The velvety marshlands that Sidney Lanier described so lyrically have drawn me to Georgia’s Golden Isles ever since I was introduced to the area ten years ago. Each mile from Atlanta to Brunswick, Georgia, makes me yearn for the white sand beaches and glorious sunsets at the end of the journey. Upon reaching Brunswick, the sight of soft shades of lime green moss juxtaposed with dark blue waterways always sets my heart a’pattering as we cross over the causeways and bridges connecting St. Simons, Sea, Jekyll, and Little St. Simons.
Once again, the meandering drive down Kings Way leading into the heart of St. Simons transported me to a time and place where gracious living is a way of life. My friend and travel companion Judy Giles, a first-time Golden Isles visitor, was agog at the ancient live oaks decorated with lacy Spanish moss that formed a canopy over our heads. Like sentinels, they shield elegant homes from curious eyes as lush palm fronds cover their feet. Nearby, sapling oaks wear wisps of moss resembling peach fuzz on young men’s chests.
The Road Less Traveled
Our destination the following day was the Lodge on Little St. Simons, a private island that snuggles shrimp-like around the northern end of St. Simons. Virtually untouched for centuries, the 10,000-acre barrier island is known for its pristine beaches, maritime forest, tidal creeks and lush marshes. It has become a haven for bird watchers, environmentalists, and city dwellers longing for an escape from the demands of modern life.
As we skimmed over the Hampton River and veered onto Mosquito Creek aboard the Little St. Simons (LSS) water taxi—the only way to reach the island—a swift sea breeze propelled us on our way and gulls circled overhead.
In minutes, we docked and headed for the rustic Hunting Lodge outdoor gear are prominently displayed aside handsome island buck that decorate the rough-hewn walls like a three-dimensional wallpaper border. At this resort, we would find no workout room or chocolate on our pillows. Instead, we would embrace the opportunity to experience nature—albeit in extremely comfortable accommodations.
Since its construction in 1917, the Hunting Lodge has been a gathering place for guests who warm themselves beside the cozy stacked-brick fireplace, enjoy a pint of ale on tap and the family-style meals. Drinks and snacks, including ale, are available twenty-four hours a day.
“It’s like being a guest in someone’s house,” says second-time visitor Sue Kirk of North Tonawanda, N.Y. “It’s one of the aspects we like best.” Sue and husband Travis also enjoy the extraordinary Southern hospitality of the attentive staff.
Once home to Indians, Spaniards and West African slaves, ownership of the island eventually fell to Frances Butler Leigh whose family held large parcels of land in the area. In 1907, the Eagle Pencil Company purchased it to harvest the abundance of Southern Redcedar (Juniperus silicicola) When the timber proved unsuitable for pencil-making because of its continuous exposure to wind and salt, Eagle executive Philip Berolzheimer bought the island as a private retreat for his family and friends, vowing never to allow it to fall into developers’ hands.
Subsequent generations of Berolzheimers held the island in the same high esteem. Through the years they fought off would-be usurpers, including Glynn County that wanted to develop the island as a public beach and park in 1947. The family was saved a lengthy legal court battle when voters defeated the bond issue, citing the excessive cost of improvements to make the island accessible to the public. As a result, the barrier island remains one of only a few unspoiled maritime forests in the nation.
Always a haven for the Berolzheimer’s family and friends, LSS was opened as an exclusive resort for thirty guests in 1980. It is accessible between 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., affording guests comfortable lodging, three sumptuous meals a day, and free run of the untouched wilderness. All meals and amenities are included in the room rate. There are five upscale rustic guest cottages plus two additional private rooms in the Hunting Lodge. Each of the individual cottages contains two to four bedrooms with a bath for each and central living space. Guests are encouraged to try their hand at horseback riding, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, biking, fishing, and swimming in the Junior Olympic pool.
Because it is so easy to become lost in the pristine area, guests explore the island with staff members or traverse the fifteen miles of well-marked trails. But there’s no obligation to put forth any more exertion than it takes to sway in a hammock or curl up with a good book.
