The all-seasons appeal of Georgia's Golden Isles
It’s long been known that the Golden Isles of Georgia—barrier islands set between winding green and blue marshland and the Atlantic Ocean—is one of the most picturesque regions you could hope to see. In the late 19th century, the natural landscapes here inspired famed Georgia poet Sidney Lanier to compare a sunbeam over the trees to “a lane into heaven that leads from a dream” and the undulating lines of the beaches and marsh to “a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows the firm sweet limbs of a girl.”
Though much has changed in the 150 years since Lanier wrote The Marshes of Glynn, the beauty of the region—that is, St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island and the isles' mainland anchor Brunswick—has remained a constant, as has the nostalgic, welcoming feel of the local towns. And though the marshes may shift from green to gold, the temperatures from beachy to mild (even in February, the average highs are in the mid-60s), the destination has ample draws in any season.
Here’s what to do, whenever you go.
If you're seeking a warm winter escape...
The Golden Isles' comfortable winter temperatures (average highs hang in the 60s) coupled with the fabled local landscapes make time in the outdoors inviting, no mittens required. And even after the annual "shrimp drop"—Golden Isles residents' novel way of ringing in the new year—has come to pass, there's still time for a last-minute winter escape to get in on the region's unique seasonal draws.
It's hard to imagine an activity that would excite little ones more than the chance to hunt real-life treasures—and that's exactly what you'll find with Jekyll Island's Island Treasures event (running January through February). In select spots across the pastoral, history-steeped (more on that later) island, dedicated treasure hunters will find colorful plastic globes hidden amid the beaches, attractions and landmarks.
Fortunate finders can trade these replicas for the real treasures—intricate glass orbs handmade by skilled artisans—at the local guest information center. And, true to the age-old "finders-keepers" rule, successful hunters get to take these one-of-a-kind works of art home as proud mementos.
Winter is also an ideal time to bring four-legged friends along for a vacation (though, thanks to the area's myriad pet-friendly sites and activities, there's really no bad time to travel with Fido in tow). Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, dogs are allowed on St. Simons Island's East Beach—the region's most popular, broad-sand beach—any time of day. This opens up opportunities for beach strolls, picnics and games where every member of the family is welcome.
Beyond the beach, St. Simons Island's Spanish moss-draped oaks, picturesque pier, pedestrian-friendly shopping village and outdoor dining options are also ready to charm every member of your traveling party—even the furry ones.
Speaking of dining, cooler temperatures are an excellent excuse to dive head first into the Golden Isles' famous Southern coastal cuisine. Among the specialties you'll find at local eateries are steaming bowls of grits topped with wild Georgia shrimp brought in at the Brunswick docks; generous servings of Low Country boil—a flavorful feast composed of sweet corn, potatoes, sausage and fresh seafood—traditionally served atop a humble piece of newsprint; fire-roasted Eastern oysters served with a dash of horseradish and lemon; and rib-sticking spoonfuls of Brunswick stew, an heirloom recipe and a source of much local pride.
Work up an appetite between succulent dishes by biking across more than 20 miles of local trails. The St. Simons Island Biking Trail takes you past a historic schoolhouse, the iconic pier and a tranquil nature preserve, for starters. The trail system on Jekyll Island winds around the perimeter, with the chance to stop at beaches, attractions and the historic district. Rentals are available from vendors throughout the area, and are even provided as a complimentary service at some hotels.
As yet another perk of a winter-time Golden Isles getaway, you'll have more room to spread out during this quieter tourist season. This means lower lodging prices, too.
If you're planning a break this spring...
Vivid colors emerge in the Golden Isles as spring sets in: the greens of the marshes become more intense, the purples and pinks of blooming azaleas pop and the vibrant hues of the sunlit-skies linger longer.
Maximizing your time outdoors will naturally be a priority for a getaway in this most congenial season—and there are many ways to experience the beaches, trails and towns of the Golden Isles in spring.
Lean into the destination's rustic, nostalgic and romantic ambiance with a horseback ride along the beach or marsh, ideally with Lanier's poetry ringing in your ears:
Sinuous southward and sinuous northward the shimmering band
Of the sand-beach fastens the fringe of the marsh to the folds of the land.
Of course, you don't have to mount a horse to appreciate nature's beauty here. The towering live oaks that grow across the region are a sight unto themselves, but if you look closely at certain trees on St. Simons Island, you'll see something even more special: ethereal portraits carved into their bark. These "tree spirits" were created by a local father-son duo, and hunting for them (this map helps) is a family-favorite activity.
After an active morning, spread a blanket over the sand for an alfresco meal or snack. You'll have more than 20 miles of beaches to choose from across the four isles. Find a sandy spot between tide-worn sculptures at aptly named Driftwood Beach on Jekyll Island for a picnic with singular views of both land and sea.
