Friday, May 01, 2009
Where Time Stands Still
By Leslie Poythress
Surrounded by colossal live oaks draped in Spanish moss, tall pines and beautiful magnolias, the Barrier Islands of Coastal Georgia are definitely a worthwhile destination for a family vacation. My family”s recent spring journey began at Jekyll Island, one of the barrier islands along the meandering 100-mile coastline . Upon our approach of the island,, the salt-tinged frangance of the sea told us that we were entering an area untouched by time.
With an intriguing history dating back to the end of the 19th century, Jekyll Island was named after General James Oglethorpe’s philanthropic friend, Sir Joseph Jekyll. Distinguished visitors such as the Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, and Rockefellers once journeyed to this untarnished island of sand, surf, and natural beauty to relax, hunt, and escape the worries of everyday life. Today, Jekyll, St. Simons, Little St. Simons, and Sea Island are fittingly referred to as The Golden Isles.
Our four-night stay at the picturesque Villas by the Sea Resort Hotel was filled with relaxation, entertainment, and a healthy dose of Southern hospitality. The Villas by the Sea Hotel is not, strictly speaking, a hotel, but a compound of condominiums. It offers spacious one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas with completely furnished kitchens, separate living and dining areas, and private balconies or decks. Each villa is a privately-owned condominium, uniquely furnished with all you need on a family vacation. Located beneath a canopy of moss-draped oaks and lined with palmettos, the 17-acre resort offers an enchanting environment.
Even with the untimely brisk wind and cold Atlantic water, we could not keep our three-year-old son, Avery, out of the ocean. Quickly making friends with other visiting Maconites who happened to be there, he splashed around in the surf and the sand. Finding a sand dollar on his own might have been Avery’s greatest moment as we searched miles of beach for sand dollars, hermit crabs, or some of Georgia’s state seashell, the Knobbed Whelk. Our finds consisted primarily of living creatures, which we examined and returned to the water.
The condominiums provide a wide range of hospitality and other services, including optional full-maid service (in addition to the free, daily replacement of towels and removal of trash), a laundromat, babysitting on request, bicycle rentals, and various planned activities. Shuffleboard and volleyball equipment are also available. A playground, complete with a tire swing and an old-fashioned teeter-totter, is nestled in some trees on the hotel premises as well.
For those searching for surf and turf while staying at the Villas, the Surf Steakhouse in the resort offers fine dining with live entertainment.The restaurant offers breakfast and lunch in a casual yet elegant atmosphere. A number of soft popular melodies accompanied our dinner, thanks to an accomplished pianist who provided the evening’s live entertainment. Our meal began with delectable coconut fried shrimp, complemented with a tasty tropical pineapple sauce. My husband’s Surf’s Up Ribeye was good, and my flounder en papillote was excellent. The fish was baked in parchment paper with fresh garlic, scallions, tomatoes, green peppers, and onions. Our delicious meal was rounded out with a baked tomato topped with olive oil, garlic, and fresh Parmesan. The restaurant caters well to children, with a kids’ corner menu and both highchairs and booster seats for young children.
The world-class Grand Dining Room at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel is available for low-country cuisine. Prices are reasonable considering the refined service and setting.
A state-owned island since 1947, Jekyll Island is the culmination of diverse coastal ecosystems. From richly-preserved maritime forests to the ocean shore, the island’s ecosystem teems with wildlife, including deer, rabbits, various types of birds, alligators, and dolphins. By law, 65 percent of the island must remain undeveloped so future generations can enjoy the island’s natural charm.
We had a quick bite and then headed to the end of the Island to visit the Tidelands Nature Center, a part of the University of Georgia 4-H Program that offers hands-on marine environmental programs for the general public and school groups. During our visit we met two loggerhead turtles, played with a horseshoe crab in the touch tank, and saw several snakes native to Georgia’s coast. In the most exciting part of the visit, Avery and his friend Michael caught grass shrimp in the salt pond which they then released into the touch tank. Tidelands offers nature walks led by experienced guides several times a week to visitors, and the center also rents canoes and paddle boats in season.
More than 20 miles of paved bike trails are established on the island, and we were proud to cover almost half of them. In touring the historic district, we were given a captivating glimpse into the lives of the wealthy families that first owned the island. Venturing past the historic district, we arrived at the du Bignon family cemetery off Riverview Drive. The du Bignon family came to America after escaping the French revolution, and upon their arrival the family purchased Jekyll Island for the purpose of growing Sea Island cotton. The Jekyll Island Club was at that time the most exclusive club in the world. It’s still deluxe, but it is now democratic. Most of the island remained in the family’s hands until it was sold to the Jekyll Island Club in 1886, and then to the State of Georgia in 1947.
Villas by the Sea and Jekyll Island offer the ideal coastal retreat for families, but nearby St. Simons Island, which we explored next, is the most well-rounded of the Golden Isles. It’s ambience is that of casual refinement. As St. Simon’s is more populated, it also offers more in the way of entertainment. Due to current construction on the Sidney Lanier Bridge—the largest bridge in Georgia and one of the largest cable-stayed bridges in the world—the normally short, three-mile drive from Jekyll Island to St. Simons has turned into a 17-mile trek for tourists and residents alike. Construction is expected to be complete by the end of summer.
