Destination St. Simons Island Ga.

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Miles of sandy beach, fishing, birding, shopping — the Golden Isle has something for everyone

Miles of sandy beach, fishing, birding, shopping — the Golden Isle has something for everyone

St. SimonsIsland is aptly named “Golden Isle” — golden for the beaches that line its southeastern shores, for the green-gold marshes that nearly encircle it, and for its rich contributions to history. Both a hideaway for the wealthy and a family vacation destination for more than a century, the 17-square-mile south Georgia barrier island draws increasing numbers of boaters.

Most tie up at Golden Isles Marina on LanierIsland’s east shore, two miles north of Intracoastal Waterway Mile 676, across the FredericaRiver from St.SimonsIsland. Dockmasters Melissa Linton and Chick Candler suggest calling ahead, especially in season, to reserve space at its 1,100 feet of transient dockage.

Read the other stories in this package: St. Simons Island – If you go   St. Simons lighthouse

They’re happy to help you tie up, and with most anything else to make your stay more pleasant. (Hampton River Club Marina on St. Simons’ north end may have limited space, but it has few amenities and no transportation.) Golden Isles offers full amenities, including high-speed fuel, pumpout, Wi-Fi, picnic area, swimming pool, showers, laundry, marine supplies, snacks, dive and fishing charters and a courtesy car. The new on-site Coastal Kitchen restaurant has excellent food and a convivial bar.

From the marina you can reach St.SimonsIsland easily by foot, courtesy car, rental bicycle or rental car (delivered to the marina). The center of activity is the village, on the island’s south end, where Mallery Street ends at the pier, NeptunePark and the lighthouse. Here, 19th-century tourists debarked from steamships and were shuttled to hotels and boarding houses by mule-drawn trolleys (before the causeway was built). Today, folks crowd the pier to view the sunset, fish, stroll and watch the boats plying St.SimonsSound, which connects the Atlantic and the ICW at Brunswick.

You could spend days browsing Mallery Street’s unique boutiques and art galleries — and even longer to sample the varied cuisine, from ice cream to fine dining. Many restaurants are modestly priced, some offer live music on weekends, and several have sidewalk tables for people-watching. Our favorite is Barbara Jean’s, which usually has a line for its legendary crabcakes and Southern cooking. Close seconds are Dressner’s Village Café (locals’ favorite for home-style cooking), Sandcastle Café (great breakfast bar), and The 4th of May (eclectic home-style).

Adjoining the pier, waterfront NeptunePark beckons with miniature golf, a children’s playground, swimming pool and picnic area shaded by majestic live oaks. At high tide, the inlet waters lap at the granite riprap, but low tide exposes the wide, sandy beach that stretches for miles along the island’s southeastern shore. Stop at the VisitorsCenter overlooking the park for brochures and maps. Next door, you can climb St. Simons Lighthouse, built in 1872 on the site of an 1810 lighthouse, for a 360-degree view. Folks gather around the gazebo on the grounds for summer concerts.

It’s delightful to stroll village neighborhoods where live oaks shade quiet streets, creating a peaceful, timeless air. Many of the cottages and bungalows were built in the 1920s, when St. Simons was a laid-back vacation and fishing spot. Unfortunately, these days many waterfront areas are gentrifying to condos and McMansions.

To explore further, you can board a trolley or tram tour, or rent a bicycle (from Benjy’s, Monkeywrench or Ocean Motion). Bike paths wind 20 miles beneath the trees, accessing upscale neighborhoods, lodgings, historic sites, golf courses, tennis courts, restaurants and shopping centers. Among the 30-some other island restaurants, from chains to haute cuisine, we prefer Bennie’s Red Barn (unsurpassed steaks), Beachcomber (barbecue and burgers) and the King and Prince Resort’s sumptuous Sunday brunch. Locals also recommend Bubba Garcia’s (Tex-Mex), Gnat’s Landing (Key West casual), Nazzaro’s (Italian), Crab Daddy’s (seafood) and Nautica Joe’s (deli).

Upscale boutiques predominate in the dozen-plus shopping areas, especially near the road to SeaIsland. Access to that island, which is still owned by the family that developed it as an exclusive resort in the 1920s, is restricted to residents and guests of The Cloister Hotel and the Sea Island Club.

Everyone enjoys St. Simons’ sandy beaches and safe, shallow waters, particularly at MassengalePark and EastBeach, which have restrooms, parking and are near the beach gear and Hobie cat rentals. However, pedestrians and bicyclists can use the public beach accesses on dozens of dead end streets. You can bicycle and horseback ride on the beach at low tide, or walk out on the sand spits and shoals.

The former Coast Guard Station at EastBeach houses a new MaritimeCenter, where exhibits bring to life a 1940s Coastie’s diary and the rescue of World War II merchant sailors torpedoed by U-boats just offshore. Other displays explain how St.SimonsIsland formed over millions of years, and the various creatures that live in the coastal waters, salt- and freshwater marshes, dune systems and maritime forests. Interactive exhibits make learning fun for both adults and children.

Knowledgeable birders flock to Gould Inlet between EastBeach and SeaIsland around high tide. Hundreds of birds — pelicans, skimmers, terns, sandpipers, plovers, gulls — compete for resting spots before the shoals disappear beneath the incoming waters.

You can visit FortFredericaNational Monument, on a prominent bend of the FredericaRiver, by boat or by land. Here stand the remnants of FortFrederica, where Georgia’s fate was decided. Gen. James Oglethorpe founded the fortified town in 1736 to protect the British colonies in the Carolinas from the Spanish. FortFrederica’s garrison decisively defeated attacking Spaniards in 1742, retaining British control over Georgia. After the garrison disbanded a few years later, civilian businesses failed and the 500 or so residents moved away. The town was abandoned. The audio tour adds drama to the ruins, artifacts and dozens of excavated foundations on display.

Some of Frederica’s original settlers are buried in the churchyard of nearby Christ Episcopal Church, founded in 1736. The present church was built in 1884 to replace the 1810 building burned by Union troops. Across the street, a garden memorializes Charles and John Wesley, founders of the MethodistChurch, who preached here in the 1700s.

St. Simons Boating and Fishing Club, GascoignePark and a pair of restored slave cabins sit amid a live oak grove on Gascoigne Bluff, the Colonial landing place. St. Simons’ old-growth oaks were harvested and milled here for projects as diverse as the USS Constitution and the BrooklynBridge.

By the early 1800s, all of the island was divided into plantations, and fields were cleared for rice, indigo and prized Sea Island cotton. The Plantation Era ended with the Civil War, and by the 1900s St. Simons and SeaIsland were being developed into vacation resorts. Tourism boomed after 1924, when a road, bridge and causeway connected St. Simons with Brunswick on the mainland.

However, live oaks still dominate the landscape, spreading their moss-draped limbs in tangled forests, arching over roadways, and providing shade for homes and parks. Grand avenues of oaks planted two centuries ago still line the former approaches to manor houses at Retreat Plantation (now Sea Island Golf Club) and the former Hamilton Plantation.

Tourism and the somewhat restricted development have changed St.SimonsIsland over the decades, yet its character remains defined by its ocean beaches, marshes and majestic live oaks.