Southern Beaches, Part 2: Georgia's Golden Isles

June 14, 2016
Candyce H. Stapen

Georgia's Golden Isles offer a mix of wildlife, gorgeous scenery, and fine food and lodgings.

Gould's Inlet on St. Simon's Island Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

Beach resorts, like ice cream, come in different flavors. What you order depends on what you’re craving at the moment. Similarly, sometimes you want a bustling boardwalk, other times a manageable, oceanfront resort with services and surf, and still other times you feel like more golf than waves.

In this second part of our two-part series on Southern beaches, we explore Georgia’s Golden Isles. (Click here for Part 1)

Georgia

Golden Isles

Georgia’s scenic Golden Isles—St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island, and Little St. Simons Island—draw vacationers year round and especially lure beach lovers in the summer. The thousands of acres of fresh water marshes and nearly 400,000 acres of salt marshes are the region’s distinguishing features. Some historians even credit the Golden Isles’ name to the wide stretches of sporting grass that the sun turns to the color of spun gold in fall and winter. Mainland Brunswick, 75 miles south of Savannah, GA, and 65 miles north of Jacksonville, FL, serves as the gateway to the Golden Isles.

Smaller than St. Simons, Jekyll Island, owned by Georgia, cannot have more than 35% development. The Jekyll Island Club Hotel, a historic property founded in 1886 as a private retreat for such wealthy American families as the Morgans, Rockefellers, and Pulitzers, offers nine miles of beach, golf, horseback riding, boating, and fishing. Little St. Simons, accessible only by boat, is a private island resort with maritime forests, marshlands, seven miles of beach, and accommodations for up to 32 people in six cottages.

A park on St. Simon's Island Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

St. Simons Island and Sea Island

Lively, larger and more developed than either Jekyll Island or Little St. Simons, both St. Simons and Sea Island draw more tourists, but the two destinations offer different experiences. To begin with, St. Simons Island is a town with restaurants, shops, schools, services, a variety of lodging, and a substantial year-round population. Sea Island, built as a gated residential community on an island off of St. Simons, is known for golf and the good life. With homes ranging from $2 million to $15 million plus, Sea Island attracts an upscale clientele, many of whom own homes in several destinations.

Beaches, Pools and Lodging

Exploring the Golden Isles’ beaches requires being mindful of the tides. At low tide on St. Simons’ Gould’s Inlet and East Beach, you can walk out onto the sandbars for close encounters with critters in the tide pools. Be careful to head back to the shore well before high tide as the water levels can rise quickly, engulfing the sand. The tides change dramatically on Sea Island as well.

One of St. Simons’ few oceanfront properties is the King and Price Beach and Golf Resort. A relaxing resort whose outdoor pool faces the ocean, the property offers hotel rooms and condominiums. The Inn at Sea Island, located on St. Simons, a moderately priced, off the beach hotel alternative, lacks a restaurant although rooms come with a self-serve breakfast bar. Also inland on St. Simons, the Lodge, a Sea Island property, is a Forbes Five-Star rated accommodation.

On Sea Island, the Cloister, an elegant property with an excellent spa, also comes with a Forbes Five-star rating. The décor at The Lodge and the Cloister is more reserved than beachy, which may or may not be what you crave for a sun and shore vacation. The less formal ambiance of the Cloister Beach Club helps make that property a good fit for families. Camp Cloister operates year-round for ages 3 to 14.

Ecological and History Adventures

On St. Simons go on boat tours to catch fish, sunset cruises to see dolphins, and come aboard Captain Larry Cradle’s Lady Jane to learn about ‘shrimping’,” as the locals say. Sea Island offers private tours of Cannon’s Point Preserve, an off-the-beaten path place to experience marshes and maritime forests as well see plantation ruins. The 608-acre property features a thick grove of centuries-old live oaks, saw palmetto, and cabbage palms. Near the river is the foundation of John Couper’s plantation, originally built in1793. Just beyond the trees, the kitchen’s multi-oven chimney still stands, as do some of the outer walls of the plantation’s hospital, the place where Rebecca Couper, John’s wife, helped birth her slaves’ babies.

Golf lovers can indulge nearly year-round in the Golden Isles. The King and Prince resort’s course, located 12.2 miles from the property, plays out on land that once belonged to the 18th century Hampton Plantation. The Lodge affords golfers pampering accommodations and easy access to the three golf courses, Plantation, Retreat, and Seaside. Seaside and the Plantation hosted the 2015 RSM Classic.

James Flack, chef de cuisine at Echo. Photo: Candyce H. Stapen.

Restaurants

Every noteworthy resort features a really good restaurant, one worth traveling to for memorable meals. That dining room is Echo, at the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, which serves what chef de cuisine James Flack calls “Southern coastal with a twist.” Another Echo bonus is the setting: the restaurant is St. Simons only oceanfront dining. The fine dining Georgian Room at the Cloister is Georgia’s only five-star dining room. The Beach Club serves tasty, downhome fare. Also on St. Simons, Halyards offers good seafood.

What are your favorite spots in Georgia’s Golden Isles? Do you prefer other Southern beaches? Share your thoughts with me on Twitter, @familyitrips.