On St. Simons Island, Gould's Inlet offers an intimate spot for a relaxing springtime lunch, with the option to launch a kayak, birdwatch or fish depending on the mood of the day. In Brunswick, Mary Ross Waterfront Park also makes a lovely spot to nosh in the sunshine. Pick up a just-caught feast to go at Mr. Shuck's Seafood if you'd rather outsource the food prep (or if you simply want to taste the locally famous wares).
Another reason to visit the Golden Isles in spring: the annual Art in the Park Fine Art Festival event on St. Simons Island (April 6-7). For the 2024 event, more than 60 artists and makers will showcase their works at Postell Park in the heart of lively Pier Village.
If you're seeking a "golden" summer getaway...
Summer is prime beach time in the Golden Isles, and when you see the local shores, you'll appreciate what makes them so special. Natural, broad and hard-packed (making them ideal for beach bike rides), the sands invite beach-goers to long laid-back days of swimming, playing and sunning.
The location of East Beach next to the shops and restaurants on St. Simons Island makes it easy to walk from your blanket to grab lunch or an ice cream cone. On Jekyll Island, no two beaches are alike; marsh-facing St. Andrews Beach Park is the spot for birdwatching and sunsets, while South Dunes Beach Park has a wooden boardwalk, picnic tables, an observation deck and a freshwater pond.
Sea Island—a private island accessible only to guests of its luxurious hotels and resorts—has a beach club where cocktails and snacks are delivered directly to your lounge chair. Unspoiled and wild, Little St. Simons Island is also a private island, accessible to guests of the onsite eco-lodge or via private tour. The island's tranquil 7-mile beach is the ideal spot for a peaceful swim, a nap or to live out a "Castaway" fantasy.
Summer is also peak season for sea turtles. You can experience these majestic and endangered creatures safely by joining a tour with a naturalist guide.
Jekyll Island's Georgia Sea Turtle Center—the state's only turtle rehabilitation center—offers these programs from June through August (you can tour the center itself year-round). Opt to patrol the beach at dawn or nighttime to seek, mark and monitor nests, where vulnerable, golf-ball size eggs incubate for 60 days before hatchlings make their epic march to the sea. Similar programs are offered for guests on private Sea Island and Little St. Simons Island.
The Golden Isles is a vital habitat for these threatened animals, so it's important to be mindful of them while beachgoing in the summertime.
With its long days and warm ocean breezes, summer is also an ideal time for getting out on the water. Charter a boat or simply rent a canoe or kayak from local marinas and tour operators to explore the Golden Isles' tidal rivers, marshes and open ocean waters. It's the optimal season for fishing, too—tarpon, snapper, redfish, trout, cobia and tripletail are all abundant in the summer months.
Celebrate a day well spent with a frosty beverage and some live music under the evening sky. You can catch live acts year-round at spots throughout the Golden Isles, but summer brings outdoor concert series to Neptune Park and the lawns of the Lighthouse on St. Simons Island. There's also a host of live music events and concerts in downtown Brunswick every summer.
If a serene fall getaway is in order...
In fall, the marsh grasses turn honey-gold—the Golden Isles' version of "fall foliage"—and temperatures take their time dropping. In other words, beach days may still be on the table well into October.
Another benefit of fall travel: the season brings fewer visitors compared to the buzzy summer months, but the events calendar stays lively. In November, for example, PorchFest takes over Brunswick's Old Town Historic District. This delightfully quirky music festival centers around local bands and musicians taking the "stage" on residential porches around the neighborhood, along with food trucks and family-friendly activities.
November also ushers in the RSM Classic, a PGA Tour golf tournament entering its 14th year at the Sea Island Golf Club. The event—which has raised nearly $29 million for charities supporting children and families to date—is the largest annual tournament in a region that's home to 189 holes of golf. Even if you can't make the event, fall's cooler temperatures make for an excellent time to play the courses in on St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island and in Brunswick.
Cooler air also makes fall a great time to explore the region's rich history. In the late 19th century, Jekyll Island was home to an exclusive millionaires' club—we're talking Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Morgans and Goodyears, among others. These tycoons built the opulent Jekyll Island Club, as well as private homes for their families, around the island. Today, their stories and others are preserved in the Jekyll Island National Historic Landmark District. Take a guided trolley tour of the district to experience it firsthand.
Jekyll Island's Wanderer Memory Trail is an UNESCO Slave Route Site of Memory and a self-guided tour route. A walk through the exhibit traces the journey of a young African boy who arrived on the last-known slave ship to (illegally) reach U.S. shores.
You can also dive even further back in time at Cannon's Point on St. Simons Island and on the Tailbone Trail on Little St. Simons Island, where middens—that is, large piles of discarded shells—provide evidence of the nomadic tribes who frequented the area as early as 2500 B.C.
Nature enthusiasts will have plenty to see in fall as well, as the season brings hundreds of migratory bird species to the region. Book a nature tour (or a stay) on Little St. Simons Island for the best view of this phenomenon, with guidance from a seasoned naturalist.