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Priceless Family Memories in Georgia’s Golden Isles

August 15, 2015 by · 4 Comments 

Imagine my surprise when I was informed that I’d won a St. Simons Getaway Contest: a package including four nights in a two-bedroom cottage on St. Simons Island compliments of the Golden Isles Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and Island Cottage Company, plus gift certificates from restaurants and activities. WOW!

The Golden Isles of Georgia

The Golden Isles of Georgia

Since I travel for my work, I don’t usually take a vacation. So, what would I do with this wonderful windfall?

I have four grown children and eight grandchildren, but needless to say, a group that size wouldn’t fit. In talking with them, my son Steve and his extended family decided to rent a house on St. Simons, concurrent with my cottage reservation. My youngest and single daughter, Laura, would share the cottage with me. So, plans were made for a multi-generational family vacation.

St. Simons Island

Stunning Avenue of Oaks, St. Simons Island, Georgia

Stunning Avenue of Oaks, St. Simons Island, Georgia

We all arrived in early June, some driving and some flying. St. Simons is the largest barrier island in the Golden Isles group, situated off the southern Georgia coast. The name comes from the warm reflection of the sun on lowland Spartina or marsh grass.

To get there, I drove about two hours before crossing the 480-foot tall Sidney Lanier Bridge and through the Lowcountry. Once on St. Simons, you pick up a peaceful, family-friendly vibe.

Much of the island is residential, the streets lined with stately old oaks dripping Spanish moss. One of the most beautiful spots, called the Avenue of Oaks, features a double row of huge trees planted in 1826. The island includes a few villages, a small airport, and lovely beaches.

Laura and I checked into the Piper Cottage, a small house full of big delights. We each had a bedroom, plus a living room, dining area, another den or lounge, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and outdoor patio. In addition, a small screened-in front porch and a fenced in yard.  What more could we want?

 

Piper Cottage

Piper Cottage

St. Simons Cottage

St. Simons Cottage

Michele Beveridge, the owner, came over and welcomed us. The Piper Cottage decor blends hues of blue and white in a casual, beachy style that’s totally laid-back and charming. Another bonus was high-speed WiFi. Yes — even when you’re on vacation.

 

 

 

 

The chosen week turned out to be one of the hottest weeks of the summer. Whew! The family over in Steve’s house awaken with the sun, so various adults would get out early and set up a tent for shade and the beach chairs. Sunscreen, sand toys, Boogie boards, snacks and cold water were trekked down along with the kids. Everyone splashed in the ocean, jumped the waves and built sand castles.

When the beach got too hot, we headed to the pool, an extra that came along with Steve’s big house rental. Soon, lunchtime called and the youngest needed naps.

 

Southern Soul BBQ

Southern Soul BBQ

Laura and I decided to use one of the gift certificates and headed off to Southern Soul BBQ for pulled pork sandwiches. This super casual restaurant, in an old gas station, has lip-smacking, tender and juicy BBQ. The meat is slow-cooked, and you choose a choice of sauces. Yummy!

Another afternoon, my son and I took the two oldest girls to the Lighthouse (four tickets were included in my package.) It stands near the village and the pier and is one of only five light towers in Georgia. The 104-foot brick structure dates back to 1872 but was overhauled in 1876. In 1953, it became fully automated.

St. Simons Lighthouse

St. Simons Lighthouse

We began by watching a terrific orientation video. Then, despite the heat, we climbed the cast iron spiral stairway with 129 steps to the top. The view of St. Simons Sound from up high is sublime.

The 1872 keeper’s dwelling is of Victorian design and restored to the period. Compared to others lighthouses I have visited, this house seemed quite grand and spacious. The girls and I enjoyed peeking into the children’s bedroom and guessing at the antique kitchen tools. The gift shop is one of the best with truly lovely items!!

Lighthouse Kitchen

Lighthouse Kitchen

Another afternoon, we visited the Maritime Center housed in the old Coast Guard Station (Tickets to the lighthouse also admit you to the Maritime Center). The station was used up until 1995 and later turned into a museum that includes some hands-on history activities and nature exhibits for children.

Jekyll Island

Jekyll Island, another of the Golden Isles, is a sleepy, secluded place of unspoiled beauty. You pay a $6 entry fee to cross the causeway. It supports the island’s natural and cultural resources.

Jekyll Island Club-

Jekyll Island Club-

Jekyll became the winter escape grounds for America’s richest during the Gilded Age. Legendary families like the Rockefellers, Morgans, and Pulitzers reveled in their luxurious “cottages.” Their homes around the Jekyll Island Club became known as the Millionaires’ Row.

One morning my family group skipped the beach and carpooled to nearby Jekyll to visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. This extraordinary facility functions like a top-of-the-line hospital except the patients aren’t humans; they are turtles.

