Georgia’s meandering coastline is bejeweled with barrier islands that beg to be explored. Four fascinating ones congregate amid the salt marshes, tidal rivers and sounds near Brunswick. Known as the Golden Isles, St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island are semitropical microcosms, lush with perennially green flora, fringed with golden sand beaches, and steeped in southern history. Although separated solely by short stretches of sea, each Golden Isle is unique…
St. Simons Island The largest of the Golden Isles, St. Simons Island has seen travelers come and go since Spanish explorers first came ashore during the 16th century. The island’s rich history echoes everywhere. In 1736, Georgia’s first military outpost was established here, and now stands as a national monument. Sprawling antebellum plantations, today in ruins, whisper of an era when sea-island cotton was king. The village, at the island’s southern tip, is crowned with a 200-year-old working lighthouse. Near the island’s northern end stands Christ Church, built in 1886. On its grounds, John Wesley, the father of Methodism, first preached in colonial America.
The island’s natural beauty has been well preserved over the years and there are endless opportunities to investigate the white sand beaches, multifaceted marshlands and towering stands of oaks. Visitors can wander the network of paved bike trails, or cruise the beaches on a ‘funcycle’ — a low-riding, three-wheeled, pedal-powered beach vehicle.
Kayak and canoe trips are peaceful ways to explore the creeks and marshes around St. Simons Island. Most outfitters offer instruction and can tailor custom outings to fit family needs and interests. More information can be obtained from Ocean Motion at (912) 638-5225, Barry’s Beach Service at (912) 638-8053 or Southeast Adventure Outfitters at (912) 638-6732.
St. Simons Transit Company (912-638-5678) offers an up-close glimpse at area sea life on dolphin tours, which are offered year round from both St. Simons and Jekyll islands. The tours explore the marshes and rivers surrounding the islands, which are home to dolphins, manatees and many other types of marine life. Often, the captain will drag a net to capture sea animals and then place them in a clear tank on board for close-up viewing.
Families will be fascinated by the summer nature camps offered by The Driftwood Nature Center at Epworth by the Sea (912-638-3849). The Center holds ‘Discovery Days’, a five-day camp; ‘Residential Reptiles’, a six-day overnight adventure; and ‘Dynamic Duos’, a four-day family session.
During the summer months, Honey Creek Coastal Encounters Nature Center (912-638-0221) also offers special day camps for kids. Year-round, the Center invites visitors to view aquaria filled with local marine creatures, explore touch tanks and take walking tours.
St. Simons Island offers plenty of other diversions, as well, including Jet Ski and sailboat rentals, parasailing, fishing charters, golf courses and dozens of places to shop and eat.
Reached by causeway from St. Simons Island, Sea Island is an internationally acclaimed resort. Although much of the island is residential, visitors from around the world come to relax in luxury at The Cloister. Established in the1920s, The Cloister is perennially honored as one of the world’s great hotels. Amenities enjoyed by guests include a golf club, gun club, tennis club and oceanfront spa. Horseback riding and fine dining are other highlights of a Sea Island stay. For reservation information, call 1-800-SEA-ISLA or visit www.seaisland.com.
Little St. Simons Island Those who crave solitude will find Little St. Simons Island to be an ideal destination. This northernmost Golden Isle is accessible only by boat. For many years it was a private retreat, but today a limited number of guests (no more than 30 at a time) are offered the opportunity to explore the isolated beaches and marshlands that surround its 10,000 acres of unspoiled woodlands. Interpretive nature and wildlife tours, horseback riding, canoeing, beach picnics and fishing are activities available to visitors. Accommodations are rustic but elegant. For information on day or overnight trips, call (888) 733-5774.
Jekyll Island The southernmost of the Golden Isles, Jekyll Island was purchased in 1886 by a group of wealthy families as a private retreat. By 1900, The Jekyll Island Club membership was reputed to represent over one-sixth of the world’s wealth. Today, the island’s opulent past can be revisited with a tram or walking tour of the Historic District, where many of the restored Club structures and members’ cottages are open for tours.
Although elegant retreats were once the sole lodging on Jekyll Island, today, those looking for more modest accommodations will not be disappointed. Options range from first-class resorts to campgrounds.
A stroll along Jekyll’s seemingly endless beaches will reveal why the rich and famous were so drawn to this island. The white sand and gentle surf are soothing to body and spirit. Although it would be tempting to spend an entire vacation relaxing on the beach, the island offers plenty of other interesting activities to take part in.
Nightly, from June to mid-August, The Jekyll Island Sea Turtle Project offers guided beach walks. These excursions offer opportunities to see nesting loggerhead sea turtles. For more information, call (912) 635-2284.
The Tidelands Nature Center (912-635-5032) gives visitors an up-close look at varied types of local marine life. Interesting creatures abound in the touch tanks and aquaria. Walking tours are also offered.
Those who wish to investigate the island’s intricacies at their own pace will enjoy exploring 20 miles of paved bike paths, which traverse salt marshes, maritime forest and beach, as well as the island’s National Historic Landmark District. Bike maps are available at the Jekyll Island Welcome Center (877-453-5955).
Thrill seekers will have plenty of wet and wild fun at Summer Waves (912-635-2074), the island’s 11-acre water park, where attractions range from a supervised water play area for toddlers to speed flumes for the big kids.
And if those activities aren’t enough to fill an entire vacation schedule, opportunities to golf, shop, fish and play tennis can also be found on Jekyll Island.
Georgia’s Golden Isles offer an ideal family getaway package: history, diversity, solitude and adventure, all perfectly wrapped in sunny beaches. For further information, call the Visitors Bureau at 800-933-COAST (2627) or visit www.bgivb.com.