Southern eats & laid-back retreats in Georgia’s Golden Isles
Seen from above, Georgia's Golden Isles appear as a patchwork of green and blue marshland, natural beaches and maritime forest—in other words, a nature-lover's dream getaway. On closer view, though, these barrier islands set halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville are also home to buildings and landmarks cut right out of the pages of American history books. And the region's luxury resorts and golf courses give it a prime place on jet-setting leisure travelers' wish lists, too.
So, yes, these postcard-pretty isles are a sought-after destination for a variety of travel styles, but arguably none more so than for seafood lovers and Southern food-o-philes. Longstanding seafaring traditions, Creole influences and expertise in rib-sticking comfort foods of the American South all simmer together here in a uniquely palate-pleasing pot. The list of dishes to try grows constantly as local chefs infuse traditional recipes with their own personal flair, seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients and eclectic, international influences.
We’ve got the dish on rugged nature experiences, monumental historic sites and relaxed leisure opps to satisfy those with big appetites for wanderlust—plus essential meals that encapsulate the ecosystems, heritage and vibe of each isle in every bite.
St. Simons Island
With a strollable pier, an uncrowded, broad-sand beach plus a quaint shopping village filled with mom 'n' pop boutiques, restaurants and ice cream shops, St. Simons Island is the kind of place Norman Rockwell might have painted during one of his beachier moods.
This is the largest of the Golden Isles at 18 square miles, and the golden sands on its East Beach are hard-packed, making scenic bike rides along the shoreline possible.
And "scenic" here is an understatement; depending on the time of day, the skies may be lit in shades of coral, pink, orange or purest blue, without interruption from tall buildings or other modern interferences. In this place surrounded by water—ocean, marsh and river—the ways to enjoy it are numerous, including swimming, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, fishing and hopping on a sunset cruise.
Families can watch for frolicking dolphins from the aforementioned pier, climb the nearby historic lighthouse, or scour the trunks of the island's lofty live oaks for hidden art works. These "tree spirits" were carved by a local father-son duo who say their work reveals each tree's soul. Tip: there's a map to make the hunt a bit easier.
The remains of Fort Federica on the island's west side as well as the Bloody Marsh Battle Site toward its south end bid travelers the chance to step into St. Simons Island's history as the battleground where British colonists ended Spain's claims to the Georgia territory.
And of course, at the end of each beach-bumming, kayak-paddling, history-chasing day, you'll want to eat. The island is full of tempting dining spots, so food-focused travelers may want to book a centrally-located hotel that makes it easy to eat broadly. The Inn at Sea Island puts guests in the middle of many local eateries and attractions and offers free bicycle rental to make exploring a breeze. Its comfortable rooms, heated outdoor pool, complimentary breakfast and laid-back lounge add to its charms, too.
It's got another perk going for it, as well: guests here have the option to book the Sea Island Golf Package, which gives access to golfing and dining on Sea Island, a luxurious private island we'll dig into a bit later.
Like elsewhere in the Golden Isles, seafood is king here. Annual foodie events like the St. Simons Land Trust Oyster Roast underscore this point, as do the unbelievably fresh dishes that are practically guaranteed to thrill your taste buds. Here's where to start.
St. Simons Island essential eating: the fresh catch at Georgia Sea Grill
With thousands of 5-star reviews accrued over its 26-year history, Georgia Sea Grill's prowess for making mouths happy is hardly a secret. Read also: book your table in advance. You'll thank yourself for that extra little bit of organization as you dive into dishes of plump seared scallops set atop beds of local microgreens, low country crab soup, cornmeal-dusted oysters, or the essential "fresh catch."
With this dish, diners pick from the day's fresh-caught fish menu. And we do mean fresh; the restaurant works closely with local fisherman, so the star of your meal may have been caught hours before it made its way to your plate. Diners also select their preferred preparation: Cajun-spiced, pan-roasted or bronzed. Each choice has delicious implications; in the form of Charleston blue crab rice and ginger carrots for Cajun-spiced; fingerling potatoes, Andouille sausage and roasted tomato vinaigrette for pan-roasted; and "hoppin' John" (a.k.a. Carolina peas and rice), tomato cream and pickled okra for bronzed.
"We keep it as local as possible as often as possible. It's amazing to see what everyone is growing right here in our backyard and a stone's throw away," says Chef Timothy Lensch, executive chef of Georgia Sea Grill. "We get our rices from Anson Mills, a few hours' drive away. Then the okra, sweet peppers, tomato, corn—if our farms have it, that's what we're featuring. We just got our first bit of local okra in here for the season, and now we're pickling that."