After the long detour to St. Simons, we finally glimpsed the marshes of Glynn County, immortalized in Sidney Lanier’s poem “The Marshes of Glynn.” The charming island, a favorite getaway of my family, is full of beauty and lore. St. Simons is a blending of year-round residents and tourists making it the most well-rounded of the Golden Isles. It’s ambience is that of casual refinement.
The Island is steeped in folklore that has been passed down through the generations. Its moss-draped oaks reek of mystery. Best selling author Eugenia Price wrote all her history novels at St. Simons, her words resonating with this sense of time and place.
For those who enjoy historical facts, the island’s heritage can be traced back thousands of years. St. Simons Island’s modern-day name comes from the short-lived Yamassee Indian village known as San Simon, which was established by refugees from the town of Colon during the late 1660s before being abandoned in 1684. We visited the Bloody Marsh Battle site, where the British celebrated their decisive victory in 1742 over any future threat of Spanish invasion of the colony. Avery was not nearly as impressed as his parents, as the site only consists of a stone marker and the marshlands.
The Fort Frederica National Monument offered more of an outlet for Avery’s three-year-old energy. The monument provides an interesting look into the life of Georgia founder James Edward Oglethorpe and his colony established on St. Simons Island in 1736. Hands-on displays set up in the ranger station allowed Avery to dress up like a soldier and view swords and other weapons from the time period.
Christ Church, the second oldest Episcopal church in Georgia, is another popular site we visited. The first Christ Church was built in 1820, but after being destroyed in the Civil War, the church was rebuilt in 1886 and has become one of the most awe-inspiring places in the state today. Across from the church, the Wesley Woodland Walk, a park dedicated to John and Charles Wesley (the same John Wesley who founded Methodism), provides an area of solitude for quiet meditation.
While in St. Simons we visited the Pier Village, which contains several specialty shops and eateries. As we browsed the stores, we were struck, as always, with the true Southern hospitality of the coastal island residents. Neptune Park within the Village includes an impressive playground, benches to relax on by the sea, picnic tables under the oaks, and a bandstand where public events are held. The park is near the St. Simons Lighthouse, which is open for tours throughout the year. Fishing opportunities abound on the island, and countless fishing tales are told when locals and tourists meet at the pier.
The beauty and peace of both Jekyll and St. Simons Islands make these coastal paradises magical, and their attractions will interest, entertain, and educate people of all ages.
With fresh vigor from being pampered, we departed for the largest and southermost barrier island of Georgia, Cumberland Island, where we spent our last three vacation days in the woods, living among the raccoons and mosquitoes.
Ever since booking our trip last October, snagging one of the few available reservations, we had eagerly anticipated our two-night, three-day stay in the wilderness of Cumberland Island National Seashore. This subtropical paradise, a 17.5-mile long island consisting of over 36,000 acres, lies seven miles east of St. Marys, Georgia, where a passenger ferry operated by the National Park Service (NPS) transports visitors to and from the island. The 45-minute journey across the Cumberland Sound to the island was exciting for Avery. He loved moving back and forth between the top and bottom levels of the Cumberland Queen, and when dolphins joined our journey to the island, his excitement became contagious.
A number of ecosystems are contained within Cumberland’s shores. The saltwater marshes, maritime forest, and beach each provide a unique environment. Extensive salt marshes border the island to the west, and sixteen miles of pristine, white-sand beaches border Cumberland on the east. As we approached, we were instantly impressed with the picturesque site, which included over a dozen beautiful wild horses resting on the shores.
After disembarking at Sea Camp Dock, we sat through a 30-minute mandatory session about the island’s rules with a park ranger.
We were glad to settle into our camp after a mile trek with our 50-pound backpacks. Finding dead wood for our fire ring was a difficult task, but eventually we were ready to head out for a day of exploration.
Historical lessons abound on the island. Cumberland was originally inhabited by the Timucuans more than 3,000 years ago, in the late 1500’s by the Spanish, and later by the French and English. In the late-18th century, the family of American Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene built the Dungeness Plantation, and our trip included a visit to the Plantation ruins, where Georgia’s elite once lived and played.
The island was designated a national seashore in 1972 to establish the Cumberland Island National Seashore, and in 1982, the northern part of the island was designated a wilderness area. The 50 miles of sandy, narrow hiking trails on the island pass by impressive natural and historic attractions.
The National Parks Service limits the island to 300 visitors per day, and even when the island is full, contact with others is fairly limited. We encountered just four other people as we walked over two miles along the pristine beach, and the only other sign of civilization was the hum of the Coast Guard helicopter passing overhead. A few people, mainly descendants of property owners, own houses on the western and northern regions of the island, but most owners have sold their property to the NPS.
Since vehicles are only allowed on the island for permanent residents and the NPS, we only saw a few during our stay, but many bicyclists were traveling along the paths. Bicycles are welcome but must be transported to the island by a private charter boat rather than the NPS ferry. We used the NPS ferry this trip but will consider using a private charter boat in the future to carry bicycles and a canoe to the island to more easily explore the island.
