Golden Isles: Where Summer Vacation Never Ends
Summer vacation brings to mind warm temperatures, fruity popsicles, breezy bike rides and the simple, slow pace that accompanies having nowhere to be and nothing important to do. Frankly, we’ve been chasing the summer break of days gone by for years.
That got us to thinking—what if that quintessential, nostalgic summer existed not only in memory but in a place? Enter the Golden Isles of Georgia where endless days yawn into relaxing nights, and the coastal, laid-back charm brings your sentimental memories into reality. Here, you can spot dolphins while kayaking through tranquil marshes, stroll along oak-lined paths, laze on a quiet beach, spy baby sea turtles venturing into the ocean, admire Victorian architecture on a historic square, and get a taste of authentic local seafood.
With daytime temperatures rarely dipping below the 60s, you can take a summer-style vacation, no matter when you travel. Another plus? This area is easy to get to—it's located about an hour from both Savannah, GA and Jacksonville, FL.
Read on for some of our favorite things to do on each of the four Golden Isles and in the historic city of Brunswick. Then start crafting your own modern-day nostalgic getaway.
St. Simons Island
Any classic summer vacay worth its salt includes some time on the water. For this, we recommend starting on the largest of the Golden Isles: St. Simons Island, where the sandy East Beach traces the Atlantic Ocean for miles. The uncrowded shores are perfect for peaceful strolls accompanied by seashell hunting, kiteboarding, or simply soaking up the sun. During low tide, wide stretches of beach create the ideal setting for little ones to build sandcastles or splash in shallow tidal pools. Early risers should head to the beach for a sunrise bike ride on the compacted sand.
To access the beach, snag a spot at the free parking lot next to the section of shore called Coast Guard Station (also known as First Street Beach Access). There are showers, restrooms, shaded picnic tables and a summertime concession stand located nearby, too.
Scattered throughout St. Simons Island are 20 or so century-old oak trees with faces and figures hand-etched into the trunks and knots. The local artist responsible for the work launched this open-air, island-wide exhibit in the 1980s. He continues to add new carvings which, he says, are representative of each tree's soul.
Many of the artworks are located within private property, but eight spirits are accessible by the public. Finding the trees also serves as an activity for the kiddos, so we won't spoil the fun by sharing their locations. Start your scavenger hunt at the Golden Isles Welcome Center where you will see your first spirit tree and pick up a map to find the other seven.
Nearby, you'll find the St. Simons Lighthouse which is one of only five still operational in Georgia. The current lighthouse was built in 1872 after the original light station was destroyed during the Civil War. St. Simons Lighthouse was maintained and operated by a keeper (who also lived in the adjoining dwelling) until the 1950s. The light, now automated, shines its beam 23 miles out to sea.
Ascend the 129-step spiral staircase to the top for views of the sea, treetops and town. Stop into the former keeper's quarters where there's now a small museum.
To experience a luxurious-yet-welcoming private island—one beloved by Hollywood legends including Humphrey Bogart and Jimmy Stewart—head to Sea Island. To describe Sea Island Resort as award-winning would be an understatement. It regularly receives top billing on Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure's best-of lists and the four of the property's outlets—The Cloister, The Lodge, The Spa and The Georgian Room restaurant—have achieved the illustrious Forbes Five Star rating for an unprecedented 13 years straight.
So, what's all the fuss about? Let's start with the setting: the island's lush landscape is encircled by a river, saltwater marshes and the sea. Its amenities include five miles of pristine, private beaches; horseback riding; falconry; three PGA Championship golf courses (which are, naturally, award winners in their own right); a shooting school; and a wide range of on-water activities including kayaking and sailing. The guest rooms are spacious and all have a private balcony or patio. But the resort's best feature is its tried-and-true hospitality.
If peace, service and ambiance are what you look for in a resort, you've found your match.
Formerly a private island club frequented by prominent American families (including the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts), Jekyll Island was purchased by the state of Georgia in 1947 for use as a state park. Most of the island is undeveloped and protected in order to preserve its delicate ecosystem, which in addition to being good for the land, creates a superb retreat for nature lovers and birdwatchers. You can make Jekyll Island your home base for the trip with a stay in one of the family-friendly hotels or go tent or RV camping in the wooded campground.
This island is best explored on two wheels. Snag a bike rental from one of several rental companies and cruise along the 25 miles of paved paths through parks, under Spanish moss-draped oaks and along the shore to discover the island's top sights. Be sure to stop off at Instagram-photog favorite, Driftwood Beach, and work your way through the Historic District's shops and restaurants.
Also in the Historic District, you'll find the Georgia Sea Turtle Center—the state's first sea turtle rehabilitation, research, and education facility. Visit to learn more about the island's cutest inhabitants, watch feedings and even meet a sea turtle patient or two.
During hatchling months (June and July) you can join a field naturalist and help with sea turtle patrol duties, including taking turtle nest inventory, locating and protecting nests and checking for signs of predators. And if you're lucky, you'll encounter a sea turtle nesting in its natural habitat.
Little St. Simons Island
Another island tailor-made for nature aficionados is the privately-owned Little St. Simons Island with its seven miles of private beaches and 11,000 acres of undeveloped wilderness. The island is accessible only by boat, so a visit here feels incredibly exclusive and memorable. A handful of cottages at the all-inclusive Lodge on Little St. Simons Island provide the opportunity for overnight stays (a lovely option for a small family reunion or a quiet, restorative couples getaway).
Or you can join a naturalist-guided day tour to explore the island's undeveloped beach, centuries-old maritime forests and salt marshes. While traversing the island, you may see some local wildlife, too; keep your eyes peeled for dolphins, deer, armadillos, sea turtles and 300+ bird species. This island is ideal for those seeking a tranquil commune with nature.
While your trip to the Golden Isles might have you spending much of your vacation on island time, don't overlook the oak-filled port city of Brunswick. Historic Downtown Brunswick’s beloved town center features homes with Victorian architecture dating from 1819, while local boutiques, art galleries and stylish restaurants line Newcastle Street (the quaint main street in town).
Stop into local favorite Indigo Coastal Shanty for dinner. The casual and sunny American-meets-Caribbean restaurant serves up island-inspired dishes that are bursting with flavor. Order the plantains and guacamole as a starter and have the jerked tostada with shrimp (or chicken) stacked atop a crispy corn tortilla with black beans, slaw and pineapple salsa as a main dish. The tostada was once listed in Georgia's 100 Plates—the state's annual roundup of the 100 best local dishes.
Grab a photo of the crimson brick clock tower at Old City Hall (built in the late 1800s) before heading back down Newcastle to catch a performance from a local theatre group at the Ritz Theatre. Built at the turn of the 20th century as an opera house, the theatre today has a rotating calendar of events including film screenings, live shows, art and craft exhibits and educational programs for kids.
If you only have a couple of hours to explore Georgia's second-oldest city, join a bicycle tour of the historic district for an in-depth look.