Cumberland Island, Georgia
Reachable only by ferry or kayak, with a limit of no more than 300 visitors per day and only 1 small inn, Cumberland Island maintains its reputation as one of America's most pristine seaside regions. The island's 17 miles of windswept white beaches and sand dunes remain pure and untouched except for the wild horses and loggerhead turtles that call these shores home.
Visitors to the beaches will not find watersports or other activities, but rather, can enjoy the quiet wonders of nature. Folks itching to explore beyond the sandy shores can indulge in a hike throughout the island's wilderness.
Cumberland Island is truly a nature lover's dream. It boasts 3 ecosystems, including beaches, marshes and forests as well as a rich variety of animals and plants. Towering oaks draped with Spanish moss line the trails of the forest, which is a habitat for armadillos, deer, hogs, rabbits, turkeys, raccoons and horses. The island's marshes and estuaries are inhabited with fish, ducks and crabs, and its sky is filled with birds like egrets and wood storks.
As incredible as the rich wilderness that lies at vistors' fingertips is the island's history. Seven Native American villages once thrived on the island, and it was settled by both Spanish and English explorers. The island was eventually bought by the Carnegie family in the 1880s and remains of their wealth, now the ruins of mansions, dot the island.
Best Island Inn
Web site: www.greyfieldinn.com
Time appears to have stopped in the loveliest of ways at this majestic mansion by the sea, which was built in 1900 as a home for Lucy and Thomas Carnegie's daughter, Margaret Ricketson. Tucked into a tangle of island wilderness, Greyfield Inn - the only accommodation on the island - pampers guests with an array of amenities included in room rates, such as ferry transportation to the island; breakfast, picnic lunches and gourmet dinners; cocktail hours; island tours; bicycle rentals, and the use of sports and beach equipment. The inn's charm lies in its timelessness: wild horses frolic in the front yard, grass-covered sand dunes are within arm's reach, and rooms are uniquely decorated with antique heirlooms.
Best Backcountry Camping
If spending a night under the stars adjacent to one of America's most pristine beaches - where you're kept company by whinnying feral horses - sounds like a backcountry dream (or if a night's rates at the island's one inn are too steep), consider a camping adventure at Stafford Beach Campground. Because no more than 60 people are allowed overnight at the island's campsites, campers are guaranteed seclusion and a true bonding experience with the elements. Stafford Beach is a 3-mile hike from the ferry dock and has no designated campsites; campers are allowed to set up tents within 50 yards of the camp sign.
Spencer House Inn
Web site: www.spencerhouseinn.com
Exuding charm from every historic nook and cranny, this award-winning bed-and-breakfast stands as a testament to Victorian-era architecture and decor. Located in St. Mary's, just steps from the ferry to Cumberland Island, Spencer House was built by a sea captain in 1872 and is now operated by Mary and Mike Neff. Fresh flowers, chocolates and luxurious bath items greet guests when they arrive in their room, many of which feature clawfoot tubs, 4-poster beds and hardwood floors. Breakfast includes fresh fruit, eggs, pancakes, French toast and homemade cakes; freshly packed picnic lunches are available upon request.
Best Family/Budget Accommodation
Cumberland Kings Bay Lodges
Web site: www.cumberlandkbl.com
Folks looking for amusement parks, Jet Skis or other types of high-octane family fun will be hard-pressed to find it in quiet St. Mary's or the remote wilds of Cumberland Island. Still, families need not despair - thanks to Cumberland Kings Bay Lodge, there's still a place that considers kids' and families' needs. Rooms are nicely, if simply, furnished, and all feature TV with cable and kitchenettes. But the best part? A large swimming pool and gazebo, a playground with jungle gyms, and a picnic area and grills perfect for an evening barbecue.
Food & Drink
Best Fine Dining
Web site: www.greyfieldinn.com
Guests staying at the elegant Greyfield Inn are privy to exquisitely prepared meals in a magnificent, candlelit dining room. The inn's dining traditions are as gracious and timeless as the inn itself: A dinner bell calls guests to their meal, and men are required to wear jackets. The inn boasts having the sole restaurant on the island, but it is only for the Greyfield's guests. Meals vary with the season, but include a delicate seared tuna steak with tequila-citrus pineapple marinade and marinated tenderloin with sweet balsamic reduction. But the highlight is dessert, which can feature a sumptuous Godiva-chocolate-and-Butterfinger cheesecake.
