Distance: 260 miles, four-hour drive
Made famous by JFK Jr.’s wedding (one of our staffers swears she called it as her wedding venue long before Carolyn Bissett discovered it), Cumberland Island is approximately 36,000 acres of unspoiled beaches, pristine maritime forests and wide marshes.
Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, the eastern edge of Cumberland is bounded by the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean, while the rest is bound by rivers and marshes. The state’s preservation of these marshes – which make up complex ecosystems, thanks in part to the tidal surges that circulate massive amounts of organic material – stands in contrast to the developed buffer islands farther up the east coast.
As fascinating as these National Park-protected natural treasures are, what’s most captivating about the island is its history. From a working plantation to the winter retreat of the Carnegie family (yes, those Carnegies), Cumberland Island is equal parts home to the descendants of natives, slaves, missionaries and aristocrats, as well as wild horses with bloodlines that trace to the royal stables of the King of Arabia.
Prepare yourself to head off the mainland – and off the grid, too. Most people board the Cumberland Island Ferry from the St. Mary’s visitors’ center to the Sea Camp Dock. Guests of the Greyfield Inn take the hotel’s private ferry, the Lucy Ferguson – more on the Greyfield later. Guests of the inn also have access to a Jeep tour, or you can book walking and motorized tours at the Sea Camp Dock, or cell phone tours that originate at the Dungeness Docks. Bikes are also available for rent at the Sea Camp Dock on a first-come, first-served basis.
A favorite destination is the Dungeness Ruins, the remains of Lucy Carnegie’s island mansion. The wife of Thomas who was the brother and business partner of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, Lucy once owned 90 percent of Cumberland, using it to build a sprawling estate for her family at the turn of the 20th century. Look for wild horses (they outnumber the people) as you roam the 200 acres of live oaks, ruins and 18 miles of unspoiled beach.
Located in the former ice house built by the Carnegies in 1890, the Ice House Museum is a smaller
version of the Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum (located on the mainland).
The South End Loop is the most popular day hike on Cumberland Island. This 4.3-mile walk can be completed in under four hours.
The sight of the sun setting over the western marshes of Cumberland is unforgettable,
and well worth the overnight stay required to view it.
There are only two ways to stay overnight on the island: the Greyfield Inn or at one of the National Park Service campsites. We say if you can live like a Carnegie, you should. The colonial-style manor was built in 1900 for Thomas and Lucy’s daughter Margaret, and her daughter, Lucy, opened the doors of the family retreat to the public in 1962. Still run by the family’s descendants, this all-inclusive retreat is outfitted in four-poster beds and tastefully worn rugs, and offers the perfect porch on which to enjoy a cocktail and a lot of southern hospitality.