Few people have heard of Jekyll Island, Georgia. But huge, world-changing things once happened in this tiny spot – one of four barrier islands known as the Golden Isles.
Today this former retreat for Gilded Age tycoons is a treasure trove of historic homes, nature, beaches and mighty fine seafood dishes.
Driftwood Beach is one of the many photogenic spots on Jekyll Island © Christian Herb / Getty Images
Setting the stage
Believe us, the History 101 on Jekyll Island is important. And quirky. In its early days, thousands of Guale Indians lived and traveled along this coastline, frequenting the island to hunt and fish. French explorers arrived in the 16th century, before the British lobbed ashore. General James Edward Oglethorpe (founder of the colony of Georgia in 1733) named Jekyll Island after Sir Joseph Jekyll, a wealthy Brit who’d invested in the new colony. For a century, a French family owned it, eventually turning the island into a hunting club.
In 1886, the island was purchased by the Jekyll Island Club and became an uber-exclusive holiday resort for members and their wives and families. We mean everybody-buys-two-shares-and-there-were-only-100-shares exclusive. We’ll toss a few names out there: Joseph Pulitzer, William Rockefeller, JP Morgan, William K Vanderbilt and Marshall Field. At one time the club’s members represented one-sixth of the world’s wealth; their influence meant momentous things took place within the club's confines. And how’s this for historic: it was on the line for the USA’s first transcontinental telephone call in 1915 and was the location of secret meetings to outline plans for what would eventually become the Federal Reserve System.
The good news is that these days, this idyllic island – which measures seven by 1.5 miles at its narrowest point – is accessible to everyone. As well as a home to around 1,000 residents, it’s also a protected state park, cared for by the Jekyll Island Authority and overseen by a Board of Directors. Only one-third of the island can be used for commercial purposes. The result? Around a thousand acres of mature maritime forest, plus marshes and sand dunes, are available to wander.
Moss Cottage, built in 1896, is just one of the many opulent summer homes that dot Jekyll Island © BeachcottagePhotography / Getty Images
Become a ‘member’ of the Jekyll Island Club
To walk in the boots of the ‘biggies,’ hoof it through the historic district, a pretty grid of lush lawn. A clubhouse building sits alongside the billionaire club members’ historic vacation homes, shaded under by some of the island’s oldest and prettiest ancient oak trees (yes, the ones that drip with Spanish moss).
You can scoot around historic homes with informative and giggle-inducing commentary on the Passport to the Century tour. Or visit William and Almir Rockefeller’s vacation home on The Rockefeller Experience Tour. It's hard to resist the oh-so-polite southeast Georgia phrasings of the informative guides. Our guide, Tom Alexander, is no exception. He runs through the club gossip: did you know they brought dairy cows onto the island once the ladies discovered bubbles in their butter? (Bubbles raised quality concerns; the butter had been previously sourced from Tennessee where it was put on ice for transport). Or that they restocked the island with pheasant and animals to hunt each season (anything that wasn’t killed died off in the humidity)? Or…but we’ll stop here to avoid spoiling the surprise snippets shared by Tom and his fellow guides.
Waterfowl like the Great Egret are commonly spotted on Jekyll Island © BrianLasenby / Getty Images
Wildlife watching & trail wandering
There’s no discriminating between large loggerheads and the little guys (terrapins) at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, the island’s rehabilitation, research and education hub for sea turtles. You can flip about between exhibits – live turtles – plus the researchers, who will inform you about turtle habits, their nesting and the center's monitoring program. In summer, you can head out with a night patrol on a turtle-monitoring project. (While on the subject, be sure to take note of the island’s terrapin-crossing signs).
For more animal fun, dig your teeth into some fabulous facts about the American alligator during the fascinating one-hour Gatorology 101 sessions held at Horton Pond, a hotspot for gators on the island. A signed nature track, the Tupelo Trail, winds in an easy loop from the pond.
Since so much of the island is covered in maritime forest, wandering through forest trails is a joy. Follow them on your own or take one of Jekyll Island Authority's wonderful ranger-led walks, where you can meander through one of the maritime forest tracks with informative park ranger Ray Emerson. Ask away: the telescope-wielding Ray knows all about the island’s flora and fauna, from cabbage palms and redbay trees to bald eagles.
The sand dune-filled beaches of Jekyll Island are full of fragile beauty © BeachcottagePhotography / Getty Images
Sand, glorious sand. It's easy to see where the Golden Isles got their name. More than 10 miles of shoreline surround Jekyll Island. These include Great Dunes, which is great for families; Glory Beach, full of sea-oats-covered sand dunes and where scenes from the movie Glory were filmed; South Dunes with an elevated boardwalk; and St Andrews, at the southern tip of the island. Climb aboard the wildlife viewing platform: migratory and shore birds, including the threatened Wilson’s Plover frequent the area – along with a dolphin or two if you're lucky.
Expansive Driftwood Beach is lined with driftwood – massive gnarled and bleached trees that lie in a sandy graveyard. Sadly, the trees’ demise is due to erosion, but that doesn’t stop everyone from young couples to professional photographers from coming here to stroll the picturesque shore (read: one of the most Instagram-friendly places in the US).
One word on the surfaces here: flat. With few pedal strokes, you can wind your way past beaches, around sand dunes and through historic sites. That is, when you’re not pedaling along the stunning marine forest trails or under thick canopies of acacia, palmettos and ancient oaks. Jekyll Island Bike Barn rents bicycles for all ages.
Plump Golden Isles Shrimp make the classic Southern dish of shrimp and grits a standout here © nicolesy / Getty Images
Feasting on Jekyll
Jekyll Island's food appeals to all tastes. And budgets. The thing to try in this region is shrimp and grits, said to be the world’s best because of the sweeter Golden Isles Shrimp. For upscale bites, The Reserve restaurant serves some of the island’s classiest cuisine; don’t miss its crab cakes or etouffe tamale. The annual Whiskey, Wine & Wildlife Festival showcases the region’s fine foods (including barbecue and seafood dishes) and beverages (think whiskey and moonshine, in addition to wine). Profits support the Jekyll Island Foundation, a not-for-profit organization responsible for programs that conserve and preserve the island, including the turtle center, wildlife viewing platforms and museums.
Make it happen
Because of its mild climate, Jekyll Island can be visited year-round, although the offerings (especially the nature tours) do vary by season. The island can be accessed via Hwy 17 and GA-520 (use Exit 29 on I-95). To get here, you'll have to cross a toll bridge and pay for a parking pass ($6/28 per day/week). Most sleeping options are chain hotels or larger resorts, but there is the odd exception, including the Jekyll Island Club. The Westin Jekyll Island, overlooking the dunes and beach, provides an excellent comfort to price ratio. It has a stylish bar and several eateries, and its shuttle bus will drop you around the island. For those watching their pennies, pitch a tent under magnificent oaks within 18 acres of the lovely Jekyll Island Campground in the state park on the island’s northern end.
Kate Armstrong visited Jekyll Island as a guest of the Whiskey, Wine & Wildlife Festival.