When a destination continues to receive recognition and glowing accolades in major publications, it piques my curiosity. Such was the case with St. Simons Island, one of Georgia’s Golden Isles. USA Today named this slice of paradise one of the “Best Coastal Small Towns,” while Travel + Leisure distinguished it as “America’s Favorite Beach Town.” Located on the southern part of Georgia’s scenic coastline, St. Simons has been attracting vacationers in the know for generations. This enchanting island boasts breathtaking views, sandy beaches and beautiful marshlands, along with a temperate climate and unhurried charm. And if that’s not enough, add historic landmarks, museums, eclectic shops, exceptional restaurants and accommodations to suit every budget.
Though it’s only 12 miles long and about 3 miles wide (roughly the size of Manhattan Island in New York), St. Simons packs a host of attractions and activities for all ages. Hop on a Colonial Island Trolley Tour for an orientation to the island and its colorful history, culture and geography. Your enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide, Captain Rod, will regale you with details about significant sights and share stories about colorful events in the area’s past. The ninety-minute tour covers a whopping 500 years of history, dating back to Spain’s claim in the region.
Take time to explore the island’s historical roots with visits to such places as the St. Simons Lighthouse, Fort Frederica, Bloody Marsh Battle Site, Hamilton Plantation Tabby Slave Cabins, Christ Church, Lovely Lane Chapel and the Avenue of the Oaks. The lighthouse that stands today was built in 1872 and measures 104-feet tall. Operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, it still serves as an active aid to navigation. Climbing the 129-step, spiral staircase to the top is well worth the effort, as you’ll be rewarded with panoramic vistas of the coast. Make sure you stop in the attached Keeper’s Dwelling, which is also the St. Simons Lighthouse Museum. This two-story Victorian building was the home for lightkeepers until the 1950s. You’ll learn about life as a keeper, along with information about the lighthouse and its background. The first structure was actually completed in 1810, but then later destroyed by Confederate troops during the Civil War to prevent Union forces from using it.
There are rumors that the lighthouse might have been haunted at one time by Frederick Osborne, a past keeper who was shot and killed by his assistant in 1880, during an argument–possibly over chickens. Flash forward to the early 1900s when keeper Carl Svendsen, along with his wife and daughter, arrived to tend to the lighthouse. They believe that their family dog, Jinx, may have had a ghostly encounter. The animal was often spooked by mysterious footsteps in the tower and hid each time he heard them. Svendsen and his wife also heard the strange noises and decided they must belong to Osborne’s spirit.
You’ll probably be surprised to learn that this tiny island is home to a National Monument. Fort Frederica was established in 1736, three years after the founding of Savannah. General James Oglethorpe had the bastion created to protect and defend Britain’s southern boundary from Spanish raids. Several dozen men, women and children built the structure and the town of Frederica, and by the 1740s, it was a thriving village of about 500 citizens. Colonists from England, Scotland and the Germanic states came to the site to support the endeavor. Georgia’s fate was decided in 1742, when Spanish and British forces clashed on St. Simons Island. Fort Frederica’s troops defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Bloody Marsh, ensuring Georgia’s future as a British colony. When the Spanish no longer threatened the area, the government disbanded the garrison at the fort. Soon the village fell into economic decline and by 1755, it was mostly abandoned. Today, you can walk around the site and see its archaeological remnants, as well as be entranced by the lacy, moss-draped trees that dot the setting. Drop by the visitor center for exhibits and a short film.
The Bloody Marsh Battle Site is also a part of Fort Frederica National Monument, though it is not on the grounds of the fort. Markers and information panels at the outdoor observation area explain the battle, which once and for all ended Spain’s claims to the Georgia territory. Though the British troops were outnumbered, they caught the Spaniards off guard and ambushed them, successfully halting a planned attack on the fort.
St. Simons’ plantation history is also of note. At one time, there were ten to fourteen antebellum plantations for rice, cotton and sugar on the island. Hamilton Plantation, for example, was located on Gascoigne Bluff near Fort Frederica. Of the several slave cabins built on the grounds, two remain today. They were constructed of tabby, a common building material of the time, which is a concrete-like mixture of lime, sand, water and oyster shells. The structures were divided in the center by a fireplace, thus creating two rooms that housed two families. These cabins, which are now on the National Register of Historic Places, have been carefully restored and preserved, displaying many artifacts and graphic histories.
