Exploring the best of Georgia’s Golden Isles

It’s coin-flipping time: St. Simons Island or Jekyll Island?

When it comes to coastal Georgia escapes, these two inevitably rise to the top. Less than a six-hour drive from Atlanta, St. Simons and Jekyll, two of Brunswick’s four barrier islands, are equally appealing. The former exudes beach town chill; the latter blends luxury and unspoiled nature. Both ooze history.

The good news is you don’t have to choose.

No matter where you plant your feet in the sand first, the other is just a few minutes away. Throw mainland Brunswick into the mix and you’ll have more than enough go-and-do options for a fully loaded vacation.

Consider these game plans for visits to all three. …

St. Simons Island: Pier Village

While exploring the resort town’s tourist hub, an entire day easily can roll away before you know it. Imagine a small Southern town’s main drag plopped at the edge of the ocean. The stretch of Mallery Street that makes up Pier Village may be less than a quarter mile in length, but it teems with enough shops, bars and eateries to keep debit cards busy and bellies full.

Start your morning at the corner of Mallery and Kings Way, and walk toward the pier. On the right you’ll find Palmer’s Village Cafe (223 Mallery St.), a popular all-day breakfast spot. Although peak hours may require a wait, make the investment. The payoff comes in bountiful omelets, scratch-made pancakes, huevos rancheros and more.

Burn off breakfast with a short jaunt across Neptune Park to the St. Simons Island Lighthouse Museum (101 12th St.). The historic beacon, which dates back to 1807, opens at 10 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays. (On Sundays, you’ll have to wait until 1:30 p.m.) Be prepared to tackle the winding staircase and its 129 steps. Once at the top, step out onto the circular deck and soak up the expansive view of the ocean, the dense island greenery and neighboring Jekyll Island in the distance. Lighthouse admission costs $6 for adults and $3 for ages 6-11, and it’s free for those 5 and younger. Tickets include the attached museum offering a St. Simons history lesson and a peek at the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters.

Cool off by heading next door to the Neptune Park Fun Zone (550 Beachview Drive). Its swimming pool offers beachside splash without the sand in your suit. Pony up $7 per person to take advantage of the amenities. Built in 2009, it still bears a newish sheen and the staff keeps things sparkling. Families gravitate toward the kiddie water slides and zero-entry access, while grown-ups worship the sun from lounge chairs or do their best Michael Phelps in the lap lanes. Those opting for drier activities at Neptune Park can play 18 holes of miniature golf ($7 per person) or let the kids loose on the playground.

Picnic tables and grills await under the looming oaks in Neptune Park. Send a driver for a to-go order from the acclaimed Southern Soul Barbeque (220 Demere Road). A pimento cheese sandwich, ribs or a pulled pork plate serve as choice picnic fodder. Or grab lunch at one of several Pier Village spots. Keep an eye out for pub grub at Brogen’s Restaurant and Bar (200 Pier Alley) and the upscale deli style of the 4th of May (321 Mallery St.).

Wind down the afternoon with Pier Village window shopping. Retailers trade in everything from vintage clothing and women’s fashions to antiques and toys.

Or skip shopping altogether and walk through the Village Oaks subdivision, steps away from Pier Village. If you feel as if you’re being watched, it’s probably the trees. Hunting down the faces carved into various St. Simons trees — locals call them tree spirits — continues to be a pastime for tourists and natives alike. Village Oaks lays claim to the largest concentration of tree spirits on the island.

With all of the dinner options in and around Pier Village, it’s easy to have the problem of indecision, but the fried shrimp at Iguanas Seafood Restaurant (303 Mallery St.) regularly scores high marks, and kids go gaga for the all-you-can-stomach soft-serve ice cream.

When the sun begins its dip, fishing often picks up on the pier itself. Join in by renting a pole at St. Simons Bait & Tackle (121 Mallery St.) or simply watch the anglers pull in shark, stingray and nets full of crabs.

Jekyll Island

Kick off the day with a nod to Jekyll’s old-money roots. Crowned with a Victorian turret, the four-star Jekyll Island Club Hotel (371 Riverview Drive) is a reminder of the island’s early 20th century heyday, when it attracted America’s financial elite. Among the in-house eateries is Cafe Solterra, a grab-and-go bakery and deli. Stop in for a quick breakfast. Before you go, take a few minutes to explore the grounds of the lavish resort.

What do you think the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers would’ve thought of a 40-foot-tall body slide? You can brave that and more at Summer Waves (210 S. Riverview Drive), Jekyll’s water park. Open daily through Aug. 6, the intimate park offers a few heart-racing thrills, such as the twin flumes dubbed Thunder and Lightning. Or you can simply chill while floating along Turtle Creek, the park’s lazy river. Adult tickets are $19.95; for kids shorter than 48 inches they’re $15.95 each. Ticket prices are lower after 3 p.m. on weekdays and after 4 p.m. on weekends.

Not into water parks? Pack lunch and make a detour to Driftwood Beach, nestled on Jekyll’s north end. Mother Nature goes gothic here, with huge, twisted webs of driftwood decorating the expanse of sand. Shutterbugs can have a field day, and kids can’t resist climbing. Yeah, the wow factor is big, but keep the exclamations down — you might disturb the bride. Driftwood Beach has become a hot spot for weddings.

Cap off the afternoon with a visit to the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (214 Stable Road), a place where shell-shocked sea turtles get the care they need. The interactive exhibit shares sea turtle facts and explains the center’s mission of research and wildlife conservation. Step next door to the rehabilitation pavilion, where sea turtle patients heal in tanks and prepare to re-enter the wild. The center is open to the public 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Tickets range from $5 to $7, and kids 3 and younger get in free.

Tip back an early evening margarita or slurp down some oysters at the Rah Bar at Latitude 31° (370 Riverview Drive), located along Jekyll’s historic wharf. Opt for an outdoor seat on the pier, an ideal spot during sunset. On select nights, live musical acts provide the soundtrack.


Before diving into an afternoon of activities in the historic port town, fuel up on guilty pleasures at Willie’s Wee-Nee Wagon (3599 Altama Ave.). Although hot dogs get top billing, go straight for the pork chop sandwich. The roadside snack shack stands by its creation, offering $2,000 to anyone who can find a better one in Glynn County.

Follow this gastronomic adventure with a crash course in marine biology. Secure a spot on the Lady Jane (1200-B Glynn Ave.) for an excursion. The retired shrimping vessel takes passengers on a two-hour cruise into St. Simons Sound. After dragging the boat’s net underwater, the crew brings it in, revealing the surprise catch. It’s always the luck of the draw, but you may get an up-close look at a sand shark, pufferfish, horseshoe crab or other sea creatures. Tickets cost $39.95 for ages 6 and older, and $30 for those 5 and younger.

Those 18 and older who’d prefer their stakes a bit higher can hop aboard the Emerald Princess II Casino Cruise Ship (1 Gisco Point Drive). Gaming takes place on two of the ship’s four decks. Slot machines, poker tables, roulette wheels, craps and more keep guests busy. Visit the bistro deck for the first-come, first-served complimentary meal. Relaxing on the open-air top deck proves to be worth the $10 sailing fee. Both afternoon and evening cruises are available.

On Thursday nights in July catch a flick at the Historic Ritz Theatre (1530 Newcastle St.) in old-town Brunswick. The recently restored venue’s Summer Classic Movies series features pre-movie singalongs, cartoons and film-themed costume contests.