A Treasure Map to Georgia's Golden Isles

Nov 17, 2021

The same nooks and crannies of Georgia's coastline that once provided a perfect hiding spot for pirates and their loot, now serve a different purpose: granting a place for vacationers to escape the everyday, leave their cares at the causeway and reorient themselves to "island time."

In the Golden Isles of Georgia, a coastal enclave of four islands midway between Savannah and Jacksonville, there's treasure to be found amid the oak-lined paths, quiet beaches, historic town squares and tranquil marshes. And we're going to tell you where to find it.

Finders, keepers on Jekyll Island

The southernmost of the Golden Isles, Jekyll Island was once a private island club for the most glamorous names of the Gilded Age. These days, the 5,500-acre island is a state park (there is a small fee to enter), with 65 percent of it left undeveloped to protect coastal ecosystems that nourish and sustain birds, sea turtles and numerous other species.

You can explore this combination of historic charm and natural beauty while biking some of the 20+ miles of paved trails, horseback riding on the beach or golfing at Georgia's largest public course, the Jekyll Island Golf Club.

And, if you visit in January or February, you can pair history and nature while finding Island Treasures, an actual treasure hunt with a fascinating backstory. Early 20th-century fishermen that delved into the bountiful depths of Georgia's coastal waters often attached unique glass floats to their nets in order to locate their catches later. When one of those glass balls would detach and ride the tide to shore, it became quite the collector's item.

Each year, a group of volunteer "Beach Buddies" hides volleyball-sized plastic balls, a few at a time, during the winter months in public places such as the Jekyll Island Historic Landmark District or St. Andrews Beach Park (go in the afternoon to enjoy the sunset on the island's only west-facing beach). Find one of these balls and bring it to the Jekyll Island Guest Information Center to take home one of the 200+ hand-worked glass globes commissioned each year from artisans around the U.S. It's one per household, per season--which is a perfectly good reason to make a winter trip here an annual tradition.

One spot you may find an Island Treasure in hiding is on Driftwood Beach on the island's northern tip. But even if you strike out in your search, you will find plenty of gems for Instagram, as time has turned the one-time maritime forest into a hauntingly beautiful shoreline of weathered tree trunks and branches. Go exploring at low tide, when the sand is at its most spacious.

Get in the "spirit" on St. Simons Island

You'll find friendly faces in the restaurants, boutiques and galleries on St. Simons Island, the largest of the Golden Isles. And, if you look closely at a few of the myriad old oak trees across the island, you will also find faces looking back at you. Known as the Tree Spirits, these carvings were created by a local artist beginning in 1982. Since then, he's etched 20 faces into trees across the island. You'll find the first at the St. Simons Island Welcome Center, where you can pick up a treasure map to help you find the remaining eight spirits that are publicly accessible.

The next treasure is easier to find. Just look up. Standing sentinel over St. Simons Island, the St. Simons Lighthouse is one of just five operational lighthouses in Georgia. If the spirit moves you, climb the 129 steps to the top for an impressive view of the coastline, the town and the marshes, which turn from green to a golden hue in the winter months, giving the Golden Isles its name.

Back at sea level, you'll find an unhurried beach town vibe across the island, ideal for barefoot walks on East Beach (bring your dog, it's pet-friendly), leisurely bike rides along the 20+ miles of trails or window shopping on Mallery Street. Across both St. Simons and Jekyll islands you'll find stylish stays that range from exclusive retreats to friendly inns. 

To take things up a notch, cross the Black Banks River to Sea Island, a private-island enclave that has earned four Forbes Five-Star Awards for 13 straight years -- the only spot in the world that can claim this feat. The Lodge and The Cloister offer unparalleled luxury to go with five miles of private beaches, celeb chef dining, an award-winning 65,000-square-foot spa, three top-rated golf courses (one of which hosts an annual PGA Tour event) and activities that range from falconry to sea turtle patrols to horseback riding. Keep your ears peeled for the bagpiper who walks the grounds of The Lodge to greet the sunset.

While these trees don't have carvings, they are artistic in their own right. The Avenue of the Oaks is a double row of 160-year-old live oak trees which form the entrance to the Sea Island Golf Club. The golf course is private for Sea Island residents or guests of the Sea Island properties, but visitors can loop around the entrance to take in the stunning view.

Nurture your natural curiosity

The mild winters draw many a snowbird down to the Golden Isles from colder climes, but people aren't the only migratory species that flock to the region during this time. The islands are part of Georgia's Colonial Coast Birding Trail, with five trail sites across the immediate area. Depending on when you visit, you may spot bald eagles, egrets or wood storks amid the salt marshes, tidal rivers and shoreline. 

Little St. Simons Island, photo by Cassie Wright Photography

Serious nature lovers may want to splurge on a guided day trip to Little St. Simons Island, a pristine ecological preserve. After catching the boat on the north end of St. Simons Island, you'll take a 15-minute ride over to the privately-owned island. The morning is spent with a naturalist, who will help you explore some of the 11,000 acres of undeveloped coastal wilds and maritime forests, seeking out a number of bird species in addition to alligators, deer, armadillos and dolphins. After an organic lunch prepared from the on-site garden, the afternoon can be spent exploring further or relaxing on the seven miles of beach along the Atlantic. If this sounds like you may never want to leave, you can be one of 32 guests that stay overnight at all-inclusive The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island.

There are also plenty of ways to get your nature fix in smaller doses. If you have a few hours, you could take a kayak tour through the marshes with SouthEast Adventure Outfitters, check out the state's first sea turtle rehabilitation facility at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center or head to the north end of St. Simons Island to explore the 600-acre Cannon's Point Preserve.

Enjoy a boatload of coastal cuisine

Whether you're starting the day with tomato jam on made-from-scratch biscuits and pimento cheese grits at Palmer's Village Cafe or capping it with crab cakes and the "chocolate stuff" dessert at Barbara Jean's, you're going to eat well in the Golden Isles.

Don't miss out on the chance to chow down on wild Georgia shrimp. You can catch your own on a "Shrimpin' Cruise" on The Lady Jane or head to a local favorite like Iguana's Seafood Restaurant, where there's at least seven different ways on the menu to get your shrimp on.

If seafood doesn't get you out of your shell, order up a hearty helping of Brunswick stew, a local specialty that mixes meat, veggies, spices and a tomato base into a rib-stickin' roux. Each cook will have his or her own variation on the recipe, which means you might want to be in town for the Brunswick Rockin' Stewbilee in late January to try them all yourself. The 2022 event is scheduled for January 29.

Even during the winter months, the mild weather means there's plenty of options for outdoor dining. Pull up a chair for oceanfront views and hand-crafted cocktails at ECHO, catch a riverfront sunset and Southern favorites at The Wharf or try a wine tasting and charcuterie board under the shade of a live oak at Golden Isles Olive Oil

Uncover your own hidden gems

A large percentage of visitors to the Golden Isles return year after year. Why is that? It could be the mild weather -- those sea breezes that keep the summer days cool and the winter days warm. It could be the fresh seafood served with Southern hospitality at restaurants across the area. It could be the just-right junction of natural beauty and time-honored traditions that deliver a treasured vacation to thousands of guests each year. 

Ready to go? Read about more places to staythings to do, and can't-miss restaurants in the Golden Isles of Georgia.

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