How to Take 4 Island Beach Vacations in One Trip
As many longtime visitors will tell you, Georgia’s Golden Isles live up to their name as a destination rich with pastoral beauty and ecologically precious natural landscapes.
These unique island outposts are also full of intriguing contradictions. Their relatively small size belies their outsize historic importance, as a site where the life stories of Guale and Mocama Indians, European settlers, African slaves and American tycoons all intersect. The architecture, communities and rows of Spanish moss-draped trees exude old-world charm, yet modern comforts are handily accessible at local hotels and businesses. And the isles are located across less than half a mile of water from mainland Georgia — you can even drive to three out of the four islands (St. Simons, Sea Island and Jekyll Island) — yet with thousands of acres of pristine maritime forest and golden sand beaches, they feel utterly removed from everyday life.
All of the above contradictions — and especially that last one — are happy ones for travelers in search of a vacation that checks more wish-list boxes than seems possible. The Golden Isles are spilling over with glorious beaches (Check!), they’re gorgeous islands that feel secluded (Check!), and yet they’re easy to reach (Check!) whether by car or a domestic flight into Brunswick (BQK), Savannah (SAV) or Jacksonville (JAX) airport. Finally, a variety of experiences await to suit travelers of all persuasions (Check!), and even dogs are overwhelmingly welcome at area beaches and hotels (Woof!).
Here, we’ve compiled four beach-centered itineraries to help you make the most of your treasured time in the Golden Isles. The best part? You can do all four in a single trip.
St. Simons Island: A Nostalgic Beach Getaway
For those coming from the south, the drive over Sidney Lanier Bridge into the Golden Isles is a regal way to usher in vacation time. The nearly 500-foot-tall structure is the state’s longest-spanning bridge at 7,779 feet across, and suspends drivers over placid sea and marshland that inspired the Georgian poet who is also the bridge's namesake. If you're arriving in the evening, the fiery sunset you'll witness from this vantage point may just inspire you to pen your own poetry.
Once you’ve crossed over the also-scenic F. J. Torras Causeway from Brunswick to St. Simons Island, waste no time in heading to the expansive golden shores of East Beach, where the views will continue to dazzle any time of day. There are no large buildings to distract from the blues, pinks, oranges or whites of the skyline, and no modern interferences to betray what decade it is. Just timeless beachy beauty and calm ocean waters that hover around 80 degrees in late spring and summer.
Parking is plentiful and free at Coastguard Beach. If you want to make a day of swimming and sunning here (and you do), you can do so without unloading armfuls of equipment from your car, thanks to a local service that will set up a tent, chairs, a fully-stocked drinks cooler, towels and even beach games for you with advance notice. (If you've brought Fido along, make sure to observe the rules around when dogs can join you on the beach in summertime.)
Once you work up the oversize hunger sand and surf are notorious for sparking, a hearty meal is a short bike ride away. Pier Village, located just south of the beach, is St. Simons’ strollable, old-timey hub for dining and shopping.
Try the toothsome Southern fare at Porch, where piled-high plates of Nashville hot chicken and baked beans fly out of the kitchen to tables of eager fans. Mellow Mushroom is the spot for stone-baked pizzas piled with toppings (and they’ve got a handful of salad options if you favor lighter fare); while Iguana's Seafood Restaurant is a top choice for seafood in a casual indoor-outdoor setting.
Top off a fine meal with a handheld delicacy from mom ‘n’ pop St. Simons Crepes. The "Peachy" one — which comes stuffed with slices of Georgia's most famous fruit, almonds and a dusting of cinnamon — is an especially apropos choice.
Take your cone-shaped treat for an unhurried after-dinner stroll to the nearby St. Simons Island Pier to catch the sunset over the water.
On said pier, keep your eyes out for dolphins jumping in the mellow waves of St. Simons Sound. (You’ll have to come back in winter for a chance to spy migrating Right Whales.)
Little St. Simons Island: A Natural Beach Getaway
All Golden Isles beaches have an element of seclusion, but the unaltered, driftwood-strewn sands of Little St. Simons take this to the next level. Book a day trip or a stay at the on-island lodge (the only accommodations on these otherwise undeveloped shores) to experience its unspoiled landscape and learn about its diverse eco-systems (salt marshes, natural canals and old-wood coastal forest, for example) courtesy of an expert naturalist guide.
To get there, you’ll board the ferry at Hampton River Marina on the north end of St. Simons Island for a 15-minute ride across tranquil, cobalt-blue ocean water.
Spend some time exploring the island’s plant and animal life — the graceful, near-translucent white bells of staggerbush flowers, for example; and the herds of tawny-furred rabbits capering through the high grass.
Dolphins and sea turtles are often seen in the waters surrounding the 10,000-acre preserve too, and, while perhaps less adorable, alligators and rattlesnakes are equally at home on this protected island.
An organic, hyper-local lunch (as in, many of the ingredients are grown on the island) is part of the experience. Afterward, take a lingering look at the nature-carved, undulating sand shoreline and perhaps a deep breath before temporarily claiming a small stretch of this vast, vacant and pristine beach for a seriously serene afternoon.
