The Golden Islands – Georgia, U.S.A.

History, Aristocrats, and Splendid Isolation

Once winter resorts for American aristocracy, Georgia’s barrier islands hosted vacationing Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Goodyears, Pulitzers, and Astors.

Things are a little bit more egalitarian today, but the tinge of riches still lingers. Reachable only by ferry, Cumberland is the largest, most tranquil, and most pristine of the islands, a low-profile get­away that only attracts the world’s attention once in a blue moon – as when, in 1996, the late John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette secretly married and honeymooned here. More than 90 percent of the 35-square-mile island is protected as national seashore, and the National Park Service limits the number of day visitors to 300.

This gives wide berth to white-tailed deer, wild horses, turkeys, sea turtles, 323 species of birds, and you. There are no cars and just one hostelry, the white-columned, twenty-room Greyfield Inn, built in 1901 by Thomas Carnegie (brother and business partner of steel magnate Andrew) and his wife Lucy, and run as an inn since 1964 by the Camegies’ great-great- grandchildren. It’s luxurious (with original furniture, portraits, and mementos from the family’s gilded past), but in a quirky, welcoming, and grandmotherly way.

Beginning in 1886, 9-mile-long Jekyll Island began earning a reputation as a ritzy wintertime Newport. Today, a state-protected park takes up a blessedly undeveloped two- thirds of the island, where 20 miles of paved bicycle paths allow a do-it-yourself tour of Jekyll’s designated landmark homes, beach-hugging boardwalk, and cool forests.

The turreted, Queen Anne-style Jekyll Island Club Hotel, which functioned as Jekyll’s social headquarters until WW II, is the ram­bling centerpiece of a 240-acre historic district, and retains the aura of an Edwardian millionaire’s club. Accommodations in the Club’s annex (and in four other buildings) are available for today’s non-robber baron guests.

The quiet good taste and good manners of the legendary Cloister resort and spa on Sea Island have drawn presidents, Forbes 500 types, and pedigreed families for decades, some for the golf – its fifty-four inspiring holes are commonly rated among America’s finest – and some for romance: George and Barbara Bush are one of more than 36,000 (and counting) couples who have honey­mooned here. The main building, a classic Spanish-missionary-style structure designed in the 1920s by Addison Mizner (already famous for his development of Palm Beach), sits amid immaculately tended grounds filled with flowering plants, palmetto palms, and oaks dripping with Spanish moss. At the hotel’s pinky-white 5-mile swath of sandy beach, horseback riding is but one of many ways to pass the perfect day.

As with Cumberland, you’ll need to hop a boat to get to private, 10,000-acre Little St. Simons Island and its Lodge, the only accom­modation on the island.

The island has been owned by the same family since 1908. Thirty lucky guests (at most) are encouraged to explore – solo, or with one of the staff natural­ists – the unspoiled beauty of ancient, moss-draped forests, labyrinthine waterways, and 7 miles of pristine beach by foot, horse­back, bike, canoe, or kayak. There’s excellent fly-fishing, birding, and turtle tracking, or you can simply sit on the porch at the rustic Lodge with a drink and a good book. The food is fresh, simple, delicious, and evocative of the Southern childhood you never had.

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