Georgia’s barrier islands have a long history of enticing visitors, starting with Native Americans, whose presence was evident in the large shell mounds left over from ancient oyster feasts. After New World colonists arrived, those shells were turned into tabby, a building material used to construct antebellum plantation dwellings when Sea Island cotton was grown along the coast.
Following the Civil War some of the islands became an exclusive playground of the wealthy, who wintered there for the mild climate, privacy and beautiful landscape afforded by the remote salt marshes and woodsy seaside setting. Today some of the islands have been heavily developed into popular tourist destinations, complete with resorts, restaurants and fishing piers, while others remain practically untouched and preserved.
Sapelo Island was once the property of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, but today it is mostly uninhabited and protected as an estuarine research reserve. The exception is a 400-acre parcel of land that is home to Hog Hammock (also known as Hogg Hummock), a community inhabited by the descendants of slaves. Referred to as the Geechee, which was the name of their language, the residents retain many of the traditions of their West African forebears, still apparent in their sweetgrass baskets, their music and their cuisine.
In addition to an historic lighthouse and the Reynolds Mansion, the island’s main attractions are its pristine forests, tidal marshes and a complex beach and sand dune system. Access to Sapelo Island is limited to two options. One is to contact the state-run Sapelo Island Visitor Center in Meridian and make reservations for the ferry ride over and a four-hour guided tour. Tours are offered three times a week during the summer -- Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with an extended tour offered the last Tuesday of each month. Accommodations can be arranged for groups of 16-29 at the Reynolds Plantation.
The other option is to be the guest of a member of the Geechee community by calling one of the lodges operated by residents of Hog Hammock. For a list, log on to www.sapeloislandgeorgia.org, click on Visiting Info and download the Geechee Lodging and Tours Brochure.
Transportation: The state operates daily ferry rides to Sapelo Island from the Sapelo Island Visitor Center in Meridian, located eight miles northeast of Darien off Ga. 99. $10 adults, $6 children 6-18, free for children younger than 6. Reservations required.
Stay: The Wallow Bed & Breakfast. Six-room inn with a large front porch and a communal kitchen. $55-100. Meals available upon request, $10-15 per person. Ferry transportation can be arranged. Reservations required. 1 Main Road. 912-485-2206.
Info: Sapelo Island Visitor Center, 912-437-3224, www.sapelonerr.org/visitorcenter.htm. Sapelo Island Cultural Revitalization Society, 912-485-2197, www.sapeloislandgeorgia.org.
St. Simons Island
Cross the four-mile causeway from Brunswick on the mainland and visitors will find no shortage of tourist amenities in St. Simons. Overnight accommodations and restaurants are plentiful. The island’s popular beaches are its biggest draw, but it is also a golf destination where duffers can hit the links at the King and Prince and Sea Palms resorts. Anglers can enjoy surf casting from the beaches and there is a fishing pier at the end of Mallery Street on the southern tip of the island.
For leisurely sightseeing there are miles of paved bike paths meandering throughout the island. Notable historic sites include Fort Frederica National Monument, where the English defeated the Spanish making Georgia a British colony, and the St. Simons Lighthouse, built in 1872, where visitors can climb a spiral staircase to take in a view of the island, ocean and surrounding waterways.
Eat: Beachcomber BBQ & Grill. Barbecue, burgers and hot dogs are served up in a laid-back atmosphere near the beach. Entrees $3.50-$14. 319 Arnold Road. 912-634-5699, www.beachcomberbbq.com
Halyards. Upscale coastal cuisine. Entrees $12-$32. 55 Cinema Lane. 912-638-9100, www.halyardsrestaurant.com
Stay: Village Inn & Pub. Boutique inn with 28 rooms within walking distance to the pier and an English-style pub on the premises. Rates $99-$210. 500 Mallery St. 912-634-6056, www.villageinnandpub.com
The King and Prince. Classic resort on the beach with multiple accommodation options ranging from rooms and suites to villas and houses. Rates $174-$919. 201 Arnold Road. 800-342-0212, www.kingandprince.com
Info: Brunswick-Golden Isles Convention & Visitors Bureau. 800-933-2627, www.comecoastawhile.com
South of St. Simons, Jekyll is the smallest of Georgia's barrier islands. Dotted by stately oak trees with limbs that arch high and swoop low to the ground, the island was once a private retreat for rich folks of the Gilded Age with names like Rockefeller, Pulitzer and Vanderbilt. Today it is owned by the state and your blood doesn't have to be blue to visit. You just have to pay the $5 vehicle entry fee at the Greeting Center after crossing the Downing Musgrove Causeway (Ga. 520).
Like St. Simons, Jekyll offers plenty of beachcombing, golfing, fishing and biking, but it is notable as a tennis destination. Tennis magazine has ranked the Jekyll Island Tennis Center, with its 13 clay courts, as one of the best municipal facilities in the country. The island is also a popular bird-watching spot and home to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, an important rehabilitation, research and education facility that offers tours. The Jekyll Island Museum on Stable Road is the starting point for guided tours of the island's legendary sites and natural wonders.
Eat: Seajay's Waterfront Cafe & Pub. This harbor-front restaurant is known for its all-you-can-eat Lowcountry Boil buffet. Buffet $17.95 (half-price for children 9 and younger). 1 Harbor Road. 912-635-3200, www.seajays.com
Latitude 31. Located at the wharf in the Jekyll Island Historic District, this seafood restaurant is noted for its Oysters Rockefeller and seafood crepes. Entrees $18.95-$26.95. 1 Pier Road. 912-635-3800, latitude31andrahbar.com
Stay: Jekyll Island Club Hotel. A National Historic Landmark Hotel housed in the same building that was once an exclusive club for the ultra-rich. Rates $199-$449. 371 Riverview Drive. 912-635-2600, www.jekyllclub.com
Oceanside Inn & Suites. Large ocean-side hotel with rooms facing the beach or the island. Rates $95-$285. 711 N. Beachview Drive. 912-635-2211, www.oceansideinnandsuites.com
Info: Jekyll Island Welcome Center. 912-635-3636, www.jekyllisland.com
Home to a national seashore maintained by the U.S. National Park Service, Cumberland Island is popular with campers and day-trippers who like to get away from it all. The park service limits the number of visitors, so at times it can feel like you have the 17-mile-long island all to yourself, except for maybe that herd of wild horses grazing in the dunes. And because there are no stores on the island, visitors must bring all their supplies, including food and water.
John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette chose to have their 1996 wedding on Cumberland Island, which put this remote stretch of coastal wilderness in the international spotlight for a while. Despite Cumberland's 15 minutes of fame, little has changed here since it became part of the National Park System in 1972. Park rangers give guided tours of the Dungeness Ruins and Plum Orchard Mansion (second and fourth Sundays of the month).
Unless you make camping reservations with the park service, the only other way to stay overnight on Cumberland is as a guest at the historic Greyfield Inn, which operates independently and has its own private ferry that leaves from Fernandina Beach on Florida's Amelia Island.
Transportation: Ferry service is provided from St Marys, located near the Florida state line. Ferry service operates daily except during the winter. Roundtrip fares are $17 adults, $15 seniors, $12 children 12 and younger. 877-860-6787, 912-882-4335. www.stmaryswelcome.com/cumberlandferry.html
Stay: Greyfield Inn. Built in 1900, this elegant, antiques-filled inn is the only hotel on Cumberland Island. Breakfast, picnic lunch and dinner included in the rate. $395-$595. 866-401-8581, 904-261-6408, www.greyfieldinn.com
Info: Cumberland Island National Seashore. www.nps.gov/cuis