Georgia’s Golden Isles
Posted on 26 March 2009
Written by Tom Neale
Step ashore and take in all that St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and Brunswick have to offer
Along the Intracoastal Waterway, Georgia is many things. But to me, the most impressive are the huge expanses of wild marshland, punctuated by hammocks.
The waterway inexorably twists and turns through this wilderness, sometimes seeming to circle as you slowly wind your way from north to south, or back again. The channels are, for the most part, narrow and shoaling, with tides up to 8 feet and ripping currents.
But then there are the broad sounds with intriguing names such as Doboy and Sapelo and Altamaha. From the marshes you sweep out into them, traveling up or down them, stunned at their beauty but ever cautious, as the waters quickly change from depths of 40 feet to less than 4. From what you see in the sounds, you believe you could easily follow them out into the Atlantic, but most have bars and shoals, some far out into the ocean so that you blithely follow deep channels for a while and then, where the swell is suddenly crashing around you, when you feel you should have gained the safety of deep water far offshore, you find only very shallow water.
This is the land of the Golden Isles: firm semitropical islands separated by sounds, standing as barriers between the sea and the marshes, creeks and rivers. Spanish explorers came to the area more than 400 years ago seeking gold. They didn’t find it. Instead they found wild beauty, mild weather and, for many years, deadly strife, as battles raged for European control of that area of the continent.
I write today about four of these barrier islands, which you’ll pass as you travel the ICW, and of their nearby “city.” The first island as you travel from the North is St. Simons, separated by marsh and the narrow, winding Hampton River from its sister Little St. Simons just to the north, and with smaller Sea Island to the east on its ocean side. To its south, across St. Simon’s Sound, is Jekyll Island, behind which the waterway at low tide seems more mud than passage.
These islands have miles of beaches; some seem very remote, such as the “driftwood beach” on Jekyll Island’s north end and St. Andrews beach on the south end. They have protected forests and preserves, and, yes, swamp just when you think you are treading on firm land. But they’ve also developed quite a reputation for good living.
There are restaurants to suit every taste and appetite, from elegant to casual. There’s kayaking, deep-sea fishing, interesting historical sites and museums. When you include the nearby mainland, there are about 234 holes of golf on some of the country’s most spectacular and acclaimed courses. There are tennis, biking and nature programs, as well as a huge convention center on the ocean and many areas of resort amenities.
St. Simons Island
St. Simons Island is larger than Jekyll, which lies to its south, and is more bustling with more residential areas, more shops, night life, dining and hotels. It has a great variety of accommodations that range from the historic King & Prince Beach and Golf Resort to national chains and a large selection of rental cottages. Island amenities and activities include golf, tennis, historic sites, shopping and great restaurants. From quiet walks along East Beach to the bustling nightlife of the Village, St. Simons Island provides a seaside getaway without the traffic, hassles and miles of endless high-rises along larger beach resorts.
The “Village” section at the southern end has an eclectic selection of shops and restaurants ranging from fine dining to far less formal small establishments, many of which include outdoor seating in the quaint surroundings. But St. Simons also has its oaks draped in Spanish moss, deep-woods biking trails, nature preserves and parks. And an area of large “estate lots” is being developed to the north, typical of the island’s desire for fine living with minimum interference with its natural beauty.
There are some interesting historical sites on this island. The St. Simons Lighthouse is on the south end near the Village. It was built in 1872. The old Coast Guard lifesaving station is now a maritime museum near a beautiful beach. Just offshore, the German submarine U-123 attacked the SS Oklahoma and Esso Baton Rouge April 8, 1942. Twenty-two were killed. Both ships were raised and repaired and then sunk again in the Atlantic during the war. The station, when built, was right at the surf, so its personnel could quickly launch the boats for rescues. Now, the beach has built up, and there’s a wide stretch of land with high dunes between the lifesaving station and the sea.
On the west side of the island is Fort Frederica, built by Gen. Oglethorpe to protect against Spanish incursions from the south. There also lies Bloody Marsh, where British and Scottish soldiers, in a rather interesting battle, defeated a larger Spanish force, thus ending Spanish attacks on the lands north of Florida.
Gen. James Oglethorpe had unsuccessfully tried to invade St. Augustine in what is now Florida two years earlier. Don Manuel de Montiano, the governor of St. Augustine, decided to put a stop to this sort of thing and widen Spain’s domain. In mid-June 1742, with approximately 4,500 to 5,000 soldiers, the Spanish fleet set sail up the coast. It was a difficult and long trip, but early on the morning of July 7 several Spanish scouts advanced northward toward Fort Frederica to scope it out.