Lensch also recommends trying the restaurant's bacon-poached fish—one of his personal favorite seafood preparations, which involves searing the top of the fish to golden perfection, then bringing it up to the guest's desired temperature in a pan of bacon fat.
"Everything tastes better with bacon, right?" he says.
If St. Simons Island gives visitors a taste of local history, Jekyll Island lays out a buffet of it. The name may ring a bell as the site of the secret meeting that sealed the fate of the Federal Reserve System in 1910, but power and influence swirled around this island for decades before as well.
In 1888, some of America's most influential families (think Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Goulds), having discovered the pastoral beauty and seclusion of the island, founded an exclusive club where they could escape the demands of their high-profile lives for a time. Their oasis, The Jekyll Island Club stood at the center of a series of cottages and other historic buildings commissioned and utilized by the country's Gilded Age elite. These structures are now collectively known as the Jekyll Island National Historic Landmark District.
Of course, the Gilded Age fell, and the island was established as a public Georgia State Park in 1947 (as such, there's a small entrance fee to access it). As a result, anyone can now enjoy the natural beaches, thriving marshland, moss-draped live oaks and miles of bike paths carved across the verdant landscape.
In fact, travelers can even spend a night—or several—in the same building where millionaires of yesteryear once spent their idle time at the lovingly restored Jekyll Island Club Resort.
The Clubhouse retains its late 19th-century appearance, while guest rooms have been fully updated and enhanced. An expansive swimming pool with a fire pit and a shuttle to the beach round out the modern-day charms of the history-steeped Club. Bonus: the hotel is also within easy walking distance of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, a sea turtle rehabilitation center with interactive exhibits and areas for viewing the adorable patients.
History is palpable here, too, in the dishes that are fundamental to the region. Jekyll Island is the site of an annual Shrimp & Grits Festival (Nov. 3-4) that draws visitors from near and far to celebrate this staple of Coastal Georgia cuisine, along with live music, kid-friendly entertainment, craft beer bars and an artist market, all spread over 30 acres. From cheddar cheese to Cajun spices to lemon wedges and ever-popular bacon, the variations on the dish are many, but local versions do have one thing in common: they start with wild Georgia shrimp.
These succulent shellfish are a major point of pride for coastal Georgians. As their name implies, they are wild-caught, not pond-raised or farmed. The prolific spawners swiftly replenish their populations, which are nonetheless closely monitored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and shrimpers use special devices to ensure sea turtles and other large sea creatures aren't snagged in their nets.
While variations on the dish can be highly imaginative, its origins are more purposeful: in decades past, it served as a fortifying breakfast for local fishermen in the region. The concept of pairing ground maize and shellfish dates back even further, to East Africa, according to food historians, and was brought over to the Lowcountry during the transatlantic slave trade—so the roots of this apparently simple comfort-food favorite are complex and long-reaching.
Essential eating: Seafood Napoleon at the Reserve located at the Westin Jekyll Island
This upscale restaurant inside the beachfront Westin Jekyll Island is a go-to among visitors, not least for its ocean-view outdoor patio. Its shrimp and grits are a popular special on its menu, but new head chef Kevin Truong is even more excited about the revamped menu he and colleagues are debuting at the restaurant this season, which features local seafood with southern and Asian influences, plus a New Orleans flair.
Chef Truong's fusion-forward cooking style evolved from his multi-ethnic family, who taught him European, Vietnamese and African American culinary traditions; from his upbringing in Louisiana and Mississippi and from his experience as executive chef at major casinos and resorts in the Magnolia State before his recent relocation to Georgia.
"I have many favorites on the new menu, because each dish brings out Georgia in so many ways," says Chef Truong. His top recommendations include the Roasted Chicken with Farro Ragout because "just one spoon puts Southern cuisine in your mouth;" and the Reserve Seafood Platter, featuring the fresh catch, oysters Rockefeller and more seafood served with a tangy jalapeño-apple slaw.
But if you can only pick one dish on the creative new menu, consider the Seafood Napolean, starring seafood harvested in Georgia waters and sautéed in butter, garlic, shallots and seasonings, simmered in a saffron cream sauce and poured over panko-crusted and lightly fried eggplant.
"The eggplant comes from a local farm and the dish features all of your Georgia coast area seafood: snapper, white Georgia shrimp and bay-area scallops," Truong says. "We pride ourselves on getting our shrimp straight from the docks. Everything you're eating has probably been swimming the day before. And the saffron cream sauce is so mild, delightful and smooth, it elevates the seafood without taking too much from it, allowing the seafood itself can be highlighted as the star of the dish."
