There’s much to discover on the Georgia coast’s barrier islands, for each of these “Golden Isles” boasts a special ambience.
Our destination was Jekyll Island, long a favourite stop for Canadians motoring down to Florida. Stopping on impulse, my husband and I were somewhat shell-shocked by the low rate we scored for our room in Sans Souci, a late Victorian-era condo, part of the refurbished Jekyll Island Club.
Our room overlooked 97 hectares of parkland dotted with centuries-old live oaks, draped with Spanish moss. It’s impossible not to imagine living the good life on this island, where, legend has it, club membership once represented one-sixth of the world’s wealth.
Accessible, popular both with tourists and its small full-time population, Jekyll Island seems a bit of a fantasy world, where the good times still roll and folks can focus – seriously focus – on playing world-class croquet, and of course, golf. Long empty beaches, fishing, bike paths and birding draw visitors back to Jekyll Island year after year.
On the club grounds, built in 1886, quiet laneways lead past former millionaires’ cottages modelled on Italianate villas. Although not privately owned since the 1940s, Jekyll Island retains the ambience beloved by founding members such as J.P. Morgan and Joseph Pulitzer: they called it “splendid isolation.”
One morning, joining the complimentary hotel tour (there are frequent tram tours as well) I hustled upstairs and down after guide Sherry Zacher, who first visited the island on fishing trips with her grandfather, 30-odd years ago. The club then was semi-derelict.
Zacher regales us with her account of the day that her granddad dismantled a bonfire that mischief-makers had laid in the once-exquisite Grand Dining Room, all ready to light. Vandals did some damage, but with luck and chance, the old buildings survived, to be restored to their original glory.
America’s Gilded Age vanished with the Great Depression, which hit club members hard. During World War II, German U-boats lurked off the Georgia coast. Consequently, in 1942, the club was closed. In 1947, it was sold to the state. Attempts to run a successful hotel had foundered until a private group – passionate golfers all – poured $22 million (U.S.) into its 1986 restoration.
As we admired a parlour painted “Pulitzer blue” – in honour of Joseph Pulitzer, the sole Democrat among 53 founding members – Zacher shared more historical nuggets: “Mrs. Elva Vanderbilt always stayed on her yacht on the river. She changed her clothes 11 times a day.” In one main-floor room, club members, aided by a senator from Washington, planned the founding of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
At the top of the club, we visit the turret room, which Zacher refers to as “Will Smith’s room.” Both actor Smith and director Robert Redford lived there during the filming of 2000’s The Legend of Bagger Vance, the perfect Georgia golf movie. Climbing up a spiral staircase to the turret’s top rewards the adventurous with spectacular views down to the river, where members’ yachts were anchored.
On other island days we explored British colonial ruins, toured a beach where an illegal slave ship, The Wanderer, landed (her captain was charged and jailed); ate hot and salty boiled peanuts on a windy fishing pier; cycled past sand dunes with the birders and the gator spotters. We watched giant sea turtles being treated in rehab pools – some injured by boats, one had suffered a stroke – at Georgia’s only Sea Turtle Sanctuary, a state-of-the-art facility with its own critical-care unit, housed in a 1904 power plant.
At the Rockefeller’s place – a cottage in name only – we discovered a quirky, intriguing basement exhibit devoted to Ida Tarbell, the pioneering “muckraking” journalist whose work exposed the bullying tactics of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil to a shocked nation and lead to the eventual breakup of the monopoly. The exhibit made a nice footnote to the Rockefeller story.
On the drive south from Savannah, we had taken a ferry to Sapelo Island, home in the distant past to Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, English pirates, colonial settlers and African slaves. Sapelo has neither public transit nor big hotels. The state owns 98 per cent of the island’s 17,000 acres, with the exception of those that comprise Hog Hammock. In a tiny, friendly community descended from African-American slaves, we found the island’s few private restaurants and B&Bs.
Scientists and students frequent Sapelo’s National Estuarine Research Reserve, founded in 1953 for the study of ecology and rare species, notably white whales and loggerhead sea turtles.
Agronomist Thomas Spalding was the first to grow Sea Island cotton and sugar cane on Sapelo. His 1810 antebellum mansion, a palladium-style building inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, was restored in 1912 by the chief engineer of the Hudson Motor Company, Howard Coffin, who hosted parties for luminaries like president Calvin Coolidge.
Its last private owner was the R.J. Reynolds tobacco heir, who sold his home – with its “circus” room and indoor bowling alley – to the state in 1969. Groups can book the Reynolds Mansion for overnight stays and campsites are available.
Of the Georgia islands we explored, privately owned island Little St. Simon’s Island was perhaps the most romantic. Accessible only by boat, with 32 lodge rooms for guests, Little St. Simon’s has been owned by the same family since 1908, and so has been protected from all development. The lodge welcomes guests to unwind on silky sheets and on wicker furniture. A mini-museum of local biological specimens is a naturalist’s gem. The soft island air is perfumed by Georgia pines and wood smoke.
As we toured the island with one of the lodge’s naturalists, we saw hundreds of egrets’ nests and looked for armadillos and alligators. The forest eventually gave way to a long, deserted beach, so abundant with shells and so devoid of company that we felt like Robinson Crusoe, quite alone on what appeared to be a deserted island.
For more information, visit www.goldenisles.com 1-800-933-2627