A few British rangers found the scouts and fired on them from the bush. Oglethorpe charged the Spanish with a small force later that morning and returned to the fort. But later, in the afternoon, another battle developed when the Spanish sent more troops, and the British troops ambushed them in the swamp, firing from behind trees and brush, routing the Spanish, now confused and panicked in the smoke and fire of the marsh. So the story goes.
In quieter times, John and Charles Wesley the founders of the Methodist Church in America were both at Fort Frederica and preached on the island, including under the “Wesley Tree.”
Fort Frederica is a National Monument. It’s fascinating to walk those grounds, see the remnants of the old fort and buildings, and look out over the marshes surrounding the Frederica River. If your boat has shallow draft and you have a bit of nerve, you can take this river as a detour from the ICW and pass by or even anchor off the fort. The river loops around and meets the ICW again to the south, but there are many shoals and mud banks.
The famous and historic Christ Church is near Fort Frederica. Still in use today, its original structure was built in the late 1800s. It reminds you of a ship inside, with its wooden beams. In its graveyard lies Eugenia Price, who wrote many works of historical fiction. Many of the people in her work, “The Lighthouse Trilogy,” about the history of St. Simons, are also buried there. As you wander about the grounds, you’ll enjoy the camellias in bloom and the “resurrection fern,” which shrivels with dry weather and resurrects with moisture.
St. Simons has many other special places that you’ll want to visit. One such is the Avenue of the Oaks leading to the Sea Island Golf Club. It’s an old carriage road on the grounds of the former Retreat Plantation. The oaks were planted by the lady of the plantation, who had so many plants and flowers that the seamen said they could smell the plantation far out at sea.
There’s also Neptune Park, looking out over the inlet and ocean at the south end of the island. It’s told that the slave Neptune went with his young master when he fought in the Civil War. The master was killed at Richmond, Va. Neptune found his body in the battlefield, recognizing his red hair, and carried it back to the island. The park is now a popular gathering place, with picnic tables under the oaks, benches, a fishing pier and a bandstand.
There are two marinas at St. Simons. Boaters will appreciate the amenities and convenience of the Morningstar Marinas at Golden Isles Marina (www.gimarina.com). It is on the Frederica River near the southeast side of the island, just off the ICW at Mile 675. It has been recently renovated, with new docks and upgrades to the shoreside facilities. It offers fuel, a restaurant, pool, bikes and courtesy car, hardware and supplies, and it’s convenient to the Village area, shopping and historic sites.
The other marina at St. Simons is the Hampton River Club Marina, located on the Hampton River at the north end, in a residential area. It has transient dockage at floating docks, fuel and some repair services. Call (912) 638-1210.
Little St. Simons Island, to the north of St. Simons across the Hampton River, is private and accessible only by boat. The Lodge on Little St. Simons was originally built in 1917 and offers accommodations in five cottages, as well as experiences for day visitors. The emphasis is on nature and the environment. Check www.littlestsimonsisland.com for information.
Nearby, on the ocean side of St. Simons Island, is Sea Island, a resort featuring The Cloister Hotel, originally built in 1928. Amenities include a full-service spa, golf, tennis, shooting school, horseback riding, kids’ programs, a private beach, fishing, waterway excursions and more. The resort has special theme weekends — for example, wine tasting. There are oceanfront houses for rent, as well as other accommodations.
Jekyll Island used to be an exclusive winter luxury retreat for some of America’s wealthiest families. The retreat had, and still has, a distinct Victorian ambience. From 1887 to 1942, the Jekyll Island Club included among its members such men as J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer and many other members of the powerful and wealthy aristocracy of burgeoning America.
From the ICW it’s easy to see how they lived. There’s a huge complex with the opulent Jekyll Island Club Hotel, which was formerly a very exclusive grand clubhouse. Around the area are a collection of “cottages,” which were residential. This is now a National Historic Landmark. When you visit the island you’ll enjoy walking beneath the moss-draped oaks, dining in the Grand Dining Room of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, and biking through the marsh on trails such as the Clam Creek bike trail.
The State of Georgia purchased Jekyll Island in 1947, so much of it is carefully preserved and open to the public. New home construction isn’t normally permitted on the island. Many of the typical residences were built in the 1960s and the ’70s, all on land leased from Georgia.
Today, it’s a popular year-round destination. The island has 63 holes of golf, tennis, beaches, 20 miles of bike paths, mini-golf, nature tours and even a Summer Waves water park, part of which you’ll see rising uncharacteristically from the trees as you pass the southern end of the island on the ICW. Of particular note is a beautiful bike path, some of which cuts through marsh and much of which is relatively new. There are many miles of wide beach with light-colored sand on Jekyll’s ocean side and facing St. Simons Sound on the north and St. Andrew Sound on the south. One small shopping strip is the main shopping opportunity on the island.
