Golden Isles summer getaways: Simple pleasures in coastal Georgia

Apr 2, 2024

When you think about your most memorable travel experiences from childhood, chances are they’re related to simple things—watching pelicans land on the pilings of a wooden pier as you lick a melty ice cream cone; playing frisbee with your toes dug into the sun-warmed sand; staying up past your bedtime to hear a live band play under the stars. 

The Golden Isles of Georgia is a place where nostalgic experiences like these are alive and well, but there’s more to it, too. It’s a haven for incredible nature encounters (sea turtle watching, for one) and days spent fishing on the open waters or kayaking through picturesque marshes. It’s a place to swim and play at uncrowded, natural beaches and dine on locally sourced Southern coastal cuisine. It’s a hub for family-friendly festivals—and larger-than-life Gilded Age history.

Fishing on Jekyll Pier on Jekyll Island

Set about halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville, the towns that make up this unique region—that is St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Jekyll Island, Little St. Simons Island and their mainland anchor Brunswick—each have their own unique flair and charms. Read on for what makes each appealing—and how to plan a summer trip everyone will remember.

St. Simons Island: Broad-sand beach, a darling pier and a quaint shopping village

For easy summer days spent strolling, biking or driving from one picturesque spot to another, St. Simons Island—the largest of the Golden Isles—is a must. You'll find everything you need within this beach town's 47 square kilometres, but just as important is what you won't find: view-blocking high-rise buildings or the hustled pace of big-city living. 

East Beach

Among the town's most jaw-dropping features is East Beach, stretching along the island's Atlantic coast. The sand is broad—you'll always find room to stretch out even on popular beach days—and hard-packed to the point that bike-riding along the shore is as easy as it is dreamy. There are access points up and down the sand; Coast Guard Station offers the most parking, while Gould's Inlet on the northern end of the beach is one of the best spots to cast a line and observe coastal birds like long-necked reddish egrets and rainbow-hued painted buntings.

Massengale Park just south of Gould's Inlet has a summer-ready shade canopy, thanks to its scattered stands of sky-high live oaks, which lean in protectively over the play area. Cross the wooden walkway between the park and the beach to make a day of swimming, picnicking and shooting for the moon on the swing set. 

Walking along the waterfront

On the south end of St. Simons Island, you'll find a hub of pedestrian-friendly activity. Pier Village is the island's downtown area, full of independent, locally owned and downright adorable boutique shops, bakeries and restaurants to explore. Grab an ice cream cone and head to the nearby pier, a favourite spot for fishing, sunset views and dolphin spotting. (Tip: If you'd like to up your chances of spying these playful marine mammals, hop on a dolphin tour from the island's Morningstar Marina.) Pier Village is also the site of St. Simons Island's annual July 4th festivities, which include a 5K run and, of course, a fireworks show along the water. 

Dolphin tour — Photo credit: Southeast Adventure Outfitters

Some people travel to the Golden Isles just to eat, and you'll get why when you dive into the local dining scene. Locally caught seafood plays a starring role—wild Georgia shrimp, blue crab, eastern oysters, snapper and grouper, to name a few—as do Southern favorites like barbecue, fried chicken, collard greens and pecan pie.

Catfish on local grits and red pea salad from Georgia Sea Grill

Georgia Sea Grill is one of the many standout restaurants you'll find in Pier Village; chefs there source vegetables, fruits and herbs from the venue's own farm, plus seafoods and meats from local providers. Try the catch of the day cooked in your choice of three styles, or the restaurant's sustainably farmed, organic-fed fried catfish on a bed of local grits and red pea salad. 

Southern Soul Barbeque

When the day calls for something especially rib-sticking, Southern Soul Barbeque has the goods. A variety of house-made sauces (including its signature "Sweet Georgia Soul," with brown sugar, butter and a tomato tang) complement a long list of slow-smoked meats. You'll also find Southern comfort food favorites like piled-high cups of mac and cheese, rough-chopped cole slaw, salty boiled peanuts and silky sweet banana pudding on the menu. Eat in, or order takeaway by the pound for an easy dinner fix back at your vacation rental. 