Book a stay on Sea Island if you're in the mood for a getaway that involves things like horseback riding on a secluded beach; quiet waterfront golf games played on meticulously groomed championship courses; or luxuriously long, sea-inspired body treatments carried out at a Forbes-Five Star spa. It's a private island, so only guests of its resorts may access it.
The experience is worth the splurge, or so say the 65 Forbes Five-Star accolades the resorts here have wracked up since opening more than 90 years ago. The Cloister, for example, woos guests with its Mediterranean architecture, dizzyingly high beamed-wood ceilings, unfailingly tasteful decor (think dark woods, natural stone and luxe furnishings in shades of wine, jute and sage) and consistently over-the-top service.
Once you've entered via its scenic causeway—lined by marshland and Spanish moss-draped oaks—there's little need to leave the property. Squash and tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, kayak rentals, an onsite bowling alley and a 5-mile stretch of private beach with a pampering beach club offer diversion and comfort for days.
Sea Island keeps the indulgent momentum going when it comes to dining, as well. Throughout the summer, the resort throws "Rainbow Island Suppers," outdoor feasts focusing on the bounty of the region: roasted oysters, wild Georgia shrimp, fresh-caught fish and Southern staples like fried chicken, collard greens and okra.
And The Georgian Rooms is just now reopening after its interiors and its gastronomic offerings both underwent transformations. Lighthearted dishes like "chicken-fried" oysters mingle with sophisticated sweet corn agnolotti pasta and glazed beef short rib on the restaurant's concise, yet comprehensive new menu. There's even a vegan-friendly marinated tofu dish. The restaurant also just unveiled a more casual lounge menu, starring Japanese specialties like miso soup, maki and nigiri.
But among the must-try dishes at the resort, Sea Island Executive Chef Daniel Zeal puts a particularly impressive burger at the top of the list.
Essential eating: Summit Burger at River Bar at Sea Island
The importance of this Sea Island staple reaches back to 2004, when the isle was the site of the 30th G8 Summit. Befitting an event attended by the president of the United States, as well as leaders of the world's other major industrial democracies, chefs at Sea Island had pulled out all the stops in creating elevated menus for each event. But one world leader had a humbler request.
"The president of France was here, and he said he'd come all the way to America and really just wanted a cheeseburger," says Chef Zeal, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who's graced Sea Island's kitchens for the past 17 years, playing an integral role in earning the resort's numerous Forbes Five-Star ratings during his tenure.
The resort's then-chef created what's now called the Summit Burger to sate the French president's appetite for the hearty American classic—with style. His masterpiece is composed of a half-pound, steak-grind burger patty with portobello mushroom confit, caramelized onion, Boursin cheese, lettuce and tomato on a brioche bun. The crave-worthy entrée has been a mainstay of the menu at Sea Island's River Bar ever since, and has even been enshrined in a Sea Island cookbook.
"I feel that not only the flavor of this burger, but also the historical connection to the G8 Summit are truly what make this an essential dining experience at Sea Island," says Chef Zeal.
Little St. Simons Island
Like Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island is a private island, but the experience on this uninhabited nature oasis is one of eco-adventure rather than luxury. Book a day trip or a stay at the island's 32 guest-capacity lodge—the only structures on the island—to experience it. Either way, the only way to arrive is by boat, via a 15-minute ferry ride from St. Simons Island, which will wind through tranquil marshes and across deep blue ocean water.
Once there, a naturalist guide will help you identify the island's abundant plant life—from wax myrtle shrubs to white-belled staggerbush flowers to a variety of vital marsh grasses.
Among the wildlife you might encounter are rabbits, sea turtles, dolphins, alligators and an array of wading birds—perhaps even some pink-feathered Roseate Spoonbills. In fact, visitation to the island, which is popular among scientists, shark taggers, birders and other nature enthusiasts, is dictated more by animal life cycles than the weather. There's also a 7-mile natural beach for strolls, swims, bike rides or quiet lounge sessions.
Whether you've come for the day or for a multi-night stay, you'll be treated to hyperlocal cuisine on Little St. Simons Island. The Lodge has its own organic garden, and the resident chef centers meals around its seasonal fruits, as well as local fish and meats.
Essential eating: oyster roasts at The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island
Kevin Vanderaa is the pastry chef at the Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, but, as you might expect at an eco-resort this small and remote, all the employees wear many hats. The job is unique in other ways, too; during the summer months, Vanderaa gets to bring his two young children for an extended stay on the island, where they spend their days full of wonder—biking around, marveling at resident reptiles and stretching out at the expansive and otherwise deserted beach.
"Working here, you get little glimpses of things you wouldn't normally see," Vanderaa says. "A couple weeks ago everyone stopped what they were doing to go see a manatee down by the boat docks. Then there was a confused 90-year-old sea turtle trying to lay eggs during the day, so we all went for a look."