If you’re staying at the onsite eco-lodge, consider returning to the sandy shore at nightfall for stargazing of the highest quality. With zero light pollution, the constellations will present themselves with staggering clarity — a sight made even more memorable when paired with the gentle lapping of the waves. Just be mindful not to interfere with the island’s newest residents: newborn loggerhead sea turtles who will be dragging their little flippers across the sand to make their oceanic debut from June to August. (More on them later.)
Sea Island: A Luxurious Beach Getaway
Next it’s on to Sea Island, where five miles of private beachfront and an internationally-acclaimed luxury resort lay waiting to spoil guests silly.
You’ll arrive via Sea Island Road — the only roadway on and off the isle. En route, you’ll be surrounded by lush marshland and catch views of the curvaceous Blackbank River to the north. Because it’s a private island, you’ll need a reservation at one of the island’s hotels or restaurants to gain access at the gate.
Once you’ve settled into your posh accommodations (for example, the Forbes 5-Star, pet-friendly Cloister at Sea Island), get the lay of the coastal land in way befitting of a place this classy: on horseback, courtesy of The Stables at Federica’s beach rides. With the wind in your hair, your animal guide will trot you across hard-packed sandy shores as gentle waves lap at his or her hooves; and over paths carved into leafy dunes.
Dismount and get ready to dig your own human toes in the sand and surf — in luxurious style, of course. The staff at the Sea Island Beach Club will ready a private beach outpost for you, including chairs, tables, umbrellas and attentive food and drink service. Or reserve an air-conditioned poolside cabana with everything from chaise lounges, to a fully stocked refrigerator, to a private shower and TV.
Continue your foray into lavish living with a (surprisingly affordable) pre-dinner cocktail cruise aboard Sea Island Explorer, the island’s custom-built, 71-foot yacht. Nosh on complimentary hors d’oeuvres and chilled libations on the open-air viewing deck as the ship skates across the scenic marsh-lined waterways. (Want to check out the luxurious digs before booking? Take a virtual tour.)
Wind down your evening with a meal at a table overlooking the dusky dunes at beachfront Southern Tide Restaurant (which re-opened to much fanfare in April 2022).
If the crab cake BLT or seafood fettucine paired with a barrel-aged old fashioned don’t leave you mellow enough to hit your high thread-count sheets, you can make your way to Sea Strike & Pub. With its high ceilings, elegant chestnut-colored décor and studded leather furniture, it brings a rarely seen regality to bowling — though raucous celebrations at your family’s strikes (and gutter balls) is still highly encouraged.
Jekyll Island: An Old-World Elegant Beach Getaway
The world has many beaches, but it would be tough to find one that will put you closer to American Gilded Age history than Jekyll Island’s sands. Strolling the serene natural shoreline, it’s odd to imagine that Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers combed this same beach more than a century ago, when the island was a private sanctuary for the country’s elite.
Jekyll Island’s policy of exclusivity dissolved in 1948 when it opened as a state park, but the best of this place has been preserved. Namely, its unspoiled natural beauty and much of its historic architecture. In addition to soaking in the serenity of its beaches, you can enjoy this unique place by booking a guided tour of the island’s historic cottages (including Indian Mound, which once belonged to oil tycoon William Avery Rockefeller Jr. and his wife Almira) and landmarks.
The clubhouse where America’s wealthiest once retreated was restored and reopened decades ago as the Jekyll Island Club Resort, a hotel that retains the grandeur of yore and makes it accessible to everyone (even pets). And five years ago, a beachy sister hotel was added to the island’s long list of draws: the Jekyll Ocean Club. Stay here and bask on its sandy beachfront before strolling down the historic Jekyll Pier to dine at over-the-water restaurant The Wharf.
If you’re visiting Wednesday through Saturday, you can take in some local live music along with delicious southern coastal dishes like fried green tomatoes, oysters and crispy chicken thighs — plus a bourbon- and mint-laced Jekyll Island tea. Save room for a slice of pecan pie, which tastes even sweeter when paired with sunset views. Bonus: the restaurant allows dogs for outdoor seating.
Alternatively, you can take dinner to go for a picnic at St. Andrews Beach. It's a lesser-known spot and the Golden Isles' only western-facing beach. In other words, it's the only beach in the region where you can enjoy the sunset from the sand.
After dinner, schedule time to meet the island’s most celebrated current residents: loggerhead sea turtles. In June and July, you can join an expert guide for a nighttime walk in search of sea turtles in the process of nesting and laying eggs. Your guide will instruct you on keeping proper distance and use special long-wavelength red lighting so as not to disturb this sensitive process. You’ll also learn all about turtle biology and conservation efforts for this threatened species along the way.
Even if your trip doesn’t coincide with nesting season, you can make these pre-historic creatures part of your journey by visiting the island’s Georgia Sea Turtle Center. There you can meet sick and injured sea turtles who are being rehabilitated for their eventual release back to the wild.
On your drive homeward, stop to take one last look at the marshes of Glynn County from Mary Ross Waterfront Park on the mainland in Brunswick. Shop for souvenirs and road trip bites at the Brunswick Bazaar and Farmer's Market, open Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays. Or savor one last golden sunset over the Golden Isles to carry you through till your next trip.