Speaking of vacation rentals, the extra space and home-like amenities make this kind of accommodation a good base for a summer getaway in the Golden Isles. Hodnett Cooper Vacation Rentals is the largest local provider in the region, with over 300 properties on St. Simons Island and Jekyll Island. Beachfront condos, cozy cottages with summer-ready porches, spacious homes with private pools and tranquil retreats nestled under the live oaks—the selection is vast.

Vacation rentals can be a home away from home

Its boutique collection of luxury properties includes personalized concierge service, should you want help with itinerary planning, dinner reservations or golf tee times. There are pet-friendly options—especially helpful in a region so welcoming to four-legged friends—and last-minute specials for those taking a spontaneous trip. 

Jekyll Island: Sea turtles, bike rides and history tours

When you walk the quiet natural shores of Jekyll Island, your bare feet brush history along with the golden sand and pristine ocean water. During the Gilded Age at the turn of the 20th century, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Pulitzers unwound on these same beaches. The entire island, in fact, was purchased by wealthy families in the late 1800s and turned into a private millionaires’ club.

Crane Cottage on Jekyll Island

Though it thankfully became a Georgia State Park in 1947, the island has carefully preserved the grand club house, cottages and other buildings commissioned by wealthy seasonal residents during that time, now known collectively as the Jekyll Island Historic District. You can explore it with guided history tours, or a self-guided tour on foot or by bike.

Biking on Jekyll Island

With its moss-draped live oaks, lush green landscapes, wealth of open space and minimal commercial development, Jekyll Island is the very picture of an ideal place to bike ride, and its 30-plus kilometres of paved paths (not to mention its abundance of bike rental companies) make it easy to do so. Ride along the coast, through maritime forest and across wooden paths to just about all the island’s must-see sights. The trail runs to Driftwood Beach, where the combination of erosion, ocean water and time has resulted in a sort of surreal natural sculpture garden that makes for incredible viewing and photos. On the opposite end of the island, St. Andrews Beach makes a postcard-worthy picnic spot, not least for its incredible sunset views.   

Driftwood beach

The Georgia Sea Turtle Center—the only facility of its kind in the state—can also be reached via the Jekyll Island Bike Trail (of course, you can drive to all these places, too). Tour the educational and rehabilitation facility, learn about its conservation efforts and meet its sweet marine animal residents any time of year. Summertime, though, opens up the chance for an even more meaningful experience.

Sign on for a dawn or evening Sea Turtle Patrol or turtle walk to help the center’s biologists and researchers seek out and mark sea turtle nests. These programs help ensure the continued survival of these threatened and endangered species in their natural habitat—and provide a rare opportunity to take part in something that blends nature, excitement, education and service.

As far as dining on Jekyll Island, you’ll find a range of venues ranging from casual pizza spots to upscale steakhouses. Its vista-blessed perch on a pier over the marsh makes The Wharf a worthy option, as does its menu of locally sourced seafood, plus burgers, sandwiches and fun sides (fried green tomatoes and pickle chips among them). There’s live music on the deck Thursday through Saturday.

The Wharf

At Driftwood Bistro (located near its namesake beach), many dishes on the menu are named to honour the staff member who contributed the recipe: Lynn’s squash casserole, OG’s fried okra and Augusta’s bread pudding, for example—which gives a good indication of the homey kind of place this is. The restaurant prides itself on its wild Georgia shrimp and slow-cooked pot roast, but there’s a surprising variety of vegetarian-friendly dishes on the menu, too.  

At the end of an idyllic day, you can catch the sunset over the Jekyll Harbor Marina from a well-appointed condo at The Moorings at Jekyll Harbor near the marina; unwind to the sound of lapping waves at an oceanfront cottage—just a few of the many options available with Hodnett Cooper's Jekyll Island vacation rentals. 

Sea Island: 5-star stays and a private beach club

Taking a nostalgic summer trip hardly means you have to rough it (though there are camping opportunities in the Golden Isles)—something the existence of private Sea Island makes abundantly clear. Open only to members and guests of the island's resorts, Sea Island is home to The Cloister, a Forbes 5-Star hotel characterized by elegant Mediterranean-style architecture and indulgent interiors, including a lobby with sky-high ceilings and candelabra-style chandeliers.

The Spa at Sea Island

The Spa at Sea Island—also awarded the Forbes 5-Star designation—boasts a long list of top-tier treatments, including sea-derived body masks, luxurious herb- and essential oil-infused soaking baths and meditation sessions set to symphonic sound therapy. 