Best Casual Fare
Dick's Wings and Grill
Web site: www.dickswingsandgrill.com
After a long day hiking in the island wilderness, spice things up with some sizzlin' wings when you return to the mainland. Dick's Wings and Grill serves up 365 flavors of wings - 1 for every day of the year - with original tantalizing tastes like bourbon, flying fajita, smokey mountain and raspberry. Besides standard Buffalo-style, these wings can be served breaded, blackened or grilled. If wings don't cut it, Dick's also offers plenty of burgers, chicken sandwiches, wrap sandwiches and a kiddie menu.
Best Waterfront Dining
Lang's Marina Restaurant
The true flavor of Georgia's coastal isles, known as the "golden isles," and nearby coastal towns can be found on the waterfront, where fishing rigs and trawlers dock. In St. Mary's visitors can overlook the waterfront while enjoying fresh seafood at Lang's Marina Restaurant, a local dining staple. The restaurant's popularity stems from its variety of shrimp dishes - a selection wide enough to make even Forrest Gump's shrimp-loving friend, Bubba, proud. Freshly caught with the restaurant's own boats, the tasty crustaceans are served up by Lang's cooks in shrimp bisque, pick 'n' peel shrimp, rock shrimp, shrimp salad and shrimp po' boys, to name just a few.
Best Evening Entertainment
Trolley's Food and Spirits
The second-story facade of Trolley's restaurant just asks for folks to have a good time: The al fresco wooden verandah, green-and-white wooden overhang and tables can be reached via spiral staircase. It's no surprise that as evening falls, the deck fills up with folks looking to have fun. After a meal of steaks or seafood, patrons - often locally stationed sailors and Marines - grab some ice cold brews and sing their hearts out.
Best Island Exploration
Hiking Cumberland Island National Park
Web site: www.nps.gov/cuis
Cumberland Island's wilderness holds many natural treasures for those willing to strap on sneakers and explore its reaches. The island is the largest and southernmost of Georgia's barrier islands, but at only 17 miles long, it's possible to explore much of its natural gems in a day. The island can be reached by ferry from St. Mary's, and hikers should come prepared with food and water, as there are no shops or restaurants on the island. Hikers can expect to encounter windswept beaches, forests, marshes, mud flats and tidal creeks, as well as feral horses, sea turtles, wild turkeys, armadillos and even alligators. As interesting as the island's natural wonders are its man-made ones: Hikers will also find the ruins of Dungeness Mansion and Plum Orchard Mansion, as well as abandoned luxury vehicles.
Best Family Adventure
Up the Creek Xpeditions
Web site: www.upthecreektrips.com
A guided family kayaking trip through Cumberland Sound and salt marshes to the beaches of Cumberland Island is a lively alternative for exploring the island. Up the Creek Xpeditions offers half-day, full-day and overnight kayaking trips that can include tours of Dungeness Mansion and Plum Orchard Mansion, plus beach, dune and forest explorations. Overnight trips include guides, cooks, tents and food.
Best Educational Side Trip
Cumberland Island National Seashore Museum
Web site: www.nps.gov/cuis/
Tourists hoping to gain a deeper understanding of the fascinating history of Cumberland Island will be satisfied with a trip to the Cumberland Island Seashore Museum. Located just steps from where the ferry departs, a stop at the museum prior to leaving can make a trip to the island even more interesting. The museum houses artifacts linked to the people of Cumberland, including Native Americans, African-Americans, the Carnegie family and the handful of other inhabitants who called the island home.
Best Side Trip
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge
Web site: www.fws.gov/okefenokee
Can't get enough of the outdoors? Try exploring an entirely unique ecosystem. The Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the expansive Okefenokee Swamp, and now encompasses 396,000 acres of land. Once part of the ocean floor, the swamp extends 38 miles north to south and 25 miles east to west and is considered one of the most well-preserved freshwater areas in America. The swamp is home to peat-covered grounds, numerous lakes and islands, as well as prairies and forested terrain. Visitors can access the park through the famous Suwannee Canal, and explore its reaches via boat tour, observation drive, hiking trails and two observation towers.