Richmond is contentment itself. She teems in treasure – gorgeous parks, great eating and theater galore, an incredible library system, fabulous history right underneath our mailboxes, and so forth. So why an article on Georgia’s islands? Lucky us. One more characteristic that makes RVA such a gem is the adventure that awaits in the states within driving distance of Virginia.
It’s yesterday’s news that Georgia has Hotlanta and chic Savannah, but even better – if yours is a beach-freak family like mine – are the Golden Isles of Georgia. From Richmond, if you stop for gas, chips, and the necessaries, plan to spend 8-plus hours in the car. Say you’re passing through the Peach State to visit Mickey, Harry Potter, LEGOLAND, or Mimi and Pop-pop in Florida, consider spending a day (or more) on Georgia Island time. It’s worth every sandy moment.
Four islands (and one town) make up The Golden Isles of Georgia, and each delivers its own unique vibe. Two are definitely my “favorite children.”
Brunswick is a vintage town born during the Colonial era when she opened her port to ship activity. She sits on mainland Georgia and is the gateway to the islands. For the most charming part of this town, head for the Brunswick Old Town Historic District.
You’ll love both the wedding cake-like architecture in Old Town and grabbing a family photo under Brunswick’s gigantic live Lover’s Oak, a tree that measures about forty feet around at the base of its trunk and has been canopying lovers for an estimated 900 years.
For a great history lesson, take a 5-star tour at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, located about seventeen minutes outside of Brunswick proper. Step into a rice plantation from before the Civil War that is quintessential Southern gorgeous with gigantic oaks and winding walking paths.
Plan two hours in Brunswick, and then head for Jekyll. This jewel of a barrier island is seven miles long by one-and-a-half miles wide and comes with one heck of a backstory. The island has zero to do with the Jekyll-and-Hyde character. Back in the 1700s, an Englishman named Sir Joseph Jekyll funded an explorer’s voyage to the island. In return, the explorer named this beautiful piece of land after his benefactor.
Fast forward one hundred years when the richest American families decided to form a club. The Pulitzers, the Rockefellers, the J.P. Morgans, the Astors, the Vanderbilts, the Goodyears, and so forth created the Hunt Club. In today’s dollars, many of these families from the American aristocracy would have been worth well over $100 billion. Each.
In 1904, a financial magazine called the hunt soirée “the richest, the most exclusive, the most inaccessible club in the world.” When the families visited Jekyll, they were off-duty and far from the roving eyes of the riff-raff (us). They hunted, chowed, and even dreamed up what eventually became the Federal Reserve banking system.
What does this story have to do with visiting Jekyll? Well, from 1888 to 1928, the families each built mansions a stone’s throw from the original Hunt Club Lodge. Today that Lodge is called the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Many of these vintage mansions still stand ready for our eager tourist eyes.
My boys and I took the tram tour that wound through the mansions’ grounds and allowed us into three of the antique behemoths. While some were vandalized when the club went downhill in the decade following the Great Depression – wiping out Pulitzer’s mansion entirely – intricate detail is still on full display. Also available: Segway tours for ages fourteen and up, and horse-drawn buggy tours through Three Oaks Farm.
The lodge, now a grand dame hotel, exudes yesteryear charm with rocking chairs on porches, a cool hall of mirrors leading to the dining room, and a coffee café that won’t decimate your budget. The pool is open in the summer and an outdoor cafe sits nearby. For golf families, the hotel boasts sixty-three holes, as well as lessons for kids.
Try to grab at least one meal in the grand dining room where the wealthy families met and dined. My boys and I breakfasted in this vintage space and the from-scratch cooking was delish. I shushed my boys between bites of omelet and sips of good coffee. As I ate, I sunk into the grand surroundings that have changed little since the wealthy sipped and shushed their own tweens. (Rates begin at $239 for a family of four, jekyllclub.com)
The hotels and restaurants on Jekyll are sparse, which gives the island an undisturbed feel. Jekyll has a beautiful Westin, inexpensive inns, super-clean camp sites, dolphin tours, a tennis center, bike rentals, mini-golf next to yummy Red Bug Pizza (with a fab play structure), ten miles of sparkling beaches, and a winding bike path.
Better than mansions for the family? Visiting Georgia’s Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. The staff is deeply devoted to rescuing regional sea turtles. The center houses a gift shop, an educational space that teaches about turtles, and a hospital that will forever capture your heart. Root for rehabbing turtles swimming around their tanks. And check out the nursery to see a bale (group) of hatchling turtles. Precious doesn’t begin to describe the little Squirts (remember Nemo?). Special family tours and summer camps for
ages ten and up happen here. Regular admission is a very reasonable five to seven bucks, and all proceeds support the important turtle rehab effort.
For more water fun, Summer Waves is a small, but clean water park featuring six water slides, a lazy river, a fantastic wave pool, a splash zone, and an area for the cute set. Driftwood Beach is on the northeast tip of the island and is a gorgeous spot to climb the driftwood, build sandcastles, picnic and annoy the kids as you take a zillion photos.
On the more practical side, the kids and I decimated a huge plate of nachos at Tortuga Jacks. During beautiful weather, Tortuga Jack’s has a rustic patio with live music and a breathtaking ocean view. The island also has a Dairy Queen, moderate to high-priced dining, a frozen yogurt shop, and a higher-end grocery store.
