7 Days of Southern Flavors in Georgia’s Golden Isles
For some, food is much more than a happy daily necessity. In fact, travel in pursuit of delicious and intriguing food (a.k.a. culinary tourism) is on the rise, according to market research. And these hungry travelers are chasing not just flavor, but the culture and stories behind the cuisine.
The Golden Isles in Georgia is prime ground for such a culinary pilgrimage. The region consists of four barrier islands off the coast — namely St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island and Little St. Simons Island, plus their mainland anchor, Brunswick.
Together, they form a destination brimming not only with pristine beaches, thriving wildlife and historic architecture, but also with succulent coastal cuisine to make even the most discerning mouth water. From history-steeped local delicacies to the famous wild Georgia shrimp and soul-stirring Southern-comfort meals, it’s easy to plan an entire vacation centered solely around the dishes here.
To whet your appetite, here’s a week’s worth of food-centered experiences to pencil into your Golden Isles itinerary — along with insider tips from local experts.
Feast on Wild Georgia Shrimp
The succulent shellfish known as wild Georgia Shrimp are a culinary staple of coastal Georgia, and this holds especially true in the Golden Isles. A foodie foray into this region would be vastly incomplete without diving into a plate (or several) of them. Try them boiled, grilled, poached or piled atop a dish of creamy grits — a tradition that began in the breakfast bowls of fishermen from this region.
Local shrimpers take pride in the fact that (as their name implies), these shrimp are wild-caught, not pond-raised or farmed. They grow in local sounds, estuaries and the Atlantic Ocean waters, from which they're harvested sustainably; shrimpers use special devices to ensure sea turtles and other large sea creatures are unharmed in the process, and because these shrimp are prolific spawners (and the waters are carefully monitored by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources), overfishing is not a concern.
Local restaurants each have their take on the supremely flavorful local catch. At Georgia Sea Grill on St. Simons Island, for example, the chef's corn-battered shrimp — where fresh corn meets locally caught shrimp and a deep fryer — is so delicious, it's earned more than one public love letter from a local food columnist.
You can enjoy Wild Georgia Shrimp in their purest form at Tortuga Jacks on Jekyll Island, whose "Rah Bar Shrimp" are simply steamed and served with a side of buffalo sauce. Or try the Shrimp & Grits at The Wharf, an over-the-water restaurant on the pier at the Jekyll Island Club Resort. This delectable house specialty puts a scrumptious Cajun spin on the southern classic — accompanied by andouille sausage, peppadew peppers, cheese fondue and chipotle aioli. And the dish is made all the more enjoyable by the water views and gorgeous, storied grounds that surround the restaurant that serves it.
If you're (understandably) over the moon for all manner of shrimp dishes with a Southern twang, time your visit for early November to coincide with the much-anticipated return of the Jekyll Island Shrimp & Grits Festival. An artist market, live music, a kids' activity zone, craft beer vendors and — of course — oodles of food vendors offering their unique takes on the Southern staple will spread across more than 30 acres under the great live oaks in the island's scenic Historic Landmark District.
"There isn't a more beautiful setting to experience this type of event," says Kathryn Hearn of the Jekyll Island Authority. Hearn advises guests to arrive early to avoid traffic on the causeway and to wear their comfiest walking shoes as the festival's activities are spread all across the sprawling district.
The lively festival is also a fitting way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Jekyll Island's transition from a millionaires' retreat to a state park open for all Americans to enjoy.
Become a Shrimper for a Day
For those who wish to forge a deeper connection with their food — and with the people and places that produce it — an excursion on the Lady Jane shrimping trawler is a great way to take your love of shellfish to the next level. Step aboard and you'll get a firsthand look at how so many coastal Georgians have made their living on the water.
"A lot of local fisherman here today are folks where their dad, uncle or grandpa worked as a commercial fisherman in the past," says Captain Cameron, owner of the tour company. "You can go to school to learn how to weld or to be a mechanic — you can't go to school to be a shrimp fisher." Skills like reading the water and even the coloring of the shrimp are handed down from fisherman to fisherman, generation to generation, he says.
These days, you'll catch a whole lot of knowledge in addition to sea creatures aboard the 60-foot refurbished steel hull trawler, which has been reimagined as a "vessel" for imparting curious seafarers with understanding of local ecosystems. Crew members pull in nets of marine life during the tour, and the boat's resident marine naturalist explains the species before safely returning them to the water. Blowfish, striped burr fish and fringed soles are just some examples of the interesting and varied species guests might get a gander at.
"Our coastline in Georgia is still very natural. The natural erosion and everything that takes place here allows for this ecosystem to thrive the way it does," Captain Cameron says. "My favorite thing is getting people educated about our area and coastal ecology here."
Southern Tide on Sea Island (open to guests and members of the Forbes Five-Star Sea Island resort) is arguably the best spot for waterfront dining in all of the Golden Isles. The restaurant is completely alfresco, so there's nothing separating diners from the ocean breeze and some of the island's best sea views.
Apart from some tasty staples like the shrimp and grits, pimento cheese deviled eggs, cobb salad and the vegan-friendly mango- and curried chickpea-infused power bowl, the menu changes with the sea and the seasons, explains Resort Director of Food and Beverage Jonathan Jerusalmy.
"We have a huge focus on indigenous ingredients," Jerusalmy says. "What we serve depends on what the local fishermen catch and what's in season."