Vanderaa explains that the cuisine on the island is as much a social and experiential phenomenon as it a taste adventure, and the Lodge's oyster roasts are a prime example of this.
"The thing that makes our place magic is that we bring people together," Vanderaa says. "Nature brings them here, and then they find themselves at the oyster roast passing around hot oysters and knives, talking like you would if you were with your friends in your back yard."
For these events, the yard will often be strung with lights as guests are treated to a live musical performance (in the spirit of "many hats," the band is usually comprised of musicians who double as members of the maintenance department). Resident naturalists throw Georgia oysters on a hot piece of sheet metal over a blazing fire where they'll steam under a soaked burlap sack.
Then guests dig in with the help of gloves (shells can be sharp) and knives, plus spare accoutrements (cocktail sauce, horseradish, lemon wedges) that let the unique "merroir" (the marine spin on "terroir") of the briny shellfish meat shine through. Post-roast, shells are collected and used to bolster the island's living shoreline, Vanderaa says.
Another great thing about these roasts: they're essentially elaborate appetizers. An hour later, guests are treated to their main meal. An assortment of vegetables and fruits from the island's organic garden—a variety of lettuces, purple radishes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, okra, kale, squash, figs, herbs, edible flowers and "citrus out the wazoo," to quote Vanderaa—will meet on guests' plates, along with local seafood and meats. The chef will even prepare fish guests catch during their stay.
"It's kind of a pretty special place," Vanderaa says.
The Golden Isles' mainland anchor is an excellent place to get a feel for just how deep the Golden Isles' seafaring roots run. Walk Brunswick's shrimp docks to take in trawlers plying the waters, much as they have since the origin of the industry in the late 19th century, though with improved eco-friendly technology.
For a broader view into Brunswick's past, carve out a few hours to explore the city's Historic Downtown. On Newcastle Street, restored red-brick buildings decked with nostalgic striped awnings host antique shops, art galleries and boutiques that may have you calculating how much space you have for transporting a few new conversation pieces home.
Built in the late 19th century, Old City Hall is a striking icon you won't want to miss, with its elegant spired clock tower, arched stone entryway and evil-spirit-repelling gargoyles, all exemplifying the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style that was popular in the Gilded Age.
Brunswick is also rumored—though not entirely confirmed—to be the birth site of another "monumental" creation: Brunswick stew. Brunswick's scenic Mary Ross Waterfront Park displays a cauldron said to have cooked the first batch in 1898, but a paper trail in Brunswick County, Virginia, makes for a noteworthy counterclaim to the dish's invention. Controversy aside, the flavorful Georgia recipe calls for generous amounts of chicken, pork, beef, butter beans and veggies, plus a long list of saucy add-ins (chili sauce, Worcester and a heavy pour of ketchup among them).
You can try this many-layered stew at several restaurants in town. If you're an instant super-fan, plan your next visit to coincide with the city's Rockin' Stewbilee in late January, where chefs compete for the coveted title of "stew master" across several categories. Live bands, pooch parades and an art market are all fixtures of the annual event, too.
Essential eating: seafood feasts and platters at Mr. Shuck's Seafood
On the topic of Brunswick mainstays, family-owned Mr. Shuck's Seafood easily qualifies. In 2010, inspired local resident Donte Habersham had the idea to begin selling crabs and local seafood out of his grandma's house. Some family members were skeptical—young Habersham had three kids to support and "a job with benefits" seemed a surer bet—but Habersham persevered.
When the operation became too popular for its backyard digs, he was invited to cook and serve out of a local church's commercial kitchen. That's when things really took off. Before long, Habersham took the business into its current storefront, where it continues its thriving take-out business, as well as dine-in options for its ever-richer menu of local seafood and signature sides at down-to-earth prices. There's also a seafood market on site, a nice option for vacation home renters who'd like to try their hand at cooking up their own regionally-inspired dishes with local seafood.
For an essential taste of Brunswick, Habersham recommends tucking into one of his seafood feasts. Options include the blue crab, shrimp, conch and Alaska snow crab, and all are served with sausage, potatoes, corn and egg, Lowcountry boil-style.
"A lot of places do a Lowcountry boil, but the difference between us and them is the garlic butter and seasoning on top," Habersham says. "You won't get this flavor profile anywhere else in the world, guaranteed."
If you only have time for one feast, Habersham recommends going with the blue crab—the locally caught delicacy that started it all. "We have our own crabbers who go out every day, so every day we're getting fresh seafood in the back door."
He adds that skeptics can come in and try a sample of his shrimp before they buy. "I always say, you'll be hooked at first bite."