isolated and still undeveloped. Shaped something like a pork chop, about 18 miles long and 3 miles wide, Cumberland is larger than Manhattan. Yet it has just 35 or so full-time residents, one inn and miles of pristine beaches and wild oak forests and marshland. On Cumberland, visitors see feral horses, white-tail deer, dolphins, armadillos and, come winter, 200 species of birds that migrate there.

But there are no tourist shops, telephone lines or TVs. No vehicles other than those belonging to park rangers and residents. And no way to reach the island other than by boat, a 45-minute ferry ride.

Although Congress designated the island a national seashore back in 1972, it has enjoyed a low profile, overshadowed by the fancier resorts on neighboring Sea Island, Ga., and Amelia Island. Until the recent attention, vacationers learned about Cumberland and its Greyfield Inn mainly through word-of-mouth.

Yet the island is open to the public, and you don't need a trust fund to afford it. You can visit for as little as $10.07, the price of a round-trip ticket on the Cumberland Queen, the ferry operated by the National Park Service, and stay for free at one of five campgrounds. Or you can spend $149 to $350 a night for a room at Greyfield, one of five mansions the Carnegies built on the island. Either way, set foot on Cumberland for an afternoon, or a couple of days, and you risk becoming hopelessly wedded to this place.

The park service ferry leaves out of St. Mary's, Ga., about 45 minutes north of Jacksonville. Though I arrived early, a crowd of day-trippers and campers was already waiting on the dock. Shaggy college-age couples with backpacks, families with plastic crates piled high with bug repellent, snack food and other necessities for the week, and a tour group sporting name tags and every conceivable camera. So much for the secluded Cumberland experience, I thought.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The park service doesn't allow more than 300 visitors on the island each day. Basically, once the ferry crowd disperses toward the beach or the campground, you feel you've got the place to yourself.

A day on Cumberland may not sound like enough time, but the three-mile trail along the southern end, between the Dungeness and Sea Camp docks, provides a wonderful sense of history as well as a glimpse of the unspoiled natural beauty. The island's one-room museum, located in the Carnegies' old ice house, describes a French colony, Spanish and English forts and the vast plantations that flourished in busier times.

Now, all is quiet. The beach nearby is free of what you expect these days _ high-rise condos, glittering boardwalks and endless tourists _ making it seem like some undiscovered island. Behind the powdery white dunes lurks a forest of live oaks coated with resurrection ferns and draped in Spanish moss.

But it all starts with the dramatic ruins of Dungeness.

After being snubbed by the Vanderbilts' and Rockefellers' private club on nearby Jekyll Island, Thomas Carnegie, Andrew's younger brother and business partner, bought land on Cumberland in the early 1880s. He built a grand estate for his wife, Lucy, and their nine children that included a mansion, gardens upon gardens, an indoor swimming pool and an indoor squash court.

He named his creation Dungeness. That was what James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia, had called the hunting lodge he had erected on the very spot in the mid-1700s. And Nathaniel Greene, the Revolutionary War general, named his home here the same thing.

Oddly enough, like Greene, Carnegie died before he could enjoy Dungeness, and it was their widows who maintained the estates and grew attached to Cumberland. Stranger still, about 100 years after Greene's home burned down during the Civil War (by Union soldiers, the story goes), arson also gutted the Carnegie estate.

All that remains of Dungeness today is a roofless skeleton of stone walls, doorways and window sills crawling with vegetation and two towering red-brick chimneys where buzzards perch. The place has the eerie stillness of a cemetery. The spring-fed garden fountain that once shot water high into the air is now nothing more than an ornate bird bath. On the sprawling grounds that teemed with members of Congress, socialites and more than 100 servants, horses often graze.

After imagining how Dungeness might have looked before the fire, I was eager to see Greyfield Inn, two miles to the north. Carnegie's widow built the three-story white clapboard mansion in 1901 for her daughter, Margaret, and Carnegie descendants have been operating the inn since the 1960s.

Greyfield offers guests another side of Cumberland, the chance to feel more like a family friend than a tourist. No wonder the Kennedy wedding party stayed there. Forget about bringing bottled water and supplies; an insulated jug of iced tea or lemonade and a hearty picnic lunch in a wicker basket are prepared for each guest.

People come here to relax, and that might as well start on the generous veranda, which stretches the length of the house and has porch swings _ cushioned and big as a twin bed _ on either end. Late afternoon, cocktails and hors d'oeuvres are available in the old gun room, where an eight-point buck overlooks the bar.