City Slickers Hunker Down
Many guests who come to the picturesque island are more accustomed to five-star resorts than wandering in the woods, observes Sue. “People are often stiff [and over-dressed] when they arrive. Pretty soon those who would never dare hop in the back of a pickup truck are the first in line. It’s great to see them lose their facades and relax,” she says, pointing to the wide variety of guests: two attorneys, a bridal shop owner, an accountant, a forestry consultant, an Army criminologist, a nurse, a housewife, a writer and a school district’s custodial supervisor.
The Kirks learned about LSS and the Golden Isles on the travel pages of the Buffalo News (N.Y.). Activities they enjoy in their hometown (a suburb of Buffalo) such as hiking and biking, take on added pleasure on the pristine island, says Sue, who discovered that she was adept at horseback riding. But their favorite island experience is stargazing on the beach without the glow of city lights. “It’s incredible,” she says.
Carolyn and Fred Panhorst of Peachtree City, came to LSS on the advice of friends who raved about the accommodating staff. “It got so we were afraid to ask for anything because [the staff] would stop what they were doing and get it immediately,” laughs Fred. That included a late night run to St. Simons to re-supply the beer when the tap of a new keg broke. Despite temperatures that dipped into the teens, “there was nothing we wanted to do that we didn’t do,” says Fred. “We even went on a boat ride.”
The only self-professed outdoor people were Judd Alden, a forestry consultant, and his wife, attorney Dana Thompson of Canton, who return “as often as they can” to hike, boat and fish. “The food is exquisite,” says Alden. “They do a wonderful job [on everything].”
Tracks in the Sand
While Alden, Thompson and others happily fished at the pier, the Kirks and the Panhorsts joined us (and a knowledgeable guide) aboard a pickup truck for our first interpretive program, a tracking expedition. Surprisingly, we quickly learned to identify the various animal tracks left in the soft sand. A baby alligator sunning itself in the “alligator spa” near the warm artesian well was the “find” of the day along with a water-logged coconut that, according to our guide, had been carried by the tides from its native Caribbean home. At the serene Sancho Panza Creek, waves gently lapped the shore and the marsh grasses whispered in the breeze carrying away any remaining city stress.
We paused to quietly observe an abundance of waterfowl—egrets, marsh hawks, herons, ibis, osprey and even endangered wood storks—creatures I had never seen except in books or natural history museums. We spied several yellow-brown fallow deer, originally imported from Europe, standing still as driftwood in the tangled maritime forest and armadillo scampering into the brush. Happily, rattlesnakes and adult alligators decided to take the day off.
Guided interpretive programs offered twice daily provide guests with an opportunity to learn more about the island’s wildlife and ecosystem in a relaxed fashion. A complex variety of salt marshes, beaches, sand dunes, creeks, bays and estuaries exist in the thriving habitat where more than 280 species of birds including twenty-two on the endangered list have been identified. Named an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, LSS is designated a shorebird reserve site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network.
Dense jungle-like foliage to the north and the wetlands I love to the south provide an ever-changing panorama on the island, a land mass roughly equivalent to an area reaching the ten miles from downtown Atlanta to the heart of Buckhead. An unbelievable seven miles of solitude exists along the shell-strewn beaches on the eastern shoreline with rarely another guest in sight. As we walked the wide shoreline, flocks of birds rose in unison and native brown pelicans dived for lunch.
As evening descends, guests gather at the Hunting Lodge for the legendary cocktail hour before embarking on yet another gastronomical feast. Darkness brings new visual pleasures as the moss-covered gnarled oaks and cedars take on almost human form, giving rise to ghost stories and tales of woodland beasts.
After dinner, some visitors prop up their feet for a lively discussion of the day’s activities. Others retire to their cabins for an evening of solitude. On Little St. Simons, the sole agenda is to enjoy the total absence of city sounds, lights and pressures. It’s the lure of these extraordinarily simple pleasures that will draw me back to Little St. Simons again.