The night before a giant sea turtle had been rescued and we saw him lying on the surgical table being debrided- removing barnacles that had grown on his shell. Blood was drawn and the turtle was taken to the Radiology lab for x-rays.

Sea Turtle on surgical table, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Jekyll Island, GA

Sea Turtle on surgical table, Georgia Sea Turtle Center, Jekyll Island, GA

Treating an injured sea turtle

Treating an injured sea turtle

Results revealed a boat propeller wound sometime in the past. The resulting crack in his shell became infected. The turtle would receive antibiotics, and his shell would be mended with a laser.

GA Sea Turtle Center Tech administers medications

GA Sea Turtle Center Tech administers medications

Every rescued turtle at the center receives a name, so much nicer than calling one XJ257. Detailed medical records and all treatments are recorded. When a turtle is ready to be released back into the sea, a tracking device is attached so their movements can be monitored.

Sea Turtle in Rehab Tank

Sea Turtle in Rehab Tank

We watched a feeding demonstration with a young turtle in a glass tank placed at children’s eye level.

Inside the Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Inside the Georgia Sea Turtle Center

Earlier, the kids roamed about the museum playing with interactive displays, please touch exhibits and lots of videos. Afterward, we went out back to the Rehabilitation Pavilion, a room filled with tanks that look like small swimming pools. Adults and kids agree, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center ranks as a fun and worthwhile place to visit.

The family returned to Jekyll another day to beat the heat at Summer Waves Water Park. Although a water park seems out of character for this upscale maritime preserve, I give a thumbs up to the attraction. We had a blast slipping down a variety of water slides, hanging out on inner tubes in the lazy river and getting dunked with water in the splash zone. The little ones kept busy in the kiddie area. Summer Waves is clean and well attended by life guards.

Summer Waves Water Park

Summer Waves Water Park

Lastly, I took Laura over to Jekyll early one morning to let her experience Driftwood Beach, one of my favorite spots for photography. An array of petrified trees lying on their sides framed the beach, something like a tree graveyard. The place feels magical, a picturesque spot for wedding photos or family portraits. Every time I go I encounter different conditions: low tide, high tide, sunrise, wind and rain. Laura fell under its spell, too.

Driftwood Beach at Sunrise

Driftwood Beach at Sunrise Photo @ Debi Lander

Relaxation

With so many children and adults, it is easier and more relaxing to cook and dine at home. One night, I had the group to the cottage for a meal. However, dining out is always a treat, and we enjoyed a casual meal of burgers and fried fish at Brogen’s at the Pier. Fast service and reasonable prices.

 

We also couldn’t resist the Moo Cow ice cream shop. The employees were amazingly friendly and efficient. Hot days + cold ice cream = a perfect pair.

 

What We Missed

Walkway to Driftwood Beach

Walkway to Driftwood Beach

I am so sorry I missed a Tree Spirit scavenger hunt on St. Simons. In 1982, local sculptor Keith Jennings started carving faces on trees. He says the wood speaks to him, and he just has to let the tree’s soul out. There are 20 Tree Spirits on the island. Somehow I hadn’t heard about them, but guess I’ll just have to return another time.

Because the grandchildren are young, we didn’t include fishing, kayaking, dolphin tours, golf, guided nature walks and tennis, but they are certainly adventurous options. The Golden Isles provide a wealth of experiences for family vacations, getaway weekends or romantic escapes. Thank you Golden Isles for providing me with priceless family memories.

Fishing at the Pier on St. Simons Island

Fishing at the Pier on St. Simons Island

Cumberland Island: Grandeur and Green

February 8, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Just off Georgia’s coast, this historic isle offers elegant lodging and an escape from modern civilization

Plum Orchard on Cumberland Island, Currently Undergoing Restoration

Plum Orchard

Indians, soldiers and ghosts of Camelot docked upon her marshy shores. Turn-of-the-century multi-millionaires built castles, and commanding women protected their estates.

The history of Cumberland Island reads like steamy, romantic fiction. Its mansions now stand in ruin–wild horses as their guests. Former slaves haunt Stonehenge-like chimneys, aristocratic families’ feud (often with the government) and visitors spin their own tales.

The pristine preserve belongs to Georgia’s Golden Isles, a string of small barrier islands that dollop the Atlantic border. Cumberland, the group’s largest, rests between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, flaunting diversity among three different ecosystems: saltwater marsh, maritime forest and beach. The island, a National Seashore, limits visitors to 300 each day.

“Don’t tell anybody about this place,” whispered the visitor. “It’s total relaxation.”

The elegant Carnegie-built Greyfield Inn offers the only lodging (other than primitive camping) on an isle larger than Manhattan. Overnighters experience 19th century ambiance in a wilderness setting–just seven miles from the mainland, but remote from hustle and bustle. John Kennedy, Jr. chose Cumberland Island as the romantic spot to take his bride and the press never discovered or invaded their privacy.