Retreat Plantation was another preeminent cotton producing estate on the island. The only remains of this site are the magnificent double row of oaks that were planted back in 1827 to provide an entrance to the place. Today, they serve as the grand gateway to the renowned Sea Island Golf Club. Southern live oak trees are special, as they only grow in three places around the globe: the U.S., two areas of Central America and the west coast of Cuba. The U.S. has over 90% of the world’s supply.
Of the numerous churches on the island, two are famous: Lovely Lane Chapel, the oldest standing church on the island, which was built in 1880 to serve the workers at the lumber mills, and Christ Church, constructed in 1884. The latter, nestled in a serene setting among huge oak trees, is one of the most photographed landmarks on St. Simons.
Several of the above historical sites might also be of interest to literary aficionados, specifically those who are fans of Eugenia Price’s books. The celebrated southern author dedicated much of her literary career to capturing the charm and history of Georgia’s Golden Isles. Through her novels, she brought to life a setting that many readers had never before experienced.
Outdoor activity is a big part of the island’s attraction. Offerings include kayaking, fishing, swimming, golfing, birding, eco cruises, cycling and more. Since the area is quite manageable when it comes to size, renting bikes is a popular way to see attractions, while getting some exercise in the process. There are several companies that rent not only bikes, but other outdoor equipment. Ocean Motion is happy to send you on your way with one of its cruisers so you can ride around the island on more than thirty miles of paths connecting points of interest.
As you meander through forests, along the beaches or down residential streets, look for the Tree Spirits. Pick up a map at the Golden Isles Welcome Center in town and go on a treasure hunt for these unique carvings. There are a total of twenty on the island, but only seven are accessible to the public. They were created in the trunks of trees or branches by sculptor Keith Jennings, who began the project in 1982. The easiest to spot is actually adjacent to the Welcome Center. It’s a mermaid named Cora, who is purported to be the gentle protector of St. Simons’ iconic loggerhead turtles. Legend has it that she waits at the shoreline, humming the sweet song that the loggerheads’ mothers use when laying their eggs in the sand. After the babies hatch and begin to proceed down the beach, Cora leads them out to sea with her voice. She then guards them from fishing nets, teaches them how to become strong swimmers and shows them how to eat conch and crab. When the turtles have become fully independent, she leaves them to await the next newborns. Of all the Tree Spirits that Jennings has carved, Cora is the only full-body example; the others are face-only renditions.
If you want to see real loggerheads, plan to be on the island in summer when the hatchlings make their way from the shore nests to the ocean. Make sure to adhere to the warning signs posted, though, as these turtles are a protected species in Georgia. Another way to observe the creatures is to visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on nearby Jekyll Island. The facility is the state’s only hospital for turtle treatment and rehabilitation. You can take a tour, meet and learn about the patients, watch the turtles get fed and even view treatment room activities. Some of the species currently at the center include Gopher Tortoises, Diamondback Terrapins, Box Turtles, Loggerheads, Green Sea Turtles and the most endangered, Kemp’s Ridley. The facility also treats shore and sea birds and any reptiles that are brought in through its doors.
Observing wildlife is a popular activity on St. Simons, whether you’re trying to spot one of the hundreds of species of birds in the area or looking for dolphins on an eco-boat tour. My favorite boat experience is the Lady Jane Shrimpin’ Excursion with Credle’s Adventures. It’s one of the highlights for many visitors to the Golden Isles. You’ll be guided through the shrimping history of the local area, while the crew sets up the first net to trawl along the bottom of the estuaries. When the haul comes in, the real fun begins, as naturalist Jeffery Benson sorts through the catch and talks about each creature, then passes it around to those interested in having a more up-close and personal interaction. The experience is a hands-on crash course in local marine biology. It’s important to note that all creatures caught are thrown back in the water.
During our tour, we had the opportunity to examine nearly two dozen creatures from Bluecrabs, Atlantic Stingrays and Menhaden, to Mantis Shrimp, Horseshoe Crabs and Oyster Toad Fish. The latter, for example, has been taken up into space for research, as it is the only species of fish that can survive the pneumonia levels. We also learned that the Bluecrab swims rather than walks, and molts about nine times a year. When it climbs out of its shell, it must hide for the next twenty-four hours, as in its soft shell form, it is vulnerable to predators. Mantis Shrimp are considered stomopods and not shrimp. They can see more spectrums of color than other creatures. Horseshoe Crabs are not really crabs, but more closely related to the arachnid family. They are the oldest living creatures, dating back 4.5 million years.
