Georgia's Golden Isles: the "fair-weather friend" you actually want
When outdoor activities in much of the U.S. become limited to raking, shoveling and windshield scraping, average highs in the postcard-worthy Golden Isles off the coast of Georgia continue to rally at somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees. Set between Jacksonville and Savannah, the set of four islands is easy to reach (you can even drive to three of them). But their landscapes—composed of verdant coastal marsh, natural beaches, serene river banks and maritime forests—make them feel happily remote.
Each of the islands—St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island and the historic port city of Brunswick—has a unique vibe and its own compelling set of reasons to visit, from historic sites to nature preserves to rave-worthy dining to charming events. And much of this can be experienced outside, even as you find yourself turning over the last pages of your 2023 wall calendar.
Read on for four experiences that have inspired many snowbirds to call the Golden Isles a beloved “fair-weather friend” all fall and winter long.
Soak in nature, history and more with a tour
The Golden Isles is famous for its scenic marshland, and as fall comes on, these lovely and ecologically precious wetlands turn from vibrant green to gold—it's the equivalent of fall foliage there. The humidity drops, too, making strolls amid the towering Spanish moss-draped oak trees especially refreshing. Another plus: fewer visitors come in fall and winter compared to the summer high season, so you can expect a serene backdrop for your vacation.
For all these reasons, fall is an excellent time to get to know the Golden Isles' many layers—and its guided and self-guided tours are an excellent launch point.
There are options on each island and on the mainland in Brunswick covering a variety of interests, not least American history. Tranquil, nature-rich and beautiful from any angle, Jekyll Island was the site of a number of intriguing moments of the Gilded Age. These include the arrival of William Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer and William K. Vanderbilt, who purchased the island and went on to found an exclusive club there for some of the wealthiest people alive. Jekyll Island was also the site of a secret meeting that spawned the creation of the Federal Reserve System.
You can tour the island by tram to view its numerous historic buildings and sites, hear stories about its place in the history books and even walk through a cottage built by members of the "Millionaire's Club" that once presided over the place. Note: Jekyll Island was purchased by the state of Georgia and opened as a public park in 1948—so everyone can enjoy what was once reserved only for the country's wealthiest tycoons.
Through Heritage Tours, visitors can view Golden Isles history from a Black perspective. Take a walking tour through Brunswick—the mainland counterpart to the four Golden Isles—to explore Albany Street, a.k.a the "Black Thoroughfare" which was the community center for newly freed slaves in the latter half of the 19th century.
Or cover more ground with the driving tour, which visits the sites of plantations, churches and neighborhoods that played instrumental roles in the lives of Black residents of the Golden Isles pre- and post-Antebellum.
For architecture fans, there's Brunswick Old Town Tours, whose guided biking tour visits beautifully restored buildings in a wide variety of architectural styles—Gothic Revival, Italian Renaissance and many more—while relaying the history of the town (which happens to be one of Georgia's oldest) from Native Americans, to colonial settlement to today.
The Golden Isles is home to beautiful naturescapes, regardless of what isle you're visiting. That said, if you're looking for completely unspoiled and uninhabited wilds, a visit to Little St. Simons Island is in order.
This island is not accessible by car, and it's a privately owned preserve. To explore its salt marshes, meandering canals, old wood coastal forests and natural sand beach, you'll book a private visit and arrive by boat. Birders, take note: Visit in the fall months, and you'll spy hundreds of migratory bird species who travel through Little St. Simons Island on their journey south. These include rainbow-hued Painted Buntings, plus a variety of Warblers, Tanigers and Thrushes.
You'll be led by a naturalist guide and served an organic lunch largely sourced from the island's garden. If you're left wanting a longer nature retreat, you may want to book a stay at the onsite lodge, an all-inclusive eco-retreat and the island's only accommodations.
Rum tasting tour
If you thought all rum was produced on Caribbean islands, you'll be interested to learn that there's a Golden Isles distillery that covers every step of the production process—from sugar cane farming to barrel aging—all within the state of Georgia. One of Richland Rum's two distilleries is located in Historic Downtown Brunswick, and you can get an up-close look at all aspects of rum-making with a tour of the facility.
A tasting of the subtly sweet and smoky caramel-hued wares caps off the experience. Take home a bottle or two as unique holiday gifts or keepsakes you can dip into when you're craving a taste of Golden Isles goodness.
St. Simons Island is the largest of the Golden Isles, and it's perhaps best known for East Beach, its broad, hard-packed sand beach—an ideal spot for bike rides, beach picnics, and if you've brought a furry friend along, scenic dog walks and games of fetch. (After Labor Day, dogs are allowed on the beach all day; see guidelines here.) The family-friendly isle also has a lighthouse, a scenic pier for strolling or fishing plus a quaint shopping and dining village.
Fall and winter's comfortable temperatures make exploring this nostalgic beach town by bike especially attractive. Add a fun twist by following this map, which marks spots where "tree spirits" carvings have been etched into trees by a local father-son artist duo—a "treasure hunt" that will no doubt have little travelers pedaling extra fast to discover the next hidden face.
Another creative way to sightsee on St. Simons Island: Mini Moke rentals courtesy of Posh Carts. These small, eco-friendly electric vehicles cruise at up to 25 miles per hour and can go for up to 40 miles between charges.