The classic beach vacation vibes come in at the resort's Beach Club, set near the island's private eight-kilometre stretch of shoreline. Kids can play in the pool all day, or wear a groove in the sand between the pool terrace and the beach. Meanwhile, parents can enjoy pool- or beach-side service for everything from adult beverages to fried chicken sandwiches with housemade pickles. Little ones will clamor for repeat visits to Wonderland, Sea Island's over-the-top candy and ice cream shop, complete with a 20-topping fixin's bar. 

Beach Club

But you'll have to do a little more planning to catch one of the most tradition-steeped summer dining experiences on Sea Island. Rainbow Island Suppers happen on select Saturdays throughout the season. The Cloister began throwing these outdoor feasts, set on the banks of the Blackbank River, about 70 years ago. Today, you'll still find some of the same classic dishes on the menu: roasted oysters, fresh-caught fish, creamy coleslaw, flame-broiled flank steak and that famous wild Georgia shrimp, for starters. There's also an entire buffet set up just for kids. 

Rainbow Island Supper

With Sea Island's huge array of timeless kid-friendly activities—archery, falconry, tie dyeing and horseback rides through the marsh, as examples—you could stay for weeks and barely scratch the surface.  

Little St. Simons Island: eco-retreats and farm-to-table dining

Remote (read: you can only get there by boat), private and unspoiled, Little St. Simons Island is the ultimate spot for family bonding without distractions. To spend time in this nature sanctuary, you have to either book a guided tour or a stay at the island's onsite, all-inclusive eco-lodge.

Summer on Little St. Simons Island

The island's only accommodation option, The Lodge on Little St. Simons Island, hosts a number of outdoor activities throughout the summer to help guests connect with the unique ecosystems around them. During its Turtle Days events (from mid-July through August), visitors can join beach walks and naturalist presentations, plus witness experts conducting post-hatch inventories. There are also guided surf-fishing and boating excursions for those who want to angle. The lodge takes care of all meals, prepared with ingredients from its onsite garden, plus guests' own catch of the day, luck permitting. 

Guided trail hike on Little St. Simons Island

If an overnight stay isn't possible, a day trip will allow you to experience the island's serenity and beauty. To get there, you'll take a ferry from Hampton River Marina on the north side of St. Simons Island. Your guide will show you around the island's primitive trails, pointing out native wildlife and plants along the way. There's a good chance you'll have the island's unspoiled beaches—eleven kilometres of them—all to yourself. As an added bonus, tours come with an organic farm- to-table lunch, so you'll get a true taste of the island's natural appeal. 

Brunswick: antique shops, buzzy events and a waterfront park

With its pretty waterfront park, busy shrimp docks and charming, historic downtown, Brunswick—the gateway to the Golden Isles—is bursting at the seams with Americana. Take time to root through the old-timey treasures in the antique shops on Gloucester and Newcastle streets. Book a tour of the city's striking architecture, including the Romanesque-style Old City Hall. 

This is the (contested) birthplace of Brunswick stew—a beloved local dish composed of pork, chicken, corn and beans cooked in a slew of seasonings and sauces—so you'll want to try some at the restaurants in town. Or pop into local-favorite Silver Bluff Brewing Company to sample tacos and other tasty bites from local food trucks—or to savor a flight of local brews in the beer garden. 

Silver Bluff Brewing Company in Brunswick

If your travel party has a competitive streak, Matted Ox Axe throwing is a top spot to bring it out. The venue boasts enhanced safety measures so the whole family can play safely. Once the score is settled, stroll over to scenic Mary Ross Waterfront Park just across the street to catch the sun setting over the East River. 

This popular park is also the site of Brunswick's Old Fashioned July 4th Celebration, which entails adorable events like sack races, hula hoop contests and a pet parade before the fireworks start. 

Fireworks in Brunswick

If you can't make the fourth, you can still catch the easy-living summer energy at one of the weekly events held in the Brunswick Music District every Friday and Saturday night. Held in the town's lovely landscaped squares, these events are free, open to the public—and ideal for carrying on the tradition of keeping kids up past bedtime for family dances under moonlit skies.

Ready to go? Check out Golden Isles lodging specials and start planning your trip.

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