Countless armadillos amble around the island searching for food in the underbrush like army tanks looking for targets. The creatures are practically blind, so we were not too surprised when several bumped into our feet. Several of the abundunt and feisty raccoons scavenged our campsite each night for leftover scraps. One night, the creatures ate through the zipper of our small cooler and tried to raid its contents, but luckily we caught them before the steaks and snacks were looted. Another night, raccoons scattered our trash, which had been hanging on a pole. Other animals on the island include bald eagles, crabs, pigs, opossums, and snakes.
Aware that the island’s bugs can be vicious, especially the gnats and mosquitoes, we came prepared with—and constantly used—four cans of spray containing DEET. Once on a hike, we lost our spray and suffered with sand gnats. Since no supplies are available on the island, it is important that visitors remember to pack insect repellent, in addition to plenty of food. Drinking water is available at the visitor’s center, ranger station, museum, and Sea Camp campground.
We met a wonderful family from Hahira, Georgia, the last night of our trip and enjoyed their company under the moonlit night. Avery and his newfound friends, like the boy in Where the Wild Things Are, shined their flashlights into the wilderness, hoping for the unexpected to emerge.
As we sat around eating popcorn we had cooked over the open fire, we reflected on our stay and the grandeur of the island. Its beauty, only lightly touched by civilization, is inspiring. Cumberland Island National Seashore is truly a unique experience, a magical place worth another visit.
All three coastal islands of Georgia—Jekyll, St. Simons and Cumberland—will disappoint those who enjoy the boardwalks of beaches like Panama City, but those who prefer the tranquillity of nature’s beauty will find countless places that delight and entertain. All parts of our journey came as a welcome relief from the everyday norm because, as the pace of life slows on the islands, time does in fact stand still.
Golden Isles Accomodations & Restaurants
St. Simons Accommodations
The King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort, 201 Arnold Road, 800-342-0212, http://www.kingandprince.com/Built in 1935, this Historic Hotel of America is St. Simons Island’s only full service, beachfront Resort.
Sea Palms Golf and Tennis Resort, 5445 Frederica Road, 800-841-6268, http://www.seapalms.com/: Sea Palms has 27 holes of newly renovated golf on site.
Holiday Inn Express, 299 Main Street – Plantation Village, 912-634-2175, http://www.holidayinnexpressssi.com/ A moderately priced comfortable hotel with outdoor swimming pool and complimentary breakfast.
Epworth by the Sea, 100 Arthur Moore Drive, 912-638-8688. Welcomes all vacationers to its quiet motel complex overlooking the serene backriver marsh. Inexpensive.
St. Simons Restaurants
Crabdaddy’s Seafood Bar & Grill, 1217 Ocean Boulevard, 912-634-1120. Fresh, local seafood—grilled, blackened, steamed, or sautéed.
Crab Trap, 1209 Ocean Boulevard., 912/638-3552. Casual spot for oysters, rock shrimp, and other seafood.
Mullet Bay Seafood Restaurant, 512 Ocean Boulevard, 912-634-9977. Offers a wide variety of entrees, including fresh seafood; porch dining available.
Jekyll Island Club Hotel, 371 Riverview Drive, 912/635-2600 or 800-535-9547. One of the most deluxe coastal hotels in the East.
Villas By The Sea, 1175 N. Beachview Drive, 800-841-6262, http://www.jekyllislandga.com/ The Villas is an oceanside resort of privately-owned condos and conference center.
Days Inn Oceanfront Resort , 60 S. Beachview Drive, 912-635-9800, http://www.daysinnjekyll.com/ A moderately priced comfortable hotel with outdoor swimming pool and complimentary breakfast.
The Grand Dining Room at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, 912/635-2600. Open all week, lavish brunches on Sundays.
The Surf Steakhouse, located in the Villas By The Sea, 1175 N. Beachview Drive. Specializes in steaks and local seafood with a variety of nightly entertainment.
Cumberland Island’s Accommodations
All camping is limited to seven days all year. Back-country sites are $2.00 per person per night. There are no facilities in the back-country sites and water should be treated. Campfires are not permitted in the back-country and portable stoves are suggested. The four back-country sites range from 3.5 to 10.8 miles from the ferry dock. Reservations are required and can be made up to 6 months in advance. Day useferry fees additional.
All camping is limited to seven nights all year. Sea Camp Campground is $4.00 per person per night. The developed campground at Sea Camp Beach has rest rooms, cold showers, and drinking water. Each campsite has a grill, fire ring, food cage, and picnic table. Reservations are required and can be made up to 6 months in advance. Day useferry fees additional. If staying overnight is not an option, consider a day trip to explore parts of the island.
For those wanting to experience the serenity of Cumberland during the day and the pleasure of a bed at night, there is an alternative. Greyfield Inn was the winter retreat of the Carnegie family in the early 1900s and has been transformed into an all-inclusive getaway. It sits on a 1,300-acre private compound in the midst of the national parklands. Minimum 2 nights beginning at approximately $300 per night for two. Call 912 -261-6408 for reservations.