The Golden Isles of Georgia.
I had never visited this enclave of America. Not surprising, for it is unfamiliar to Westerners like me. For us “the Southeast Coast” more likely calls up Charleston, Savannah or Hilton Head to the north, Florida to the south.
Elegantly settled into a niche of American history, these barrier islands do not lend themselves to the trumpet of advertisement. This is not the bumptious “New South” of Atlanta or the Daytona 500.
The Sidney Lanier Bridge from Brunswick, Georgia.
Once accessible from the mainland only by boat, the isles may now be reached across the Sidney Lanier Bridge, a graceful archway named for the lyric poet who evoked them in “The Marshes of Glynn”.
When lovers pace timidly down through the green colonnades
Of the dim sweet woods, of the dear dark woods,
Of the heavenly woods and glades,
That run to the radiant marginal sand-beach within
The wide sea-marshes of Glynn…
The live oaks, marshes and ocean strands of Glynn County were a consolation to Lanier, weary ex-Confederate soldier and prisoner of war. He sought to confirm the beauty of a homeland ravaged by conflict.
Much has changed since the 1870s, but Lanier’s poetry reveals an enduring truth about the Sea Islands: distance from the well-trodden path has helped preserve them.
Interweaving nature with history provides a common theme of the four Golden Isles: St. Simon’s Island; Little St. Simon’s Island; Sea Island, and Jekyll Island. Despite their proximity, each has a distinctive character to show off for visitors.
St. Simon’s, the largest, most populous of the islands, provides the bulk of tourist facilities—restaurants, lodgings, golf courses, etc.—and the richest history dating back to the British settlement of Georgia in the eighteenth century.
Adjacent Little St. Simon’s, privately owned and least developed of the four, accommodates no more than 32 overnight guests at its Lodge. Daytime activities include kayaking, birding, and ecological tours.
Impressive façade of The Cloister on Sea Island.
Sea Island, accessed by private causeway from St. Simon’s, is largely synonymous with its exclusive five star resorts, The Cloister and The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club. Sea Island has three excellent golf layouts including the famed Seaside Course, home to the PGA’s annual McGladrey Classic.
Venerable Jekyll Island Club Hotel.
The Historic District of Jekyll Island is a museum of late Victorian architecture. During the 1880s the Jekyll Island Club transformed the island into a vacation playground for plutocrats like Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockefeller. Original buildings like the Jekyll Island Club Hotel as well as indigenous flora and fauna are preserved under protection of the National Register of Historic Places and the Jekyll Island Authority.
You’ll need several days to soak in the atmosphere of The Golden Isles. Lodgings are plentiful, ranging from bed & breakfasts to pricey retreats like the Cloister.
The King & Prince Resort on St. Simon’s Island.
I discovered The King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, a stylish St. Simon’s hostelry which suited my preference for historic ambience combined with sporting life and ocean vistas.
Lanier may have recalled this vast beachfront when he wrote:
On the firm-packed sand,
By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea.
Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Inward and outward to northward and southward the beach-lines linger and curl
As a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows
the firm sweet limbs of a girl.
In 1935 the eponymous “King” and “Prince”, partners who’d previously been involved in a fracas with the owner of Sea Island’s Cloister, opened the K&P as a seaside dance club. Within a few years they’d expanded into a small hotel of Mediterranean design and, except for a period during World War when the property was given over to the Navy, the King & Prince has steadily grown into one of the premier resorts on the Georgia coast. It is a member of Historic Hotels of America and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Seaside room at the King & Prince.
The 198 room hotel offers accommodation ranging from standard rooms (seaside or poolside) to oceanfront suites and spacious beach villas of two or three bedrooms. Recent renovation has brought a sparkling fresh charm to the atrium, lobby, and pool areas. The full service Royal Treatment Cottage spa is one of Georgia’s finest.
K&P’s golf course winds among lakes and lagoons.
As for sporting life, golf architect Joe Lee has created a marvelous layout which includes four signature holes on the marshes. The entire course, at Hampton Plantation on the north end of St. Simon’s, winds along lakes and lagoons shaded by live oak.
Tennis? Veteran tennis director Pride Evans runs a boutique program on two Har-Tru clay courts right at the hotel.
Tennis on Har-Tru courts at K&P.
The King’s Tavern, the hotel’s seaside restaurant, features stained glass windows depicting local historic scenes. Cuisine emphasizes Georgia products, everything from seafood entrées to peanut soup and peach cobbler. Then there’s Brunswick stew, a spicy tomato, meat and vegetable ragout which, according to Georgians, originated here and was duly named after the Glynn County seat at nearby Brunswick. But hold on. Brunswick County, Virginia lays similar claim as does the province of Braunschweig, Germany!
The King’s Tavern has ocean views.
Of course one must sample the renowned Wild Georgia Shrimp. Their distinctive flavor results from the feeding grounds of spartina grass native to the local salt marshes. Very popular hereabouts is the King’s Tavern Sunday brunch, which lays out many of the aforementioned victuals plus down-home favorites like Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Cajun Meatloaf and Shrimp & Grits.
An introduction to the rich history of the island is available on the Lighthouse Trolley Tour, which sets off daily (twice during the summer months) from the nearby Village and Pier district that includes the Maritime Museum, St. Simon’s Lighthouse, and the Keeper’s Dwelling Museum.
The on-board guides are a treasure trove of island lore. In the course of this two-hour orientation tour you visit the site of The Battle of Bloody Marsh, where in 1742 a British victory over the Spanish secured the Province of Georgia for England and, eventually, the United States.
The Fort Frederica National Monument preserves what remains of a fort constructed (1736-1748) by Georgia’s founder James Oglethorpe to protect the island from Spanish incursions.
Christ Episcopal Church
on St. Simon’s Island.
Christ Episcopal Church also harkens back to the Oglethorpe era. Under pastoral care of the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, the original structure was built as a parish church for the inhabitants of Fort Frederica. The current church dates from 1884 and includes exquisite stained glass windows, including a Tiffany.
You will also be regaled with stories of plantation days, when the famous Sea Island cotton was picked by thousands of slaves. In her novel “Song of Solomon” Toni Morrison retells the story of Ebo tribesmen from Nigeria who chose mass suicide rather than submit to bondage. Chained together, they leaped into the creek waters off Ebo’s Landing, just north of the Sea Island causeway. During the Civil War, British writer Fanny Kemble published her “Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation” exposing harsh conditions for slaves on these islands.
On a contemporary note, you are informed that nearby Brunswick is the fifth busiest US port and exclusive entry point for Mercedes automobiles; that George and Barbara Bush are frequent visitors to these Golden Isles; and that Sea Island was chosen to host a G 8 economic summit in 2004 because it offered both luxurious accommodation and a remote location allowing for the degree of tight security such meetings seem to require these days.
For more information about tourism to the Golden Isles consult the following websites:
— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine; photos by Todd Nemanic and courtesy of the resorts.