It was a close call, but one of the world's most beautiful vacation spots remains—relatively speaking—undiscovered. When George W. Bush chose the islands off the Georgia coast as the site for the G8 Summit, locals were worried. With 3,000 journalists covering the event, the world would surely learn about the soothing beauty of the marshlands, the winter-perfect climate and the unspoiled beaches. And then, tourists would come and it would all be ruined.
But Ronald Reagan's death overshadowed news of the Summit; cable news ran tributes to the Gipper instead of fillers on a part of Georgia that has seen more than its share of the rich and famous and powerful. Because of the shift in the spotlight, you're in luck.
There are fourteen barrier islands, small dots of land that protect the mainland from hurricanes and storms. Only four are accessible by land.
This privacy was appealing to the Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Pulitzers and other nineteenth-century elites, and Georgia's temperate clime made it attractive for a winter escape. They bought up the land, built private retreats and later sold or donated much of it to various government entities. What they kept, they ran well, restricting commercial development and protecting wild spaces. The result: not too many people and just the right number of visitor amenities.
Four Islands with Great Lodging
Yes, a few of the islands (Tybee, St. Simons and Jekyll) have a smattering of moderately-priced motels, and all the chains are represented on nearby I-95. But it's the old-time hotels that give the area its charm. Some are indisputably grand, but most have a gentile elegance, a comfortable shabbiness. They are, says a resident, for the "dress-down wealthy."
Accessible only by boat, the island has been privately owned by the same family since 1908. The retreat is now open for a limited number of guests. The room rate includes everything: a handsomely-rustic room, first-class meals, snacks, horseback riding, biking, naturalist tours, sea-turtle walks, a crab boil on the beach, even cocktails and after-dinner drinks. Most people stay at least two nights and many families book the entire retreat for private get-togethers.
Day trips, including a lunch you won't forget, are available by reservation.
Sea Island was the fiefdom of magnate Howard Coffin who started Hudson Automobiles. Except for the Cloister Hotel, the family-owned island is completely residential
The hotel took the G8 in stride. After all, it's used to catering to world leaders. The elder Bushes honeymooned there and presidents Coolidge, Hoover, Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford and Carter all vacationed there.
www.cloister.com; www.seaisland.com; 1-800-SEA-ISLAND
Jekyll Island, once a retreat for men representing one-sixth of the world's wealth, is reached by a six-mile, marsh-hemmed causeway. Today it's a state park where development is strictly limited to 35% of the land mass.
The centerpiece of the island is a large Victorian hotel, built in 1886 as a clubhouse for Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Pulitzer and fifty or so of their closest buddies. It's surrounded by smaller "cottages," the private family homes of the original clubmembers.
The 240-acre area has been designated a National Historic Landmark District and is one of the largest ongoing restoration projects in the Southeastern United States. You can tour the district by horse-drawn carriage and many of the old homes are open to the public.
As for the old clubhouse, it's been restored to its turn-of-the-century grandeur and operates as a four-star hotel. Where else can you party with ghosts of the men who built America?
The southernmost of the barrier islands, Cumberland has been designated a National Seashore, a place where wild horses far outnumber visitors.
There's one small luxury hotel on the island, the Greyfield Inn, built in 1900 as a home for the daughter of Thomas Carnegie (younger brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie) and Lucy Coleman (of the camping gear Colemans).
There's no public transportation on the island, private cars aren't permitted and, except for guests of the Greyfield, there's no place to buy food. Day visitors and beach campers, carrying their own nourishment, arrive and depart by small ferry which leaves from St. Marys. Reservations must be made in advance and seats are limited.
The island is so privacy-pure that JFK Jr. and Carolyn Bessette managed to get married at the Greyfield without attracting either press or paparazzi.
The most popular island pastimes are watersports, beach walking, bird watching, golf and biking. But hard as it is to leave all that sun and fun, most visitors want at least one day in Savannah, 80 miles north. Harriet Meyerhoff, a Savannah native and licensed tour guide, packs a week's worth of information into a two-hour walking tour. Reach her at [email protected] or 912/234-0014.
The Barrier Islands are just east of I-95 approximately 80 miles from both Savannah and Jacksonville. Locals often choose to pay an additional few dollars and fly directly to the Brunswick airport, served by ASA/Delta Connection from Atlanta.
Hidden Georgia (Ulysses Press, 2003, $16.95): Author Marty Olmstead grew up in Georgia, speaks the drawl and knows the culture. But as a current Californian she has the perspective to understand what outsiders need to know. She's working an a new book, also in the "Hidden" series, that's specifically focused on the Georgia Coast. Meanwhile, this guide of the state will serve you well.
Moon Handbooks—Georgia (Avalon, 2002, $17.95): Like all Moon Books, Georgia is crammed full of information, including the Cumberland Island Ferry Schedule and an island-by-island overview. It's a well-organized mix of historical tidbits and practical advice, a must-take if you plan to explore the coast.
Denver,Colorado—Chapungu: Culture and Legend, a Culture in Stone is an exhibit worth going out of your way for. Eighty contemporary stone sculptures—ranging from three feet to eleven feet—by Zimbabwe artists stand amongst the plants in Denver's Botanic Gardens, creating an environment that is emotionally moving and aesthetically pleasing. The figurative sculptures represent all forms of human relationships—family, communal, natural and spiritual. Walking amongst them is an extraordinary experience. The exhibit runs until October 31. Don't miss it.
News about a perfect spot where you can ski and golf during the winter months—Canada's British Columbia. What's more, if the exchange rate remains the same, you can shop and save between sporting activities!