April 17, 2024

A Gilded Age retreat, Jekyll Island, Georgia is a Peaceful Paradise

This is the latest installment of it It’s still a Big Worldour series on underrated destinations.

I came to Jekyll Island, a verdant barrier island in the middle of Georgia’s “Gold Coast,” I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having grown up in the South before moving to New York in my 20s, I knew I would eat well (and I did). I also knew that I would enjoy the rugged hospitality of the South, the easygoing generosity that people displayed despite the region’s troubled history. In the picture, I saw iced tea and cool breezes pushing through the shade of an ancient oak hung thick with Spanish moss. What I did not expect from Jekyll was the intensity of his people on the island itself and the preservation of its historical and natural wonders.

Located about halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville, Jekyll Island is separated from the mainland by a vast wetland prairie. “Terrapin Crossing” signs line the six-mile drive to Jekyll, warning drivers to slow down at the toll booth (it costs $8 a day or $75 a year for a parking pass). Proceeds go towards the preservation and conservation efforts of the Jekyll Island Authorityan organization appointed by governors tasked with keeping the island’s heritage intact.

Jekyll has just 1,000 full-time residents spread over 5,700 acres of lush oak and palm scrub. In comparison, more than 20,000 sea turtles will hatch on the island’s beaches in 2022. Nature is the biggest feature of the island’s landscape. It feels far away from modern life. Days go by slowly and quietly, but that was always the heart of it.

During the Gilded Age, Jekyll was one of the nation’s most exclusive winter resorts. Less ostentatious than northern retreats like Newport, Saratoga, and Bar Harbor, the social life here revolved around the Jekyll Club, founded in 1886 as a grand hotel and hunting lodge. Its roster included notables such as J. Pierpont Morgan, William Kissam Vanderbilt, and William Rockefeller, and it is said that a sixth of the planet’s GDP was under one roof when all its members were present.

The Jekyll Club was closed in 1942, due to the complications of war, and the clubhouse now serves as a hotel. Life on Jekyll Island is a little less hectic, but the qualities that attracted the titans of today continue to draw visitors to its peaceful shores.

Jekyll original club.

Jekyll Island Club Resort

Perhaps the most significant change for Jekyll came in 1954, when its 6 mile causeway was completed, connecting it to the mainland for the first time. Before that, a trip to Jekyll Island required a boat ride of some sort. Most guests traveled south by train to the port town of Brunswick, where a ferry would shuttle them across the marshes. Some more affluent guests arrived by private yacht, but even for them, it took time and effort to get to Jekyll. Because of it, they were rewarded with a kind of silence unattainable in most other resort towns.

While visiting, I stayed at the former Jekyll Island Club, now operating as the Jekyll Island Club Vacation. Its sprawling campus includes the clubhouse itself, beautifully restored and maintained. There are also a handful of “summer houses” nearby, the mansions built by the wealthiest members of the club, which are popular for wedding parties. There is even a wonderful little interfaith church with a Tiffany glass window (which is still there). reformedthe window is scheduled to be reinstalled to a large extent by the end of 2023).

Photo of a wooden boardwalk to the beaches on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Jekyll Island Club Resort

In total, there are 157 guest rooms, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, multiple bars and cafes, and a formal dining hall surrounded by deep verandahs that invite guests to escape the heat of the day in plush comfort. Most interestingly, many of the outbuildings of the former clubhouse have been adapted for use as shops and galleries: the stables are now the best. Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museumand its harbor is now a a restaurant with spectacular sunset views. The entire complex is completely pedestrianized, a rare luxury in a car-oriented corner of the world.

My itinerary kept me busy, touring the island’s museum and other historical structures, trying local restaurants, and even going riding a horse on the beach. Jekyll is an easy place to love, peaceful and full of natural beauty. But I was most impressed by the uniformity of the people who understood, and appreciated, the complex history of the island as well as its fragile ecosystem.

Photo of the modern Jekyll Club Island Resort on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Jekyll Island Resort Club.

Jekyll Island Club Resort

Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a short walk from the resort, operates a rehabilitation center for injured turtles. His team also oversees the protection and monitoring of the local nesting sites that line the island’s sand dunes. Those dunes exist largely thanks to the Jekyll Island Authority, which insists that 65% of the island remain wild in perpetuity.

That wilderness allowed not only sea turtles, but alligators, horseshoe crabs, and a wide variety of birds (including bald eagles) to thrive alongside the island’s residents and guests. Where development is allowed on Jekyll, it is done with as little impact on nature as possible. This is clearly visible on the sea edge of the island, where few buildings are built directly on the beach. This allows the dunes of the aforementioned island, which are piled high with mature trees and scrub brush, to do their job of protecting against erosion. Thanks to them, Jekyll maintains some of the widest and most beautiful beaches in the region.

A child and a worker from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center look at sea turtles at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center

St Andrews Beach, at the south-west tip of the island, was the site of one of the most shameful events in Jekyll’s long history. In 1858, just 28 years before the founding of the Jekyll Island Club, a ship called The Wanderer anchored there, carrying 407 enslaved Africans who had survived the gruesome 42-day journey across the ocean. Despite the nation’s abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, a vast network of smugglers continued to ply the Middle Passage, bringing thousands of enslaved Africans into the United States over the next half century.

The identities of most of the people carried over to The Wanderer have been lost to history. Most were smuggled from Jekyll to be sold in Savannah or other nearby cities. But his story lives on as part of “The Wanderer’s Memory Path” UNESCO Slave Route Project designated site, which interprets the story of the ship through the memories of Umwalla, an African boy who survived the voyage in 1858.

Through informative and interactive displays, visitors walk through the sandy forest, tracing Umwalla’s life from his memories of Africa, through the arduous journey on board. The slopes, to Jekyll’s golden shore. The path ends with a climb up a wooden tower that gives panoramic views of the beach where Umwalla and his colleagues would have landed 165 years ago. Because of its seriousness, it blocks an otherwise beautiful view.

Sunset photo of the driftwood on the beach on Jekyll Island.

Jekyll Island Beach.

Jekyll Island Club Resort

Back at the resort, curator Andrea Marroquin gave me a tour of Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum. The name Mosaic speaks to the museum’s commitment to examining and contextualizing the many pieces of the island’s rich history. Recently restored and expanded, the museum is impressive because of the breadth of its collection and the fluidity with which it brings together so many similar stories.

Everything from the island’s later history as a state park, to its time as a Gilded Age retreat, to its years as a cotton plantation and, before that, its centuries as a Native American hunting ground, is depicted. Perhaps most impressively, the museum has restored part of the holding below deck. The slopes, where people like Umwalla would be held for more than a month in unfathomable conditions. The ship’s large iron cooking pot, on display nearby, is believed to have been used to cook the first meal of their captivity on St Andrews Beach in 1858.

Such a commitment to preservation and storytelling is widespread on Jekyll Island. Little is done there without an intention and an eye on the future. The island is special, and the people who care know that. Yes, there are amazing sunsets, plush resorts, amazing restaurants, and beautiful beaches. But it is also a place haunted by all the sins and virtues of the last three centuries. With the dedication of its caretakers, and guidance from the Jekyll Island Authority, its stories will continue to enrich visitors for the next three hundred years.

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