Cumberland Island is known as a transformative place—one of the last unspoiled spots in the United States. From your first steps off the ferry you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time, something harder and harder to come by these days. Our friend Martha Handler is a talented writer, currently working on her first novel, after a stint as a monthly columnist for a Westchester Magazine. We are lucky that she found time to tell us of a recent long weekend she squeezed in, between saving her beloved wolves, traveling to Antarctica with photographer Gregory Colbert, or running off to the Artic this June in pursuit of polar bears.
Combine Cumberland Island with a trip to Savannah. (Approximately a 2-hour drive) Ferries leave from St. Mary’s Georgia twice a day.
Cumberland Island is accessible all year, but the best time to visit is spring and fall. The summer months can be very hot and humid with tons of mosquitos!
For some great Southern recipes check out Food and wine Magazine’s article— A Chef’s Visit on Cumberland Island.
Logistics: Fly to Jacksonville, FL (roundtrip from NY for as little as $165), drive 40 minutes to Fernandina Beach, drop your car, and hop on a private passenger ferry (30-45 minutes). If you time it right you can leave NY City around 8:30am and enjoy lunch on the Island by 1:30pm!
Where to stay: The Greyfield Inn is the only public accommodation on the island. (However, if you happen to know one of the few remaining family members of the Carnegie or Rockefellers who still have homes there, that would be another option!). The Inn, which Conde’ Nast readers voted #19 of the Top 25 Hotels in the U.S., is a grand and graceful mansion that was built in 1900 as a summer home for a daughter of the Carnegie family. It is comfortable, cozy and furnished today as it was at the turn of the century. There are five suites in the main house, and two private cottages on the property. Included in the room rate are a wholesome and hearty breakfast, a first-class picnic lunch, hors d/oeuvres at dusk in the library and a tasty, creative dinner. Drinks and wine are available 24-7 at a serve-yourself “honest John” bar. And spa services are available with adequate notice.
(For the younger and/or more hearty types there are numerous campgrounds around the island which range from $2-$4, per night, per person and require advance reservations and ferry tickets.)
Why go: Cumberland Island is eighteen miles long and is Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island consisting of over 9,800 acres of intact maritime forest and designated coastal Wilderness. There are miles of nearly deserted beaches (daily visitors are limited) where you’ll see bottlenose dolphin and manatee frolicking about, numerous sea turtles and a plethora of sea birds and shore birds, including bald eagles. Further inland you’ll find a canopy of live oaks covered in Spanish moss and resurrection plants and living amongst this beauty are wild horses, deer, bobcat, armadillos and alligators. To put it simply, it is breathtakingly gorgeous, hauntingly ethereal and a bucket list item for sure!
What to do:
Hike/Tour with a Naturalist – The Greyfield Inn will schedule an outing, either privately or with a group from the Inn. We toured in an open-air truck (basically a pick-up truck with benches built in the back) around the island and learned about the history and past inhabitants as well as the fauna and flora.
Cumberland Island Museum – Cumberland Island enjoys a colorful past, having been home to the Timucuan Indians, British settlers, Spanish Missionaries, enslaved African American and most recently Wealthy Industrialists. Here you will see a time line of events and numerous artifacts from different periods on the island.
Biking – We spent the majority of our daylight hours cruising on the Inn’s free beach bicycles on the various roads and trails which run throughout the island and on the beach at low tide. Bring a cell phone and you can hear about the islands history as described on various numbered placards throughout the trail system. Be sure not to miss:
- Dungeness Ruins – Built by Thomas Carnegie and his wife Lucy in 1884 it burned down in the 1950’s.
- Plum Orchard – A 20,000 square foot Georgian Revival mansion built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie for her son George. Open at Park Service discretion!
- First African Baptist Church – Originally developed for African American slaves. Was recently the site of the September 1996 wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette.
- GoGo Ferguson Jewelry Shop – Located on the grounds of the Greyfield Inn is GoGo’s shop (the only shopping on the island, I might add!) and home/workshop (which resembles a natural history museum with all the artifacts which abound). GoGo (don’t you love that name!) is a descendant of the Carnegie clan. Her theory that “you can’t improve on nature’s perfection” is celebrated in all of her pieces, which are created from the designs found in shells, bones, and other natural objects found on the island. Well worth a visit and don’t forget to bring your credit card.
Stargazing: Bring towels from the Inn and enjoy stargazing from the front lawn. However, beware of the sand spurs which are tenacious and hurt like a..
Sunset on the Dock: Grab your cocktail of choice and make your way down to the dock near the Inn for a fabulous sunset.
Rock Out: Have a seat on a rocking chair or rocking sofa on the Inn’s front porch and talk to the other guests about their day’s adventures.
What to Pack:(obviously this will depend on the season)
- Bicycle shorts (A must!) Though the bikes have big seats and are comfy, the sandy roads and trails get very washed out and bumpy!
- Bathing suits – the water is heavenly
- Shorts/T-shirts for day time adventures
- Sun dresses, skirts, pants for women for dinner. Men must wear dinner jackets
- Close-toed shoes/sneakers (due to sand spurs)
- The Inn provides blow dryers, beach towels, sunscreen and bug spray
To Return or Not to Return: I’d return in a heartbeat. I honestly didn’t think it was possible to fly a couple hours out of New York city and in a short while find myself on a gorgeous, empty beach surrounded only by birds and a few wild horses. (And these aren’t those pesky wild ponies that you find on Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia that are constantly bothering you for food or knocking down your tent just for the fun of it!) In no time at all I felt like I was a million miles away from civilization. It would also be a great place for a family reunion, wedding or honeymoon. As a girl’s trip destination it was truly divine. This wouldn’t be a good spot for someone who needs a gym, lots of action and who doesn’t particularly appreciate nature. There is some cell service but internet is quite spotty and you are not supposed to talk on your phone unless you are in your room.