A Treasure for Every Traveler in Georgia's Golden Isles
Every travel enthusiast has one or two top motives for getting away. Some crave immersive nature experiences to cleanse the workaday stress. Others are after the story of a place, seeking close encounters with fabled sites and artifacts.
There’s the sun-worshipping set, whose main vacation goal is a mega-marathon island beach therapy session; the foodies, who will travel thousands of miles in pursuit of the perfect ribeye, seafood bouillabaisse or cobbler; and the luxury seekers, whose vacation satisfaction is directly proportional to the hotel sheets' thread count.
If there was one destination that encompassed enough diversions to satiate all these types of travelers, you might think it would be half the world away. But you’d be wrong. In fact, four little islands adrift in the Atlantic just off Georgia’s central coast harbor treats for all these traveling types, and then some. Known collectively (and poetically) as the Golden Isles, this vacation haven comprises (from south to north) Jekyll Island, St. Simons Island, Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island, all anchored across a narrow strait from the mainland city of Brunswick.
Best of all, at the end of each golden sun-drenched day (where else did you think the isles got their name?), there’s a hotel just as suited to each traveler.
Read on for more on this little coastal region’s massive appeal.
For Luxury Lovers
For those who hold that the entire point of getting away is getting pampered, a stay on Sea Island is a no-brainer. The entire island is imbued with old-world luxury, from a historic beach club set on a five-mile — yes, five-mile! — stretch of private beach; to three golf courses peppered with salt marshes, tidal creeks, sandy dunes and verdant flora; to The Cloister, a hotel upon which the Forbes Five-Star designation has been bestowed not one, but 13 times in a row.
And the excellence doesn't end there. Recent guests rave about Colt & Alison steakhouse, which serves up top-notch traditional favorites and even inventive vegan options in a setting that feels like a posh private cigar lounge — think stone fireplace, studded leather chairs, elegant molded ceilings and walls the color of a full-bodied port. Tavola, Sea Island's top spot for artful Italian cuisine, is another must-try, and offers the option to savor your Napolitano pizza on an enclosed porch overlooking the Black Banks River.
Of course, no luxury vacation would be complete without a spa treatment. Or five. The full-service Spa at Sea Island is a 65,000 square-foot haven for Balinese, reflexology, deep tissue and a dozen other massage options, including packages for new moms and even kids as young as seven.
Tip: The Lodge at Sea Island (located on St. Simons Island) also boasts the Forbes 5-star designation, for those craving perks like butler service and drawn-on-demand rose-petal baths with a backdrop of stunning sea views.
For the Nature-Needy
Some travelers prefer a different form of detox: far-as-the-eye-can-see, unspoiled nature. Little St. Simons Island is just that. This unpeopled 11,000-acre patchwork of old-wood coastal forest, salt marshes snaked with brackish nature-carved canals, and untouched, driftwood-bedecked beaches is only accessible by boat. Though the trip takes just a zippy 10-15 minutes once you cast off on the ferry from St. Simons Island, the otherworldly landscape that greets you will feel light-years away — though sightings of sea turtles, dolphins and alligators will remind you that you're indeed on wild and wonderful planet earth.
Take a tour of the preserve with a naturalist guide who can help you discern among the more than 300 native bird species that have been recorded here. You'll be treated to an organic lunch made with ingredients plucked from the on-site garden before continuing your exploration at your own pace — and if that means spreading out on a patch of the seven-mile natural beach, no one will judge you.
If a day trip won't suffice, you can extend your wilderness adventure with a stay at The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island. Comprising six rustic-chic cabins, this quiet retreat is the only inn on the otherwise-undeveloped isle, and offers an all-inclusive experience for anyone in need of quiet repose. The farm-to-table cuisine and saltwater pool top off the eco-luxe experience.
For History Chasers
By making a trip to Jekyll Island, you'll be joining a long long line of travelers to this lush and still largely wild place. Thousands of years ago, Guale Indians who inhabited nearby shores frequented the island for its hunting and fishing opportunities. Then, in the 16th century, French and then British explorers arrived, the latter ultimately claiming and settling the land.
In 1886, the island was turned into The Jekyll Island Club, a luxe private resort that came to be known as one of the most exclusive in the world. Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers were among the club's earliest and most illustrious patrons. This went on until the end of World War II, when the State of Georgia acquired the island and opened it to everyone.
You can still experience the days-of-yore grandeur with a stay at the Jekyll Island Club Resort, located in what is now designated as the Jekyll Island Historic District. Many of the structures once graced by the world's wealthiest still stand, and have been restored to their original old-world splendor.
Get immersed in the saga in the Mosaic, Jekyll Island Museum. And for another side of the island's history, visit the Wanderer Memory Trail, an educational exhibit that guides visitors through the story of Umwalla, a young African boy brought to the island on an illegal slave ship 163 years ago.
Tip: The Lighthouse Museum on St. Simons Island — one of only five light towers in Georgia that survived the Civil War — is another historical outpost worth exploring.
For the Beachy-Keen
You won't find shores here swarmed with tourists and rows of florid umbrellas. The scene here is uncluttered, nostalgic — and offers an uncomplicated view composed of three elements: tide-worn golden sand, mirrored sea and open skies in shades of pink, blue, gold or all of the above. Don your flipflops and stroll from the sand to the laid-back, pedestrian-friendly Pier Village, St. Simons' adorable downtown. Here you'll find everything from doggie boutiques, to mom 'n' pop restaurants, to hand-crafted olive oil purveyors.
Beach lovers will find their match in the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, not least because its guests wake up steps from the epic sands. But the hotel's tropically landscaped sparkling pools (including one that's heated and two just for kids) and hot tubs, Southern charm-drenched guest rooms, sprawling villas and 80-year history of Southern hospitality make it a haven for any traveler.
The Inn at Sea Island (contrary to its name, it's on St. Simons Island) is another top-rated hotel here, located a short drive from St. Simons' beaches, bike trails and the aforementioned historic lighthouse. Golf enthusiasts can practice their swing between rounds of drinks at the interactive Topgolf Swing Suite and Bar — or, if they book the Resort Access rate, they can experience the real thing with access to Sea Island's exclusive championship courses. Amenities like complimentary continental breakfast, a heated outdoor pool and onsite bicycle rentals make this hotel an especially good value for travelers on a budget.
Tip: Unique vacation rental properties are plentiful on St. Simons, too. With the wide range of cozy beachfront bungalows, coastal-chic cottages and sprawling marsh-front manor houses on offer, the question isn't whether to go, but which inviting home-away-from home to book.
For Travelers with Furry Friends
Fido doesn't have to miss the fun on your Golden Isles visit. Many of the destination's beaches and trails are pet friendly, and a number of the hotels and vacation rentals welcome pets, too. On Jekyll Island, pet-friendly guest favorites include the Westin and The Seafarer Inn & Suites. The King and Prince Beach Resort and the St. Simons Inn By The Lighthouse offer dog-inclusive stays by the beach on St. Simon. All three Sea Island hotels will accommodate your pooch, as well.