The unspoiled barrier islands of the Atlantic seaboard have long attracted travelers with their tranquility and magnificent beaches. Georgia is blessed with a chain of such islands, known as the “Golden Isles.” Mercifully free of the overdevelopment that has blighted some mainland shores, they are a consistent delight, not least because of their remarkable variety of wildlife.
For many years, I have admired the renowned resorts on Sea Island, notably The Cloister and The Lodge, but during successive visits, I became aware of neighboring islands that seemed to offer distinctive attractions. On a recent trip, I decided to see two of them: Cumberland Island and Little St. Simons Island.
Just south of Sea Island, Cumberland Island was once a retreat for the Carnegie family. Their chief home there was a mansion called Dungeness, which was destroyed by a fire in 1959. Thomas Carnegie and his wife, Lucy, built another house, Greyfield, for their daughter, Margaret Ricketson. Her daughter, Lucy Ferguson, converted it to an inn in 1962. In the late ’70s, the Carnegies sold most of the island to the government, and it is now a national seashore.
Cumberland Island was never widely settled, and under the care of the National Park Service, it remains little touched by the modern world. As cars are not permitted, we left ours at a lot operated by the inn in Fernandina Beach, Florida, just south of the Georgia border and 45 minutes from the Jacksonville airport. A short walk brought us to a dock, from where a launch transfers guests to Greyfield three times a day.
Cumberland Island was never widely settled, and remains little touched by the modern world.
After a pleasant 45-minute trip, much of which was spent watching dolphins ride the bow wave of the boat, we arrived at the heavily wooded island. There, we caught our first sight of the stately white-pillared inn, surrounded by expanses of green lawn and live oaks draped with tendrils of Spanish moss. Our room, the Porch Suite, proved to be somewhat narrow, but was delightfully decorated with beadboard wainscoting, period furniture and an imposing four-poster bed provided with small steps. An adjoining sitting room came with a built-in armoire and daybed, while the compact, charmingly old-fashioned bath was dominated by a large claw-foot tub with a shower (and a somewhat awkward curtain). To preserve its period character, the suite did not contain a television; the telephone was only for emergencies; and there was no Internet. Each of the 16 rooms, including those in two outlying cottages, is individual in character and décor.
After a martini in the small honor bar next to the library, we wandered into the gracious living room, which struck a rare balance between formality and comfort. Dinner was served downstairs at tables set with crystal, silver and china. In general, guests dine together family style. Young staff members served us with professional aplomb. The food was exceptional, with perfectly cooked halibut in a herb dressing accompanied by baby vegetables being a standout.
Cumberland Island does not offer resort activities such as golf and tennis. Rather, the emphasis is on its cultural heritage and natural riches. Morning and afternoon excursions are led by naturalist guides, one of which took us to the forlorn ruins of Dungeness and then along a boardwalk through marshland — where we spotted an alligator — to impressive dunes and an untouched beach. On another occasion, after heading through dense maritime forest of pine, oak, holly and palmetto, we stopped at Plum Orchard, a lavish 20,000-square-foot mansion built by Lucy Carnegie for her son, George, and now carefully maintained by the National Park Service. Nearby, an area known as the Settlement was once a community of freed slaves. There, the small First African Baptist Church served as the wedding venue for the ill-fated John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette (who wanted to escape the attentions of the paparazzi).
During the drive, we saw more than two dozen bird species — including the pileated woodpecker — several of Cumberland’s resident feral horses, an alligator and some white-tailed deer. If you have ever wondered what life must have been like at a gracious Southern manor in bygone days, this is the place to find out.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The atmosphere of complete relaxation; there is no pressure whatever to forsake a rocking chair on the front porch.
DISLIKE: As charming as it is to have authentic plumbing fixtures, the encircling shower curtain around our combined tub/shower proved a challenge.
GOOD TO KNOW: Six of the rooms in the main inn, lovely as they are, have shared baths. They are: the Master Suite, Marsh, North Marsh, South Marsh, Marsh West and South Porch.
Greyfield Inn 92 Porch Suite, $635, all meals included; Two-night minimum stay. Cumberland Island, Georgia. Tel. (904) 261-6408.
After returning to the mainland, we headed north to Little St. Simons Island. Once again, we left our car in a protected parking area, this time after having dropped off our luggage at a shelter, where we found color-coded tags prepared for us. The short boat trip took us through a classic Lowcountry landscape of grassy marshes skeined with channels. Making our way from the dock, we entered a world of great serenity, filled with the sound of birds and little else. Little St. Simons Island is renowned as one of the finest birding locations on the East Coast, and one of its owners is former Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, who is an amateur bird-watcher of note. Back in 1907, the island attracted the eye of O.F. Chichester of the Eagle Pencil Co., who saw that red cedar — critical for making pencils — thrived there. Eagle’s president, Philip Berolzheimer, purchased the island, but the cedars turned out to be too wind-bent to be of use. Berolzheimer, however, loved the place and bought it from the company, establishing a small lodge as a retreat for friends and family. His grandchildren are still owners, along with the Paulsons, and they opened the lodge to the public in 1979.
The 16 rooms are spread throughout the main original hunting lodge and outlying cottages. We were directed to Cedar House, a low wooden building right by the water. Four bedrooms share a large central living area, which comes with a small refrigerator, a fireplace and an encircling deck. Our wood-paneled quarters were not luxurious, but rather the embodiment of rustic comfort. The same held true for the public rooms in the old hunting lodge. There, the lounge featured a massive stone fireplace, bookshelves, inviting chairs and an open bar. We took our meals family style in the cheerful dining room, where guests passed around dishes of simple but delicious Lowcountry fare, such as succulent sweet shrimp with succotash and sweet potatoes.
I added innumerable new species to my bird life list, including a roseate spoonbill and the yellow-billed cuckoo.
The true luxury on Little St. Simons Island is its tranquility and unspoiled character. Virtually undeveloped, its 10,000 acres provide sanctuary for an extraordinary wealth of wildlife, including almost 300 species of birds, plus a fascinating variety of mammals, reptiles and insects. Twice daily, naturalists lead forays across the island, and during my stay, I added innumerable new species to my bird life list, including a roseate spoonbill and the rare yellow-billed cuckoo. While on a wild, dune-bordered beach, I found the remains of horseshoe crabs, some exquisite seashells and the intricate tests of sand dollars and sea urchins. Other activities include kayaking, cycling, canoeing and fishing. (A fellow guest landed a sizable blackfish one day, which the kitchen cleaned, seasoned and cooked as a delicious appetizer.)
Little St. Simons Island is not for everyone, but it offers an exceptional experience of pristine nature, made all the more enjoyable by a terrific staff and the comfortable accommodations.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The attention to detail and meticulous service.
DISLIKE: The many tall trees tend to make some rooms dark; the accommodations in Helen House, Tom House and Michael Cottage are brighter and more cheerful.
GOOD TO KNOW: Given the location, it is not surprising that it can be quite buggy.
Little St. Simons Island 90 Rooms (depending on season), $450-$775; Two-bedroom Michael Cottage, $1,000-$1,400. The entire island can be taken for $6,400-$8,800. Little St. Simons Island, Georgia. Tel. (912) 638-7472.