Their classic car look hails from mid-century England, but the modern-day version is available in a variety of fun colors, from Barbie pink to sea blue to wedding white, so you can coordinate with your trip theme, your Instagram page or your mood.
Get a room with a view
If staying on the beach is your ideal for your fair-weather escape, you'll have dozens of options in the Golden Isles—from sprawling resorts to boutique inns and vacation rentals. And, even better, prices "fall" in autumn and winter compared to peak summer rates.
On Jekyll Island, The Beachview Club is a top-rated and budget-friendly option set on a prime stretch of oceanfront. The intimate boutique hotel (it has only 38 rooms) is surrounded by centuries-old live oak trees. The accommodations curve around a shaded courtyard that features fire pits and swinging benches that make extended time outdoors even more inviting. Furry friends are welcome—so it's a well-rounded choice for literally every member of the family. A champagne greeting, plus complimentary welcome beverages in rooms, add to the welcoming vibes.
To make the most of the fair weather, guests can make use of the courtyard pool, which is open year-round and heated in the fall and winter months. Guests can curl up in one of the oversized daybeds on the pool deck—an ideal spot to read or sip a coffee in the open air. Guests can also reserve beach chairs and umbrellas (available all summer, but only on weekends, weather permitting, after Labor Day). Check out their offers page for a range of special-interest packages.
Of course, the beach is not the only aesthetically appealing landscape in the Golden Isles, a place that inspired poet Sidney Lanier to write such lines as these:
Oh, what is abroad in the marsh and the terminal sea?
Somehow my soul seems suddenly free
From the weighing of fate and the sad discussion of sin,
By the length and the breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.
—The Marshes of Glynn, Sidney Lanier
If you'd like to feel similarly inspired, consider accommodations that overlook the Golden Isles' signature marshes, like Sea Palms Resort on St. Simons Island. In addition to its soothing views, the resort boasts modern coastal-chic rooms and an 18-hole golf course.
Celebrate the season—no mittens required
One of the coolest things about the Golden Isles is that it doesn't let its warm fall or winter weather interfere with its unbridled holiday cheer. The packed holiday events calendar stretches across each isle (and Brunswick, too), making the destination an ideal one for getting festive without getting frigid.
Here's just a glimpse of the goings-on:
On Jekyll Island, over half a million lights are strung as part of the annual holiday transformation called "Holly Jolly Jekyll," making for a magic scene that can be toured by tram or on foot, select nights Nov. 25 - Jan. 8.
In Brunswick, an adorable nighttime Christmas parade lights up the streets on Dec. 2, complete with local high school marching bands, festive floats and Santa himself as the grand marshal.
On St. Simons Island, Santa arrives at the pier by boat to greet children, hear their Christmas list must-haves and pose for photos on Dec. 16.
And those staying at the resort on Sea Island can look forward to the unveiling of a life-size, walk-in gingerbread house made with over a thousand pounds of gingerbread and hundreds of pounds of royal icing. While you may not eat the house itself, sweet treats will be served from the cottage window each morning during the holiday season. (Only resort guests are permitted on the private island.)
If you want to catch up on your holiday shopping during your visit, stop into any one of the region's boutiques for unique possibilities. Brunswick's Beaus & Babes stocks cute, colorful baby gear for the new parent on your list.
In St. Simons Island's Pier Village, Rahab's Rope is a store with a mission; purchases of their artisan-made home decor, clothing and kitchenware support the fight against human trafficking in India.
And for the yogi in your life, the boutique within East Beach Yoga, also on St. Simons Island, offers a solid selection of lululemon and Freepeople gear.
Dine alfresco on Southern Coastal cuisine
The Georgia coast is famous for its mashup of fresh-caught seafood, succulent Southern fare and innovative locavore cuisine. In fact, the food scene alone—anchored by the wild Georgia shrimp, fresh-caught crab and line-caught fish prepared every conceivable way—is reason enough to visit. Add to that deliciousness the chance to enjoy it all in the open air year-round, and the prospect only becomes more tempting.
Eighty Ocean Kitchen at the Jekyll Island Club Resort on Jekyll Island is one of the best places to dine alfresco, thanks to its beachfront location, and the tasty Lowcountry cuisine that graces the menu—think shrimp po'boys, local seafood stuffed ciabatta bread and skillet cornbread—pairs exceptionally well with the scenic surroundings.
For an alfresco meal that leans Italian, Tramici is a go-to for locals and visitors alike. And by that we mean you'd better make a reservation. That's the only way you'll be guaranteed the chance to sample their antipasti menu, filled with tasty bites like sausage-stuffed mushrooms, fried calamari and lemon-garlic mussels; or mains like short rib ravioli or risotto with roasted mushrooms and butternut squash. Or try Golden Isles Olive Oil, which, in addition to selling artisan pantry products, offers a mouthwatering menu of farm-forward dishes (think beet and goat cheese salad and thin-crust cauliflower pizza).
But for a true taste of Golden Isles local life, pencil in an evening at Tipsy McSway's in Historic Downtown Brunswick. There you'll find a menu full of comforting pub fare, from blackened chicken nachos to Angus beef sliders, plus daily specials (like Tiki Tuesday cocktails). Grab a seat outside on a weekend night, and you might be serenaded by local bands while you dig into your dish and drink of choice.