Greyfield Inn

Visitors to the Southeast are attracted to former blue-blood enclaves–Colonial Coast vacation resorts including Jekyll, Amelia, Sea and St. Simons Islands–to golf, swim, boat and laze. But Cumberland stands apart–her natural splendor remains untouched by modern development. No convenience stores, beach homes, high rises or condominiums; in fact, nothing rests in between; first class or the floor, grandeur or green.

Her first chapter began with the Timucuan tribe, then the Spaniards, followed by Britain’s James Oglethorpe (Savannah’s founder) who built forts and a hunting lodge and re-named the area Cumberland.

Wild Horse on Cumberland Island

Wild Horse on Cumberland Island

After the American Revolution plantations prospered. Stafford Plantation, an 8,000-acre tract, reputed as the most productive–and exploitive with over 350 slaves. The owner William Stafford kindled a clandestine affair with a mulatto, who birthed four daughters and two sons. Today, the only remnants are the chimneys of their rustic cabins- and some say their ghosts.

In 1783, Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and wife Caty moved near Oglethorpe’s lodge. Greene, however, died before they could build on the chosen site– an Indian burial mound. Caty remarried and constructed a four-story, 16-fireplace tabby (coquina) mansion. Her home, Dungeness, and twelve acres of formal gardens became renowned as a luxurious retreat among colonial patricians.

A Trail on Cumberland IslandThe Civil War brought plantation lifestyle to a halt. Freed slaves moved to nearby Amelia Island, but some returned to their birthplace and established The Settlement, on Cumberland’s northern tip. Dungeness deteriorated and was destroyed by fire.

The 1880’s brought a new infatuation. Thomas Carnegie, brother and business partner of millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, purchased the old Dungeness property and constructed a far grander mansion. Unfortunately he, like Oglethorpe and Greene, suffered a similar fate. Carnegie died soon after the house was finished, further connecting legends of the plagued site to the Indian burial ground.

Nevertheless, Thomas’ wife Lucy and their nine children stayed on in the 59-room Scottish castle with turrets, an indoor pool, squash court, beauty salon, golf course and 40 out buildings.

Guests–including the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers–stayed for a month at a time. Thomas Carnegie’s widow employed 200 servants to take care of any whim.

Guests, like the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, stayed at her retreat for a month at a time. They threw lavish soirees, picnicked on the lawn with crystal and fine china, and entertained with shooting, fishing, and beachcombing parties. Lucy employed two hundred servants to take care of any whims. Dungeness danced with merriment and carefree abandon through the Gilded Age.

When the matriarch died in 1916, her trust funds provided enough for upkeep- until inflation struck after WWII- pushing even the wealthy to cut back. Additional property taxes forced the family to close Dungeness. Thirty years later, a fire, apparently started by arson, burned the mansion. Now a highlight of a trip to Cumberland includes viewing the ruins.

The Great Depression and higher taxes further dwindled the Carnegie inheritance. The family held onto acreage and the Greyfield home, eventually opening it in 1962 as an inn. Today, Inn guests find casual elegance—dress for dinner and follow the rules of etiquette, but no phone, TV or WiFi.

In 1968, Hilton Head developer, Charles Fraser, wanted to purchase and develop Cumberland. Landowners–the Carnegies and Candlers (Coco-Cola heirs)–battled to halt commercialization. They met with the National Park Service (NPS) and, in 1972; the government declared Cumberland a National Seashore.

Front Porch Swing at Greyfield Inn

Front Porch Swing at Greyfield Inn

Heated debates over park usage followed. Ten years later, the central tract of forest and beach were designated as “official wilderness–a conservation class that outlaws mechanical devices like cars, bicycles and chains saws.”

The Park Service now controls ninety percent of Cumberland with just 2,000 acres remaining in private hands. Political struggles continue over management and development, historic preservation and driving privileges.

Lucy Carnegie built white-columned Greyfield in 1901 for daughter Retta. The three-story stucco mansion, with a raised basement and 11 bedrooms, sits on 200 acres. A graceful staircase descends from the first floor porch to the lawn.

Retta’s child, Lucy R. Ferguson, opened the house as an inn. Today, Mary Ferguson, wife of Mitty- who is the great-great-grandson of Thomas Carnegie, manages Greyfield, listed among the Historic Hotels in America.

Sitting Room of a Master Suite at Greyfield Inn

Sitting Room of a Master Suite at Greyfield Inn

A stay affords uncommon privacy ands tranquility. Upon arrival– via Greyfield’s own ferry–the staff escort guests through a cathedral high canopy of magnolias and immense southern oaks. A genteel, unhurried lifestyle immediately descends. Greyfield guests may also fly in and land prop planes on a grass strip runway with permission. However, no airport facilities exist.

