The perfect hideaway
Kick back on Georgia’s remote Jekyll Island
The Boston Herald
By Bill Brotherton
August 19, 2010
JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - “You gotta use chicken necks,” said a teenager on a small bridge near Driftwood Beach. “If you wanna land the biggest, fattest crabs you absolutely gotta use chicken necks.”
The boy reached into a cooler, grabbed a handful of chicken necks, dropped them into a metal basket and lowered it into the Atlantic Ocean. A few minutes later he felt a tug and hoisted a couple of medium-sized crabs nibbling on his bait.
This is about as stressful as life gets on Jekyll Island, the 5,700 acre barrier island off Georgia. Just an hour’s drive from both Savannah to the north and Jacksonville, Fla., to the south, this one-time playground for the wealthy is the definition of relaxing vacation.
There’s not a heck of a lot to do here, and therein lies its charm.
At one time, Jekyll was one of the richest, most inaccessible places in the world. In 1886 a group of millionaires (assorted Vanderbilts, Astors, Pulitzers, Rockefellers, Goodyears and others) bought the island as their winter playground. By 1900, the Jekyll Island Club’s membership represented one-sixth of the world’s wealth. Reportedly it was so exclusive that Winston Churchill and President William McKinley were denied admission.
Today, everyone’s welcome for just a $5 parking fee. A $25 weekly pass allows vacationers to drive on and off the island as often as desired. The state of Georgia bought Jekyll in 1946; it is now a state park.
Our family rented a spacious three-bedroom house for the week on the island’s quieter southern side, prefering that to a room at one of the island’s few waterfront hotels or the popular campground.
We were just a two-minute drive from the beach. Not a beach person? You will be here. If you’re like me, you’ll realize it’s the crowds and schlepping stuff through parking lots that’s irritating. We accessed 10 miles of uncrowded beach by parking near the island’s soccer complex and walking on a boardwalk built by producers of the 1989 Morgan Freeman/Denzel Washington movie “Glory,” which filmed here. The water is warm, the sand is soft and most days there were more dolphins in attendance than beachgoers.
Every morning we would rise early, wolf down a cup of coffee and go for a bike ride on the beach or on the island’s 20 miles of paved trails. During one ride, a deer kept us company while we passed huge, Spanish moss-draped oak trees bordering salt marshes and the Intracoastal Waterway. Another morning as we rode our fat-tired mountain bikes, we observed pelicans, a blue heron, a stork and a family of egrets.
We’d cycle past the tiny airport (elevation 12 feet. Yes, 12 feet.) and ride through the elegant grounds of the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. One day we adults stopped for lunch at the luxurious Courtyard at Crane, in the “cottage” built by plumbing magnate Richard T. Crane Jr., the gent responsible for the magnificent Crane Estate in Ipswich. (The hungry kids opted for chicken fingers at SeaJay’s and hush puppies at Blackbeard’s.)
After lunch we visited Faith Chapel and marveled at its stained glass window, designed and signed by Louis Comfort Tiffany; it’s similar to his windows at the First Church in Salem.
Jekyll also is home to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. We watched veterinarians perform surgery on a turtle whose shell had been cracked, probably by a boat propeller. We got an up-close-and-personal look at several others rehabbing in water tanks set up in an adjacent building.
Families rave about the enormous Summer Waves Water Park, but it seems out of place amid the picnic spots, bike paths and nature preserves.
Golfers have four courses to play. The hotel’s original nine-hole layout was designed by Donald Ross, the golf architect who created such storied Massachusetts courses as Essex County Club in Manchester-by-the-Sea, site of this year’s Curtis Cup, and the George Wright course in Hyde Park.
If shopping is your thing, this isn’t the place for you. There is just one small strip mall with stores that offer the barest of necessities and souvenirs. Several shops in old slave quarters on the Jekyll Island Club Hotel property offer more upscale gifts, and a terrific book store is housed in the former home of Joseph Pulitzer and the hotel’s old infirmary. For a more extensive shopping experience you have to go off-island. Some nine miles past the Jekyll entrance is the city of Brunswick, with supermarkets and the usual big box stores. The village on St. Simons Island, about a 20-minute drive, offers great shopping and fine dining; it’s well worth the trip. Just past that is super-exclusive Sea Island; all are part of the Golden Isles of Georgia.
Our favorite time on Jekyll was just after supper, when we’d leave the house, hurry to get ice cream and drive to the large public fishing pier on the island’s busier northern side. Each night a couple of hundred people would be there; many would fish, more would stare at a gorgeous, romantic sunset or the shrimp boats in the distance. On nearby Driftwood Beach, the effects of erosion rendering it an eerie ghostly world, about a dozen tourists enjoyed a moonlit horse ride.
And, of course, teens would be leaning over the railing on that bridge, hoping to lure crabs into their baskets.
The next time I visit Jekyll I’ll join them. But first I’ll have to get me some of those chicken necks.
IF YOU GO:
Getting there: Jekyll Island is about an hour’s drive on I-95 from airports in both Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.
Where to stay: There are eight hotels on the island, including the luxurious Jekyll Island Club Hotel and a brand new Hampton Inn. Two companies also rent “cottages” by the week: Jekyll Realty (888-333-5055) and Parker-Kaufman Realtors (888-453-5955).
For more information: jekyllisland.com; ComeCoastAwhile.com; GatewayToTheGoldenIsles.com.