Until I visited Jekyll, I wrestled with picturing how the various hotels and activities connect. The Jekyll Island Club, historic mansions, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the Jekyll Island Museum, and the various tours are clustered within an easy walk of each other. Everything else is an estimated 5-minute drive or less. Or bring your bikes and scooters and use the beautiful trail. As you enter the island, you’ll pay a parking fee, given the island is owned by the state of Georgia. Also, be forewarned: Your cell won’t work on the island unless you use Verizon.
St. Simons Island
Leaving Jekyll, my boys and I were fascinated to drive over the Sidney Lanier Bridge with its breathtaking suspension architecture. Once over the bridge, St. Simons Island is an easy 25-minute drive away and at eighteen square miles, is loaded with family beaches, golfing, fun, and affordable shopping and fabulous pizza – uh, I mean, dining.
Where to start? First, get settled into your room at the King and Prince Hotel that fronts the ocean. The resort looks and feels 5-starfish-ish, but is actually a three-starfish hotel – meaning, you save, yet still have an outstanding resort experience. The hotel and pool both overlook the crashing waves. ECHO, the hotel’s restaurant, also serves up wondrous ocean views and meals so outstanding you’ll want to lick your plate.
At one point, my 12-year-old son asked, “Why doesn’t the world know about this hotel?” Eloquently, travel writer Mom responded, “Huh?” And I kid you not, he said, “The King and Prince Hotel. It should be as big as Hawaii!” (kingandprince.com)
Ready to explore? Head for Neptune Park, also situated on the oceanfront and about a mile from the King and Prince. Your kids
will love the giant right whale (It’s a species of whale, really!) structure built for climbing, an elaborate play park, a pier that’s open for foot traffic, miniature golf, and a pool that has all the bells-and-whistles including a slide and zero-entry graded access. Grab a fro-yo, kick off your sandals, and picnic on the grassy space under the giant oak trees. Life slows down on St. Simons, so expect to find adults chatting away on the benches, a zillion pampered dogs strolling by, and families taking in live music in the evenings.
Don’t miss the St. Simons Lighthouse that towers about a minute away from the right whale. I loved the movie explaining the lighthouse’s history, while my boys were chomping at the bit to climb to the top. (My knees balked.) Built in 1807, this 104-foot lighthouse was reconstructed in 1872 after retreating Confederate forces demolished the first. The view from the top? Wow. Za. (I saw pics, and my kids, who both ran to the top and took pictures, confirmed it later.)
There’s a ton of family fun to be had in St. Simons. Head to Massengale Park for a shaded picnic, a playground, and access to East Beach. The free parking, gentle waves, and tasty BBQ scream summer fun.
Bikes and scooters are smart to bring, given that St. Simons boasts over thirty miles of smooth bike paths. Or if careening down the island roads in a golf cart is more your style, rent one at High Tide Street Legal Golf Carts.
The good and the bad about Sal’s Neighborhood Pizzeria and the aforementioned pizza? This spot is Beyonce-popular. Arrive early and bring toys. The patio is friendly and the pizza is the ultimate.
Little St. Simons
Bucket list alert! Believe it or not, there really is something new, or I should say preserved, under the vacation sun. Little St. Simons Island is a privately owned 11,000-acre untouched barrier island. The only way to get onto the island is by ferry, and thirty-two guests are all that stay overnight on this beauty. No shopping or roller coasters here. Naturalists guide you through wildlife tours, canoeing, kayaking, biking, birding, shell collecting, alligatoring, even moonlit strolls on the beach. Special programs include dedicated days learning about sharks, turtles, and fall birdlings.
The all-inclusive accommodations include boat transfers, three incredible daily meals (snacks, beer, and wine, too), and all activities (plus, ample use of the recreation equipment). Book a guest room, a cottage, or the entire island for a family reunion.
FYI for the squeamish – buck heads, sea life, and stuffed birds decorate the accommodations’ public rooms. Surf fishing is also big on the island and if you land a shark, there’s applause all around.
A red carpet is rolled out for kids May through September (and over the age of eight October through April), but I’d suggest only bringing children who are completely and utterly enthralled by the natural world. Amenities include a pool, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, and air conditioning. Eco-friendly strategies are woven into every aspect of island life. (littlestsimonsisland.com)
If Jekyll and Little St. Simons’ personalities are defined by flip-flops and binoculars, Sea Island is all about Range Rovers and golf bags. This beautiful island boasts a 5-star luxury resort that takes opulence and squares it. (Two less pricey inns are available, too.) The tony island’s claim to fame was hosting the G8 Summit in 2004 when eight of the most powerful leaders in the world convened to discuss the issues of the day. The guys likely smoked stogies and attempted, I assume, to not glare at each other. Vladimir Putin, Tony Blair, and George W. Bush were three of the notables.
Despite that bit of political foreshadowing, family fun on Sea Island is vast with kid camps (for all ages), horseback riding, several golf courses, a sailing center, a shooting school (opened in 1929), cycling, a destination spa, and you get the picture. Not cheap, but it’s decadent family play if that’s what you’re after. (seaisland.com)
Photos: Goldenisles.com, Chris Johnson