Brunswick and the Golden Isles of Georgia: soak up sun and history on these sand-fringed coastal retreats

Brunswick and the Golden Isles of Georgia: soak up sun and history on these sand-fringed coastal retreats – Tour Of The Month

Vivian Holley

This is the way Georgia-born poet Sidney Lanier word-pictured his home state’s coastline and beckoning barrier islands in the 1870s, and probably no one since has said it better. Well over a century later, travelers who set out on a driving tour of this sunstruck territory are discovering the same indigenous treasures–as awesome and spirit-lifting as ever–that inspired the poet to pick up his pen.

Rolling into town? Stop for a copy of a mapped driving tour brochure at the Visitors Center–it’s handily set smack at the St. Simons Island Causeway–that will lead you straight to the venerable Lanier Oak. You can check out the historical marker, relax in the shade of the tree Lanier called an “affable live oak, leaning low,” and soak up the same grand sweep of saltwater marshlands he captured so memorably in “The Marshes of Glynn.”

These gorgeous grass plains–a fragile but richly productive ecosystem–are a breath-catching introduction to the region that counts among its assets the offshore turf of Jekyll Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island, and Little St. Simons Island. Strung along Georgia’s stretch of Atlantic-lapped coast between Savannah and the Florida border, the dots and dashes of land are so seductive that generations of travelers are drawn to them again and again.

Map in hand, you can easily locate the time-honored attractions that have long lured visitors to this coastline. But keep an eye peeled. Surprises are popping at every turn, some of them so new they haven’t made it into print.

Start with Brunswick, an easy-going Glynn County port whose streets and squares were laid out before the Revolution. They still sport pre-Revolutionary names–Newcastle and Norwich, Gloucester and Prince. Explore the vintage neighborhoods that display a wealth of Victorian houses, then head for Bay Street. Here’s where sturdy shrimp boats unload the day’s catch, a bounty you can sample at local restaurants.

Brunswick is the kickoff point for a trip to the islands. Follow your map to Jekyll, southernmost of the quartet called the Golden Isles, and you can revel in the once forbidden charms of a former private playground owned by bankable names the likes of Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, Morgan and Macy, Goodyear and Gould. In search of a seasonal escape from northern winters–but not too far distant from Wall Street–they purchased the island as a refuge and formed a resolutely exclusive club. Jekyll and its 10 miles of sands welcomed club members only until Georgia bought it in 1947, eventually creating a state park and family recreation resort.

The rambling mansions built by the captains of industry (they called them “cottages”), now part of a 240-acre historic district more than 30 structures strong, have long intrigued visitors, who hop a tram to tour the district and some of its buildings.

Since 1987, travelers have been able to unpack their bags in the bygone tycoons’ turreted clubhouse, modernized and born again as the Jekyll Island Club Hotel. Now they can sleep in a mogul’s sizeable cottage as well. Two years ago the 1917 Crane Cottage and 1904 Cherokee Cottage opened to guests after major makeovers that transformed them into upscale accommodations.

Retrace the route back toward Brunswick, hang a right, and you’ll soon be cruising through cool tunnels shaped by the ancient, moss-bearded five oaks of St. Simons. History buffs should plot a course along dreamy Frederica Road. It will reward them with lovely Christ Church, at the site where John and Charles Wesley led their 18th century flock, and Fort Frederica, built in 1736 to help British soldiers fend off the Spanish as they pushed up the coast from Florida.

Just across a causeway, serene Sea Island is famed for its manicured streets lined with handsome private homes, and for a coastal legend called The Cloister. Opened in 1928, The Cloister’s original structure wears the Mediterranean-style red tile roof and graceful clerestory window signatures of famed Palm Beach architect Addison Mizner. It was built to be a cozy 46-room inn, a skip from five miles of pristine sands.

Today, led by the fourth generation of the same family, the flowering resort boasts a sparkling spa and a slew of recently added accommodations. In 2000 came the new Terrace Houses, the next year the new Ocean Houses. Most notably, The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club opened its impeccable doors in 2001, with the promise of private balconies overlooking the waves and personal butlers to fulfill every wish.

Back on St. Simons, you’ll need to beard a boat to get to Little St. Simons, the most secluded of the quartet. A privately-owned retreat, its lodging complex hosts 30 guests in rustic comfort and treats them to shell-strewn beaches, tranquil tidal creeks, and acres of maritime forests.

“Inward and outward to northward and southward the beach-lines linger and curl,” wrote Sidney Lanier in the 19th century. And today, many a vacationer would say those sun-gilded sands are the Golden Isles’ main attraction.

Golfers, on the other hand, would cite the appeal of stunning seaside layouts and rejoice in their recent renovations. Jekyll sports three 18-hole courses and the historic 9-hole oceanside course. On St. Simons, Sea Palms Golf and Tennis Resort shows off three nine-hole courses. Sea Island is home to the 36-hole Sea Island Golf Club and Golf Learning Center, which reopened its redesigned Retreat Course and clubhouse on St. Simons two years ago.

What else to do? Pull out your driving tour map and pick an island. You can improve your serve on a galaxy of tennis courts, ride a horse or a bike on a wooded wail, hit a bounty of boutiques and galleries, and try your luck on a deep-sea fishing charter.

But be sure to save some time for savoring a pyrotechnic sunset and strolling in the froth of gentle rollers, heeding the call of a distant seabird and marveling at the moonlit sweep of marshlands.

Sidney Lanier, who had a way with words, closed his poem with a favorite wish of once and future lovers of coastal wonders:

“And I would I could know what swimmeth below when the tide comes in

“On the length and the breadth of the marvelous marshes of Glynn.”

For vacation information, contact Brunswick & the Golden Isles Visitors Bureau, 4 Glynn Ave., Brunswick, GA 31520; (800) 933-COAST. Or go to

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