Jerusalmy is equally excited about another waterfront dining event on Sea Island — Rainbow Island Suppers, open to Sea Island resort guests and members. These open-air, pop-up events are a long-standing tradition on Sea Island, originating in the 1950s when the property threw Friday night oyster roasts. Today, the feasts are held on the banks of the Blackbank River and feature buffet tables filled with fresh-caught seafood, Brunswick stew (more on that later), watermelon gazpacho, fried chicken, salads, collard greens and of course plates of oysters hot off the fire.
"This event is deeply rooted in the traditions of Sea Island and of the South," Jerusalmy says. "We often have families where three or four generations are dining with us at the same time."
These special suppers are held throughout the year; check here for upcoming dates.
Throw a Low Country Boil
If you're staying in one of the many beautiful vacation rentals that are available across the Golden Isles, make the most appropriately Southern, delicious and celebratory use of the kitchen or outdoor grill by throwing your own Low Country Boil.
The origins of this hearty one-pot meal are not widely agreed upon. Depending on whom you ask, the dish is attributed to the Gullah Geechee people (descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the lower Atlantic Coast); resourceful shrimpers who needed to feed large families with whatever was on hand; and even to a single National Guardsman who was tasked with feeding 100 hungry soldiers. What's not up for debate, however, is that the dish is as scrumptious as it is easy.
Start with an extra large pot and generous amounts of that famous Wild Georgia Shrimp, ears of corn, potatoes, sausage and onions. Add a few simple seasonings, ready the newspaper and condiments and you've got yourself a festive, delicious and satisfyingly messy meal that will likely be held as a highlight of your trip — and a new family tradition in the making.
Sample the Brunswick Stew
"In this pot the first Brunswick Stew was made on St. Simon Isle July 2, 1898," reads an inscription on a cement block below a time-worn pot reminiscent of a witch's cauldron. This relic, famous among barbecue and Southern cooking aficionados, is on display in Mary Ross Waterfront Park in Brunswick — announcing to all who view it the town's "concrete" claim on the dish, though towns in Virginia and North Carolina hold competing claims on the stew.
The thick and hearty dish was originally made with small game (think rabbits and squirrels) but now centers around chicken, pork and/or beef, as well as diced tomatoes, beans, corn, peas and a host of sauces and seasonings. According to many, you'll know it's done when it's so thick your stirring spoon stands up straight in the center of the pot.
You can find complete recipes for Brunswick Stew (and a Low Country Boil) here, or head to practically any restaurant in the Golden Isles to try the dish. If you're feeling especially stew-crazy, plan to align your trip with the beloved Brunswick Rockin' Stewbilee, held fittingly in the historic pot's home at Mary Ross Waterfront Park, where local chefs compete for the title for the best Brunswick Stew.
Shuck an Oyster (or a Dozen)
Each winter, locals and visitors alike gather under the stars to enjoy a night of live music, community and delicious food at the St. Simons Land Trust Oyster Roast. The event features more than 50 local food and drink vendors, and proceeds go to support the Land Trust, whose mission is to protect and conserve the landscape and historic elements of the island.
Over the past two decades, the organization has acquired and protected more than 1,100 acres of rare habitat (like the maritime forest-shrouded John Gilbert Nature Trail) and historic properties (like Harrington School House), so you can feel extra good as you enjoy deliciously roasted local oysters with a gorgeous water view.
Oyster roasts are important events around here. In fact, Golden Isles oysters are sometimes referred to as "sack trade oysters" since they were traditionally sold in burlap sacks specifically for roasting. (Others call them "Wellfleets" or "Eastern Oysters.")
Little St. Simons Island, an unpeopled 11,000-acre haven filled with old-wood coastal forest, salt marshes, brackish canals and unspoiled natural beaches, is another idyllic spot to enjoy such a roast. Hosted Friday evenings fall through winter at the Lodge on Little St. Simons — the island's only inn — the tradition has guests shucking salty and smoky shellfish under towering oaks dripping with Spanish Moss. The events are open only for overnight guests of the Lodge.
Catch Dinner (or Catch a Reservation)
The Golden Isles are an angler's dream, with redfish, snapper and grouper counting among the numerous species that may bite your line. And there are equally diverse ways to cast off: from the St. Simons Island Pier, during a kayak ride through the marshes, in a tidal pool or at a marina. Boat charters are a great option as well.
You can cook up your catch in your cozy vacation rental, or, if you're staying on Sea Island, hand it off to a chef who will artfully prepare it for you.
"You can design your own menu," says Jerusalmy of the resort's catch and dine program. "We can poach it, fry it, roast it and present it family style on the table. It's a great bonding experience for families and it's becoming more and more popular with guests."
Of course, those not inclined to fish have plenty of opportunity to indulge in the bounty of the local waters, too. On St. Simons Island, Halyards Restaurant, for example, serves the catch of the day alongside coconut and orange Okinawan mashed sweet potatoes; Georgia Sea Grill plates theirs with pickled okra and tomato cream; while ECHO offers guests an oceanfront view with an expertly prepared plate of fresh-caught fish. (Tip: For a comfortable stay that puts you close to these foodie favorite restaurants, try The Inn at Sea Island, which, contrary to its name, is located on St. Simons Island. Guests here can also enjoy access to Sea Island's three championship golf courses when booking a golf package.)
Whether you catch your own dinner or leave it to the local professionals, it's likely you'll be hooked on the tradition-steeped, fresh flavors of the Golden Isles — and back for more soon.