By Kathy M. Newbern and J.S. Fletcher ©2016
(Part 5 in a Series)
Our adventure on Georgia’s Golden Isles continued with a 30-minute drive from St. Simons Island to the next island south, Jekyll Island, which we’d seen the day before from our perch atop the St. Simons Lighthouse (Part 4 of this series). The two land masses are only about a mile from each other across the St. Simons Sound, but the distance by road is around 18 miles.
It’s hard to believe that what was once a summer retreat for some of America’s rich and famous is now a state park, but that’s current-day Jekyll Island. At the end of the 19th century, northern industrialists, politicians, financiers and members of the upper class discovered Jekyll Island. Leading figures such as J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Vincent Astor, Joseph Pulitzer, William K. Vanderbilt, Macy, and Goodyear were among those who came not only seek to privacy, but also to wheel and deal at their shared venture: Jekyll Island Club.
Here between 1888 and 1928 they built winter homes or “cottages,” as they were called, to complement the Club’s lavish accommodations. Landscaping, swimming pool, tennis courts and golf course added to the allure. The pier and dock at one side of the property was yet another sign of affluence.
Many private meetings as well as public get-togethers lead to major policy decisions for business and the United States itself. The Federal Reserve Act was concocted here in 1907, which paved the groundwork for today’s Federal Reserve System. This is one reason many may perceive Jekyll Island as an exclusive place still. Today’s well-appointed Victorian-style Jekyll Island Club Hotel, the modernized icon of that period, is a grand reminder of what it must have been like upon its original opening in 1888.
Examples of the wealth invested here are represented in several cottages within the club’s original confines: Sans Souci built in 1896 and owned in part by J.P. Morgan; the Crane Cottage built in 1917 with a landscaped sunken garden and fountains; the 25-room Indian Mound Cottage built for the Rockefellers; and the Goodyear Cottage completed in 1906.
Today this is all a historic district, but current amenities like a shopping area featuring hand-crafted gifts, tennis, golf, water sports, croquet, horseback riding, carriage rides and biking plus the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, elevate the level of what some could consider indulgence.
Facts and figures, though impressive, can’t do justice to a first sighting of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, which is romantic, wondrous and evocative of a Gatsby-esque era. That’s a lot of emotional hardware at a single glace.
Yet now, this island is a Georgia state park, and according to Kevin Baker, director of sales and marketing with recently completed Westin Jekyll Island hotel, Jekyll is “a beach destination for the every-day Georgian.” But don’t think that this is a riches to rags story. Since 1950, when Jekyll fell under the management of the Jekyll Island Authority, with directors appointed by the governor, everyone has a chance to experience this rich and diverse preserve.
Preservation of the environment and historic spaces remain a high priority, as does access for the public. In 1972 the Jekyll Island Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, then was elevated to National Historic Landmark status in1978.
Worth the $6 Fee
Jekyll is the smallest of the “isles,” but we found it large in many ways, including its natural beauty, diversified activities and rich history. Our drive onto the island was via State Road 520, a road-causeway flanked on both sides with marsh and thick vegetation. To help support the maintenance of the island, a toll plaza greets visitors who are required to pay $6 for a day pass or $28 for a week pass, well worth what awaits once passing over the Intracoastal Waterway on the M.E. Thompson Bridge.
Palmetto trees and Spanish moss set the tone for a drive onto the island, and the main commercial area of the town quickly comes into view, where the recently built convention center sits next to Beach Village (shops and restaurants) and the new Westin beachfront hotel (featured next in this series). Our ride continued north on Beachview Drive, heading toward Driftwood Beach, a must for those seeking scenic nature.
