This group of islands off the southern Georgia coast was once the playground of some of the wealthiest families in the world. Today, it continues to draw well-heeled travelers, but those of more modest means can also enjoy the semitropical beach resorts and nature preserves. The city of Brunswick serves as the gateway for the islands, some of which are accessible by car and others only by boat.
St. Simons Island is the largest and busiest of the Golden Isles, reached via the Brunswick-St. Simons Causeway. It offers swimming, golf, fishing, live theater and plantation tours. Fort Frederica National Monument was an important colonial outpost established by Gen. James Oglethorpe (the founder of Savannah). In 1742, the battle of Bloody Marsh was fought near the fort, and the British victory over the Spanish secured Georgia as an English colony. The ruins of the fort can be viewed, as can the Bloody Marsh Memorial Site, 5 mi/8 km south. Other points of interest include Christ Church, built in 1885, and the Museum of Coastal History. St. Simons hosts a home and garden tour in March.
Sea Island lies just east of St. Simons Island, and the two are connected by a causeway. It has verdant greenery, magnificent homes and a world-renowned resort, The Cloister.
Jekyll Island, just south of St. Simons, was the turn-of-the-century hangout of such upper-crust families as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Morgans and Goulds. Their visits began in the 1880s, when several millionaires banded together to buy the island, establishing the Jekyll Island Club. The island was sold to the state of Georgia in the 1940s and has since become a popular resort area and state park.
The remnants of the island's luxurious past are still a big part of its allure. Be sure to see the Jekyll Island Club House, the center of the tycoon resort, which is now a hotel. A historic district on the island contains restored mansions once owned by some of the Jekyll Island Club members. When you've finished ogling the extravagance of yesteryear, head for Jekyll's 10-mi-/16-km-long beach or take advantage of the island's many bicycle trails.
Cumberland Island National Seashore lies to the south (near the coastal town of St. Marys) and extends all the way to the Florida border. Because it's a protected area, Cumberland Island provides a largely undeveloped landscape with wide sandy beaches, dunes, salt marshes, wild horses and a dense maritime oak forest. The 15-mi-/25-km-long barrier island was formerly owned by members of the Carnegie family and is now only accessible by boat. (A passenger boat from St. Marys runs all year.) There is a luxurious inn on the island, Greyfield, that used to be one of the Carnegie residences (John F. Kennedy Jr. went to Greyfield for his private wedding in 1996). Other historic structures also stand on the island, some of them abandoned.
It's also possible to take a day trip to Little St. Simons Island, a privately owned retreat that's about 30 minutes by boat from St. Simons. Overnight lodging and meals are available—you can even rent the entire 10,000-acre/4,050-hectare island for your personal use (provided you can afford it). Farther north are several islands that are largely taken up with various nature preserves. They include Wolf Island National Wildlife Refuge, Sapelo Island National Estuarine Sanctuary and Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge (on an island where the infamous pirate Edward Teach was said to have buried treasure). The Golden Isles begin about 40 mi/65 km south of Savannah.
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