The house looks much the way it did at the turn of the century, a cross between a home and a hunting club. It has high ceilings, Oriental rugs, dark wood paneling and rugged furniture. The library is like a rare book room, the shelves lined with first editions and classics. The rooms are decorated with family antiques, portraits, maps, fresh-cut flowers and the occasional animal skull.

But the island awaits. Greyfield has plenty of mountain bikes for the short trip to the beach to swim, shell or sunbathe in private, or for an afternoon exploring the island.

Grand Avenue, the main road, isn't much of a road at all _ a narrow lane of packed sand and marl that splits the shaggy undergrowth of palmettos like a part down the middle. I lingered in the forest, awestruck by the tranquility and the giant oaks. Each one is gnarled and twisted in a different way.

Robert Frost would love this place: The woods really are lovely, dark and deep. The oaks are like clouds, their shapes suggesting so many things to the imagination. Giant fingers. An upside-down octopus. A Broadway chorus line.

Guests to the inn can spend part of the day hiking or biking in the wild and still take a four-hour guided Jeep tour. A prime stop on the tour is now the tiny chapel that is the First African Baptist Church. Founded by freed slaves on the island in the late 1800s, the church was already on the tour, but since The Wedding it has become a longer stop.

The church is out of the way, even by Cumberland standards. Located on the northern end of the island, it sits in a clearing in the wilderness, next to a horse barn and pig pen belonging to a longtime naturalist. The red trim and white paint are peeling, the door handle is missing and the windows have been painted over. Inside, it's dark and musty, like an attic. Eleven weathered pews face a homemade cross and an offering basket.

It wasn't even the highlight of the four-hour Jeep tour, which weaves through the island's lush northern backcountry. We rode on the beach in search of horses and loggerhead turtle nests, picnicked at the island's only freshwater lake and strolled the stately grounds of Plum Orchard.

I realize this is not everyone's idea of vacation. Or everyone's idea of the beach. As charming as Greyfield is, the inn cannot mask Cumberland's true nature. The humidity, mosquitoes and ticks can be relentless, especially in the summer. There is nowhere to go at night, nothing to do, which is either heavenly or suffocating depending on your temperament.

A visitor to Cumberland can go hours without seeing another soul. But one person definitely worth meeting is Thomas and Lucy Carnegie's great-great-granddaughter, Gogo Ferguson. She lives next door to Greyfield, which her brother Mitty Ferguson operates with his wife, Mary Jo. Gogo was busy cooking dinner when I dropped by unannounced, yet she waved me in from the kitchen window like an old acquaintance.

A striking woman with shoulder-length dark hair, Gogo designs gold and silver jewelry and utensils using animal bones and wax casts. Deer-tibia salad servers. An alligator-toes necklace. Rattlesnake-jawbone earrings. She gathers the bones on long winter walks and sells the exotic pieces in a cozy studio cluttered with baskets and baskets of bones, and in well-heeled boutiques elsewhere. Isabella Rossellini and Hillary Clinton wear her designs. So did Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Gogo talks passionately about her family's ties to Cumberland. And she talks about the latest controversy on the island, her proposal to make Plum Orchard, another Carnegie mansion, into an artists' colony. However, she's tight-lipped about the wedding she and her family pulled off for her pal John Kennedy Jr., and about the wedding rings she designed for the couple. Cumberland keeps its secrets.

If you go:

The nearest airport to Cumberland Island is in Jacksonville. The National Park Service ferry leaves out of St. Mary's, Ga., 45 miles north of the airport, or a $45 cab ride with Gator City Taxi and Shuttle. The Greyfield Inn ferry leaves out of Fernandina Beach, 38 miles north of the airport, or $35 by taxi.

The National Park Service operates two ferries a day, except from October to March, when the ferry does not run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The ferry departs at 9 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. A round-trip ticket costs $10.07.

Cumberland has five campgrounds, four of which are primitive backcountry sites. Sea Camp Beach, however, does have restrooms, cold showers and drinking water. Camping is free but limited to seven days.

Even if you are only going for the day, take drinking water, bug repellent, rain gear and anything else you'll need. No supplies are available on the island.

For ferry reservations and other information, call (912) 882-4335 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Greyfield Inn is the only inn on the island, with nine rooms in the main house and four more in air-conditioned cottages on the grounds. Rooms range from $145 a night for a cozy midweek single room to $350 a night for a premium room with a king-size bed, sitting room and private bath. The price includes a Southern breakfast, picnic lunch and gourmet dinner, bicycles, a guided Jeep tour and private ferry transportation.

The ferry leaves from the Fernandina Beach marina on Amelia Island. In the spring and fall, Greyfield is often booked six months in advance. For reservations, call (904) 261-6408.

Charles Salter Jr. is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.

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