House tours mention personal touches; staying in the gracious manor feels like a visit to a wealthy aunt, old family photographs line the walls. Look for Uncle Richard’s collection of shark teeth and Margaret’s favorite conch shell. All rooms are decorated with Carnegie originals or antique furnishings. The library contains hundreds of first editions; the old gun room became the bar. Guests pour for themselves on the honor system.

The one-hundred-foot front porch vies as favorite for its sweeping veranda and bookend bed-like swings. Rocking chairs line the front rail and creak on the wooden floorboards. Hummingbird feeders attract a bevy of those tiny, twittering creatures.

Hors d’oeuvres, graciously served in the living room, are typically enjoyed with cocktails on the porch. Jane Walsh, a guest from Palm Beach, calls Cumberland, “a slice of heaven.” She and her husband Michael celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a return visit and hope to come back every year.

Michael whispers, “Don’t tell anybody about this place. It’s total relaxation.”

A Parlor at Greyfield Inn

A Parlor at Greyfield Inn

Dinner at 7:30 PM is an elegant affair.  Men must wear jackets. The dining room features one long board, beautifully set with flowers and heirloom silver candlesticks, and two side tables. Honeymooners often sit by themselves, but most prefer chatting with others and discussing the day’s activities.

Blessedly cool, air-conditioned guest rooms on the second or third floor include private baths or shared amenities. Guests may also take advantage of the state-of-the-art bath house behind the Inn. The master suite includes a spacious 15 x 20-foot sitting room, a pineapple-post king bed and views out the front, side and back of the house. A claw foot tub dominates the bath, with shower accommodations.

Complimentary fat-tired bicycles, good on the sand, become a real bonus. A ten-minute pedal to the beach at sunrise makes an ideal start to the day. Cyclists often ride to the Dungeness ruins, via Grand Avenue, a dirt road beneath overhanging trees. Old photos show the gutted frame engulfed in vines. But, the NPS removed the foliage- and some of the mystique, to reinforce the crumbling bricks.

Don’t miss another highlight, an outing with a naturalist. By special permission, Greyfielders ride in open air seating for an exhilarating three-hour adventure. Stops include the salt marsh; the bluff- highest point on the island at 80 feet; the shallow, 83-acre Whitney Lake (home to gators); The Settlement and First African Baptist Church.

Interior of the First African Baptist Church

Interior of the First African Baptist Church

The teensy old slave church with red doors rose to Notre Dame fame following the 1996 Kennedy wedding. Venturing inside uncovers stark, whitewashed walls and windows and rough-hewn pews. Visitors must stretch their imagination to envision candlelight and flashlights used during the hush-hush Kennedy service arranged by Carnegie granddaughter, GoGo Ferguson.

The island tour stops for a peek at Plum Orchard, the Greek revival home of George Carnegie. The NPS recently spent $5.3 million on renovation to the decaying shell and interior. The extravagance of the era crystallizes with the realization that this grandiose home and indoor pool–built in 1898- sits in the enchanting wild, 45 minutes from Georgia’s mainland.

The exotic forest surrounding Plum Orchard feels like a gnome’s sanctuary. Cool, dark, shadowy branches are home to mosses, lichens and emerald green resurrection ferns. The outside world seems shut out except for sounds like yellow-throated warblers or pileated woodpeckers. An afternoon shower presents a squawking chorus, compliments of green tree frogs.

From the dim jungle, you emerge to the blinding flat, sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s not a person, beach towel, umbrella or chair on a shoreline that’s almost 1,000-feet wide at low tide. What can compare?

Thousands of sandpipers, sanderlings and other shorebirds dodge waves. During raptor migration, enthusiasts may see hawks and peregrine falcons. Soaring above the dunes lurk vultures and bald eagles. The entire island is on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, with more than 277 identified species.

Nesting Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead turtles return from May to September creeping just over the dunes’ high-water mark to lay eggs. The NPS attempts to police feral pigs that forage the nests. Non-native wild horses and hogs disrupt and endanger the sea oats and sand dunes.

According to naturalist Fred Whitefield, “sea oats are the most important plant on the island because their deep roots slow dune erosion.” But…the tourists love the beauty of the ponies.

Dusk brings raccoons and armadillos, and a variety of critters whose beady eyes and acute sense of smell make them nocturnal scavengers. Night falls and the place has the magnificent feel of solitude on a remote private island.

A weekend at Greyfield lets you flip back the pages of history and return to the privileged days of Jay Gatsby, or camp like early settlers who slept under the stars. Just slow down like the turtles on her shore, roll with the tides or escape in the thick of her forests. Retreat like the former elite or use your own feet. No matter which adventure you choose, Cumberland is an open book waiting for you to write a chapter.

This article also appears in the February 1, 2010 issue of Business Jet Traveler. View it now on Business Jet Traveler Online.

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