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Jekyll Island: Escape the crowds on this beautiful Georgia island

By Katie Scarvey
kscarvey@salisburypost.com
The Tar Heel state has many fantastic beaches, but sometimes it’s nice to venture beyond the Carolinas for something completely different.
Consider the Sea Islands of Georgia, also known as the Golden Isles, which are only about six hours from Salisbury. With palmetto thickets and live oaks draped langorously with Spanish Moss, you’ll feel like you’ve entered a whole different world.
Jekyll Island is a fantastic choice if avoiding throngs of people and enjoying nature is a bigger priority than restaurants and shopping.
What drew us to the island was how conducive it is to the outdoor activities we enjoy: kayaking, biking, hiking, running, beachcombing.
It would be hard to find a place with more thoughtfully planned biking and hiking trails than Jekyll. There are more than 20 miles of paved bike trails on the island, and you can cycle past beaches, marsh areas and in the shady forest interior, where you might catch a glimpse of an alligator.
There is remarkably little traffic, for a resort island, and on several occasions I pedaled for four or five miles on a path that bordered a road without seeing a single car ó and this at the height of vacation season.
The state of Georgia owns this beautiful island and has done a wonderful job of managing it, although some Georgians disagree, believing that the lack of development has deprived the state of profiting financially from the island.
So far, development has been thoughtful and sane. By state law, at least 65 percent of the island must remain undeveloped, which gives it the feel of a state park.
Visitors can stay in a variety of island hotels (several additional facilities are being constructed), but the better choice for families is probably to rent one of the private homes on the island ó there are fewer than 700. The houses are not of the huge, multi-family variety, and prices are reasonable.
Glitz and tackiness are markedly absent here. You will not find a single chain restaurant ó no McDonald’s, no Burger King, no Pizza Hut. There is one small grocery store.
There are, however 63 holes of golf, making it Georgia’s largest public golf resort. Thirteen clay tennis courts are open to the public for a fee.
The one big concession to commercialized summer fun is an 11-acre water park, which is in an absolutely gorgeous setting.
One of the big draws of the island is its 240-acre historic district, the crown jewel of which is the Jekyll Island Club Hotel, with its Queen Anne-style turrets and balconies that look out over a perfectly manicured croquet lawn.
Founded in 1886 by a group of millionaires, the Jekyll Island Club was the winter retreat for some of the country’s elite, including the Astors and the Vanderbilts, and Morgans. It was, at the time, the country’s most exclusive, most inaccessible club.
History buffs will be intrigued by what happened there in 1910, several years after a national money panic that was purportedly caused by J.P. Morgan.
A small group of men, consisting of the country’s heaviest financial hitters, gathered secretly at Jekyll Island. Out of these meetings came the blueprint for the Federal Reserve System.
Around 1942, as a result of World War II, the club, and hence the island, was basically abandoned. In 1947, it was purchased by the state of Georgia for $675,000 from the club’s remaining members. After a new drawbridge was constructed, it was opened to the public in 1954. By state law, the island had to be accessible to Georgians of average income.
Many of the club members’ grand “cottages” still stand, in various states of restoration.
The beaches ó 10 miles of them ó are peaceful and lovely. Because the island is located at the mouth of two large rivers, at low tide the ocean bottom is sometimes covered with mud ó which doesn’t feel quite right on your toes when you’re expecting sand.
A large sandbar creates conditions that are fantastic if you have young children ó during parts of the day, there are shallow pools created that are perfect for splashing around in.
I did not find the shelling to be outstanding, but sand dollars can be found here, and I was astonished to pick up a lovely shark’s tooth, after some 40 years of trying.
The island is a sea turtle nesting site, and in June and July, loggerhead turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
The island is serious about protecting turtles, and there’s a marvelous Sea Turtle Center in the historic district that includes a hospital that cares for injured and sick turtles. The center also sponsors nighttime turtle walks during laying season ó a great educational opportunity.
You can also visit the Tidelands Nature Center, which is a good place to learn about island wildlife and ecology.
At one end of the island, near the fishing pier, is a driftwood beach, which is a fun stretch to explore.
One popular activity is horseback riding on the beach, which recently made Southern Living’s list of of quintessential Southern experiences for kids.
Although there’s a nice fishing pier for traditional fishing, you’ll notice people on Jekyll seining for shrimp on the beach, with large nets. It’s fun to watch people haul up a load of sea life, from small sharks and rays to prehistoric-looking horseshoe crabs (which get tossed back in).
The most satisfying thing we did during a week of fun activities at Jekyll was paddling our two-person kayak offshore, where boats trawl for shrimp. When the boats are moving slowly, a kayaker can paddle after them and get quite close ó 10 yards or so ó to groups of dolphins that trail the boats looking for food.
If get tired of all the tranquility on Jekyll, it’s easy to island hop. It won’t take you long to leave Jekyll and check out the islands of St. Simons, Sea and little St. Simons. (If you go to St. Simons, do yourself a favor and go to Southern Soul Barbecue, which served me up the absolute best barbecue I have ever eaten.) If you’re renting a house, as we did, you will want to stock up on groceries off the island, at the Winn-Dixie in the mainland town of Brunswick, which is 9 or 10 miles away. You can also find an excellent seafood market with big, juicy shrimp ó which is what many choose to eat here, since you will not find it fresher or better anywhere. Be aware that an island parking pass ó basically an entry fee ó is $3.
For more information, go to www.jekyllisland.com.
 
 
 
 
 

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