Typical of the island’s penchant for nature, you’ll find the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (www.georgiaseaturtlecenter.org), with its programs to help sick and injured sea turtles, and research and educational programs for protection of the endangered species. Sea turtles laboriously lay their eggs on many of the beaches of Georgia’s barrier islands, and at such times it’s critical that the nests not be disturbed until the little turtles hatch and complete their perilous dash to the sea. There is even “turtle friendly lighting” on the long toll bridge that leads to Jekyll Island from the mainland.
You may also want to see the tabby ruins of the Horton House, constructed around 1740. Locals tell me that the first brewery in the area was located on this property. For the 10 years that Gen. Oglethorpe was at Fort Frederica on St. Simons, he allowed only a limited amount of grog as rations. They’d signal from St. Simons when they needed it, and it would be taken in boats across the water.
Arriving by boat, you’ll have a choice of two marinas on Jekyll Island, one above and the other below the high-level bridge across Jekyll Creek. The northernmost is Jekyll Wharf Marina, with fuel and a floating face dock at the site of the historical landing at the Jekyll Island Club. Tour boats operate from this facility. Call (912) 635-3152. The newer, transient-friendly Jekyll Harbor Marina lies south of the bridge (www.jekyllharbor.com). It offers a long floating face dock, as well as inside slips, fuel, a restaurant, bicycles, transportation, pool and hot tub, and a friendly atmosphere.
As you travel south along the ICW and clear St. Simons Island, the waterway crosses St. Simons Sound and the Brunswick River, with its big ship channel to the seaport. Looking west, you can see the town of Brunswick and the Sidney Lanier Bridge majestically spanning the river. Here you’ll find one of the two deep and maintained big-ship inlets in Georgia. (The other being the Savannah River at the northern border.)
The inlet channel bears out in a southeasterly direction, which makes it a great point for going out, in good weather, and heading south to put in at the St. Marys River and Fernandina Beach, Florida’s northernmost coastal city, or the St. Johns River at Jacksonville. Both of these inlets are maintained for large ships.
If you have the speed and good weather, you can also put in farther south at St. Augustine Inlet after a day’s run. This inlet isn’t maintained for large shipping, although thousands of yachts and commercial fishing boats use it. It isn’t advisable to run this inlet in bad weather, low visibility or at night, unless you’re very familiar with it and are able to handle the sea conditions.
Brunswick, lying up the river from St. Simons Inlet, serves as the “city” for the area. It’s also a port and has a huge facility on Colonel’s Island for the gigantic ships that come in from the sea to offload thousands of new cars from abroad. Jekyll and St. Simons are to the east across the ICW. Between it and the barrier islands lie not only the ICW, but the “Marshes of Glynn,” immortalized by Georgia poet Sidney Lanier.
Brunswick was named for Braunsweig, Germany, the ancestral home of King George II, who granted Georgia’s original land charter. The city’s streets and squares are laid out in a formal grid, similar to Savannah and other colonial cities, and continue to bear their colonial names. Brunswick’s Old Town is a National Register of Historical Places District. Here, you’ll find elegant homes of various styles.
The downtown area has antique shops, specialty shops and art galleries. The Lovers Oak, with its intertwining trunks, is located at the intersection of Albany and Prince streets in Old Town. It is reported to be around 900 years old, and, according to legend, it was a favorite spot for American Indian lovers to meet.
The Brunswick Landing Marina (www.brunswicklandingmarina.com) is located in town. The tidal range in the area is around 8 feet, but the docks are floating. This facility also has a large full-service yard and accommodations for transients, including megayachts. Newcastle Street, considered by many to be the town’s main street, passes in front of the marina. You can walk from the marina to Mary Ross Park. There is a “City Market” with fresh seafood nearby, as well as a new library.
It’s also an easy walk to town, where you’ll find a convenient post office. But be sure to ask for walking instructions from marina staff before you go. Also within walking distance of the marina is the restored Ritz Theatre, which sometimes has live productions. There is a Winn-Dixie supermarket about 1.8 miles from the marina.
The town’s waterfront has a long maritime history. In World War II, 99 Liberty Ships (Type C1-M) were built here. Today, it still has commercial seafood operations. Just outside Brunswick, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center trains agents for more than 80 federal agencies and provides services for state and local agencies.
The area is a short distance from Interstate 95, making it a fairly easy drive from much of the eastern United States. International airports in Savannah and Jacksonville are just an hour either way, and round-trip regional jet service is offered four times a day between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport.
Whether you visit just one of these attractions at a time on voyages up and down the coast, or make the area a major destination, you’ll enjoy what you find. And if a trip by boat isn’t in the cards for you now, you’ll find it’s easy to do it by car.
For a free Visitors Guide, call the Brunswick-Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 933- 2627, or visit www.bgicvb.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.