From sprawling beaches, marshes and maritime forests to historic ruins, Georgia’s Jekyll Island is a beautiful blend of serenity and discovery. Situated within the chain of the Golden Isles, it is just a few miles from St. Simons Island, Sea Island and Brunswick — and from the moment I spied the “turtle crossing” signs, I knew I’d arrived somewhere special. As I drove through a canopy of live oaks and lush lawns on this 5,700-acre island, something told me I was in for a unique experience — and so I was.
Gilded Age glamour
Jekyll Island was purchased in 1886 by a group of wealthy families as a private retreat. By 1900, The Jekyll Island Club membership included the Rockefellers, Morgans, Cranes and Goulds and represented more than one-sixth of the world’s wealth. The Club closed in 1942 and Jekyll Island was purchased by the state of Georgia in 1947. Today its development is limited to just 1,609 acres to preserve the critical barrier island ecosystem. Since most of the island is protected, there’s plenty of nature, wildlife and family-friendly amenities, including 10 miles of white sand beaches, 63 holes of golf, an outdoor tennis complex and the Summer Waves Water Park. There’s also a fishing pier, dolphin tours, horseback riding, 20 miles of bike trails and the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. For the extended multigenerational family, this retreat is ideal as most of the activities are geared for everyone from tots to grandparents.
The Westin Jekyll Island is a serene hotel just two years old, located right on the beach and adjacent to the convention center. Nearby is Beach Village with lots of shopping and dining options. After checking out my digs, including the oceanfront rooftop lounge, and noting that I’d be sleeping on the Westin’s famous Heavenly Bed that evening, I made a beeline for the Jekyll Island Club Resort. A quote from the Brunswick News on Jan. 30, 1917 tells us that “Mr. Rockefeller never feels so well as when he’s enjoying the secluded and exclusive life which only this Paradise on earth affords.” Well.
In the gilt-age time of a century ago, the country’s rich journeyed to places like Saratoga, New York, White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and, of course, to Jekyll Island, Georgia. The Club, a Natural Historic Landmark and a retreat for the nation’s elite, was the site of events and meetings of historic significance, including the first transcontinental phone call, which was initiated in 1915 from the island to Theodore Vail, then president of AT&T.
There were several things I wanted to see and experience at the resort. I paid a visit to the spacious period-restored vacation cottage of Almira and William Rockefeller, a home they “enjoyed more than any other,” and to which they were devoted for 36 years. Nearby was the charming Faith Chapel built by the club in 1904. The structure is that of an early Colonial meeting house, decorated with Gothic style elements. The church’s tiny interior is made of shingles with carved animal heads topping the roof trusses and gargoyles embellishing the exterior steeple. The treasures of this chapel are a pair of extraordinary stained-glass windows, one a signed Tiffany, fabricated of several layers of glass and giving the illusion of depth and perspective. These windows are two of the most outstanding pieces of stained-glass art in the nation.
Save the turtle
Jekyll Island is home to a $2.5 Million Sea Turtle Center whose mission is to enhance public awareness of this endangered species and to provide rehabilitation for injured or ill sea turtles. As a rehab, research and educational facility, it offers the public a chance to learn about sea turtles and see the center’s good works in action. They offer year-round indoor and outdoor programs for guests of all ages. I watched turtle feeding and observed a huge animal being moved onto a gurney by no less than four workers. I hope to return someday during sea turtle hatchling release (between June-August) as I hear it’s a most amazing sight.
The next day, I couldn’t resist an invitation to try out the island’s famed Red Bug electric cars. The vehicles pride themselves as being an alternate mode of environmentally friendly transportation. Open to ocean breezes, they’re small, they’re cute — and they’re red. Tooling around the island in a little bug was the highlight of my day.
All that glitters here is gold
On departure day, I made sure I was up early enough to take a sunrise walk on the beach, a meaningful way for me to say farewell to my few outstanding days on nature’s playground. I loved its pristine stretches of marshland; its sparkling rivers teeming with birds and fish calmly flowing to the Atlantic Ocean; and its rich and storied history. Four hundred years ago, Spanish explorers descended upon this territory seeking gold. Instead they found astonishing beauty in serene forests, mild weather and a vast expanse of ocean. I, too, found all this. You could say that here, in a sense, I truly did find gold.