Actually, the whole drive was just that, and we found ourselves stopping often, first at a parking area to see the ocean fronted by an expansive beach. Jekyll boasts some highly acclaimed beaches:
- Driftwood Beach, voted often as one of America’s “Ten Most Romantic Beaches,” likely due to the water-worn driftwood deposits that have washed up or been exposed along the waterfront. A picnic area shaded with live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, a fishing pier, the bike path (part of Jekyll’s 20 miles of paved paths) and a campground across the road surely add to the reputation;
- Glory Beach on the south end of the island where portions of the movie “Glory” were filmed;
- Great Dunes Beach is akin to a park and is great for families. Next to the convention center, it has several picnic pavilions, play areas, lots of paved parking, restrooms and showers. Across the road are the mini-golf course and bike rentals. Visit Jekyll Island Bike Rentals or call 912.635.2648 for more info;
- South Dunes Beach is family oriented with open-air and screened-in pavilions;
- St. Andrews Beach, on the southern-most tip of the island, is popular for bird and dolphin watching.
One More Accolade: Golf
The Jekyll Island Golf Club notes, “Jekyll Island is Georgia’s largest public golf resort . . .” (with 63 holes – 18 hole courses Pine Lakes, Oleander and Indian Mound plus the nine hole Great Dunes).
Granted, there are hundreds of golf courses, many great ones, in Georgia, (Consider Augusta National and Reynolds Plantation) but that tag “public” is really what matters here. And check out the pricing:
- 18 holes electric cart: $55,
- 18 holes walking: $32,
- 18 holes electric cart junior (age 15 and under) $29,
- 18 holes electric cart junior walking: $18,
- 18 Holes electric cart replay fee: $25,
- 9 holes electric cart: $25,
- 9 holes walking: $15,
- 9 holes with electric cart replay: $12.
Really, if you can find prices like these for this many opportunities to play, please let us know. For tee times, call 912-635-2368 or 912-635-3464 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST or book online at Jekyll Golf.
After leaving Driftwood Beach, we drove on Riverside Drive until we came upon the Horton House site, recently studied by archaeologists and partially repaired. James Oglethorpe, who headed the colonization of Georgia back in the 1730s, recruited William Horton to help defend St. Simons Island. Horton rose through the ranks and was rewarded with a land grant for 500 acres. He struck his claim on Jekyll, named after Sir Joseph Jekyll, a supporter of Oglethorpe. Horton’s house, one of the oldest structures in Georgia, was built of tabby, a composite of lime, sand and oyster shells.
Across the road is a walled in cemetery for the DuBignon family. Christophe Poulain DuBignon was one of four French owners in the Sapelo Company, that bought Jekyll in 1792. He was the sole owner by 1800, and Jekyll remained in the family until 1886. After that, new owners began developing land that became The Jekyll Island Club.
Today the potent part of the Jekyll Island Authority’s statutes is the mandate that two-thirds of the island must remain as a state park, and only one-third can be developed commercially. This limits the land that can be used for homes, hotels and businesses; the only way to construct a new hotel like The Westin Jekyll Island is to raze an older structure and build anew on the footprint.
Among the newest structures on Jekyll is the 128,000 square-foot Jekyll Island Convention Center, the only oceanfront convention center on the East Coast south of New Jersey. This huge undertaking is a huge asset. It can accommodate groups from 25 to 6,450. From weddings to conferences, it can handle it all, and it has quite a view.
Come to think of it, so does most of Jekyll Island.
If You’re Going: About 15 minutes off I-95, Jekyll Island is located on the Georgia coast, midway between Savannah, GA, and Jacksonville, FL. Take Exit 29 and follow the signs east on U.S. 17 for approximately 10 miles. Turn right onto the Downing Musgrove Causeway (GA 520). You can stop at the Jekyll Island Welcome Center, four miles on the left. A parking fee is required.
Accommodations, such as the Westin Jekyll Island oceanfront hotel and the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, are among the varied choices available. For much more info about the island, call 912-635-3636 or visit www.jekyllisland.com or www.GoldenIsles.com.
If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy:
• Other stories by Newbern and Fletcher
• Other Stories by JS Fletcher
• Stories by Kathy M. Newbern, Luxury Travel Examiner
International and Luxury Travel Examiners J.S. Fletcher and spouse, Kathy M. Newbern, report on luxury destinations, spas and cruising around the globe. They are award-winning members of the Society of American Travel Writers and created YourNovel.com, their personalized romance novel business.