Perhaps the most fascinating to me was the Menhaden. This fish is a vital biolink in the food chain that extends from tiny plankton to your dinner table. It’s also a filter feeder that consumes phytoplankton, thus controlling the growth of algae in coastal waters. If its population declines, algal blooms proliferate, transforming some inshore waters into dead zones. When Jeffery opened the creature’s mouth and looked at the gills, he discovered a tongue-eating isopod inside. This parasite purposefully removes the Menhaden’s tongue and then proceeds to function as the new tongue for the creature. Seeing this was like something out of a “Stranger Things” episode!
With all the activity, you’ll probably need some sustenance. Dining options abound, with over fifty restaurants on the island. Seafood takes center stage, as you might expect, with sweet, Wild Georgia Shrimp the star. Whether you order them fried, blackened, grilled, bacon wrapped or simply peel-n-eat boiled, you can’t go wrong, especially if you’re at Iguanas Seafood Restaurant. When it comes to highly memorable meals, Georgia Sea Grill and ECHO are at the top of my list. Both establishments take pride in coastal cuisine using fresh, seasonal ingredients. At Georgia Sea Grill, Executive Chef Tim Lensch creates innovative dishes that dazzle the senses. Start with the Low Country Crab Soup or Crusted Calamari, then opt for the Pan-seared Tripletail, Seared Scallops or Shrimp and Grits. Or, choose the fresh catch of the day, which you can order Cajun-spiced, bronzed or pan roasted. And if you’re a carnivore, try the Braised Short Ribs or Herb Crusted Lamb Racks. Save room for dessert and swoon over a slice of Coconut Chocolate Chip Pie, Peanut Butter and Jelly Cheesecake or Key Lime Tart. The wine list is vast, as is the array of creative libations.
Over at ECHO, located in the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, you’ll dine at the only oceanfront restaurant on the island. While oohing and ahhing at the picturesque sunsets from your table indoors or out on the patio, you’ll feast on such specialties as Grouper with Purple Rice Risotto, Crawfish Stuffed Salmon, Smoked Duck and Bison Tenderloin. Finish it off with a drool worthy piece of St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake or Bourbon Pear Torte. ECHO is also open for breakfast and lunch, with equally delicious options available no matter what time of day. The bar scene gets a plus, too, with live music nights and a variety of unique handcrafted cocktails, beer and wine.
Barbecue is also big on the island, and Southern Soul BBQ serves up top notch southern style ribs, pulled pork, smoked chicken and beef brisket in a half-century-old converted gas station. For those with an affinity for Italian cuisine, look no further than Tramici and its brick oven pizzas and tasty pasta dishes. And at Palm Coast Café, you’ll be transported to the Mediterranean with options like Spanakopita, house made tabbouleh and hummus and hearty Greek salads. Rest assured, you’ll never go hungry on St. Simons!
Southern hospitality is not only prominent in the island’s restaurants, but it is also on display in its many inns, B&Bs, hotels and resorts. From modest and quaint to five-star luxury, there’s something for everyone when it comes to accommodations. I had the pleasure of staying at The King and Prince, an award-winning property with plenty of amenities and activities to keep you as busy as you wish. The 196-room resort with its distinctive Mediterranean architecture, opened in 1935, initially as a seaside dance club, before later morphing into a hotel. During WWII, the place served as a naval coast-watching and training facility, then reopened in 1947 to resume its popularity as an island destination resort. In 2005, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The King and Prince has been a favorite of couples, families, weddings and groups year after year. It’s easy to see why, with its steps-to-the-beach access, multiple swimming pools, exercise facility, award-winning golf course, conference rooms, spa, tennis courts and highly-rated onsite restaurant and bar. Distinctive accommodations range from oceanfront rooms and suites to beach-side villas with full kitchens, and multi-bedroom cottages. There’s ample outdoor space to relax, sip a libation, read a book or simply gaze out at the mesmerizing sea. Service is gracious and attentive, and employees go out of their way to make guests feel welcome and appreciated during their stay.
If you go:
Visitor information: www.goldenisles.com
King and Prince Beach and Golf Resort: www.kingandprince.com