Wild horses, live oak trees covered with Spanish moss, seashell filled beaches, and a long and interesting history. If those things sound super awesome to you (and to who would it not?!), then Cumberland Island, located off the coast of Georgia, is the place for you. I travelled there not too long ago, but I never knew it existed until recently. How could somewhere that cool and awesome not be more well known? It was definitely one of the most unique and interesting vacation experiences I have had.
It’s only a short ferry ride away from the cute small coastal town of St. Mary’s, Georgia, which is a little under two hours south of Savannah. Some of the interesting history about the island includes Spanish explorers (which is where the horses came from), the famous Carnegie family (who lived on the island, and some family members still do!), and the fact that John F. Kennedy, Jr. got married there, among other things. I’ve included some pictures below, and if you’re interested in visiting this unique and awesome island, then I’ve made you up a dandy little travel guide in order to combat the lack of knowledge for under the rock dwellers like me.
WHERE TO STAY
- Greyfield Inn: This is the only hotel on the island. It’s owned and operated by members of the Carnegie family, and is actually a converted Carnegie mansion built in 1900 by Thomas and Lucy Carnegie for their daughter. It’s got quite the hefty price tag though, but it comes with a fancy dinner, picnic lunches, breakfast, guided tours of the island, and a private ferry ride onto the island, still a little more than I’m willing to pay though. (rates start at $425 with a two night minimum stay) (website)
- Camping: There may only be one hotel on the island, but campsites are also available through the National Park Service, which is what we did. The campsites are gorgeous, surrounded by live oak trees, and a short walk to the ocean. They offer a site closest to the ranger station called Sea Camp that includes cold showers and toilets for the sissies (raises hand), and then a few primitive campsites without plumbing that’s quite the hike. Beware though, the sissy campsite is still a pretty good walk when you factor in all the gear you are carrying, and the fact that you are a sissy. Reservations are recommended, and can be made by phone. (Sea Camp $4; Wilderness camping $2) (website)
- Riverview Inn: If you would rather not stay on the island, but just want to make a day trip of it, then you can stay at the historic Riverview Inn in St. Mary’s, which is just across the street from where the ferry takes off for the island. We also stayed here the night before we camped on the island, and it’s an awesome old hotel, which was built in 1916. Plus I think it’s a really good deal when you consider the uniqueness and quality of the hotel. (rates start at $79) (website)
WHAT TO DO
- The Beach: Seeing as how it is an island you can automatically assume there will be a beach, but Cumberland Island offers a little bit more than your average beach. Besides just relaxing or swimming in the ocean, you can go in search of wild horses playing on the beach, the island has tons of seashells, some very large, and you can enjoy stargazing considering light pollution’s not really an issue (yeah!).
- Lands and Legacies Tour: This is a guided van tour to some of the historic sites on the island offered by the National Park Service. You get to learn about all the history of the island, which is a long and very interesting one. I really enjoyed this tour, and wouldn’t miss it! Beware though, it lasts for five to six hours, and don’t forget to bring your own lunch! The cost is $15 per person, or $12 for seniors and children. You will need to make reservations before you come; reservations are made by phone. (website)
- Historic Sites: There are several historic sites on Cumberland Island that you can visit, and most are shown on the van tour. One is called the Dungeness Ruins (not included on the Lands & Legacies Tour), which is the burnt remains of Thomas & Lucy Carnegie’s home. The Dungeness Ruins is a popular hang out of the wild horses (the majority of the ones we saw were here). There is also a super neat mansion you can tour called Plum Orchard mansion, which was built in 1898 by Lucy Carnegie for her son. And one of the last sites I will mention is the First African Baptist Church in the settlement, which was built for the African American workers from another part of the island’s history before the Carnegies came around, and a cool tidbit about the church, John F. Kennedy, Jr. was married there.
- Bike Rentals: If you want to easily explore the island on your own, then they offer bike rentals for $16 for a day trip at the Sea camp ranger station.
- Hiking: There is plenty to explore on the island, and if you are in to hiking, then this would be a great place to do it. Also, if you wanted to visit the Dungeness Ruins, then it’s not that far of a hike from Sea Camp.
- Nearby Cities: If you want to make the trip a little more “road trippy”, then you can visit St. Augustine (1 hour and 20 minutes away), which is the oldest continuously occupied city in the United States FYI, or Savannah (1 hour 40 minutes away).
- Camp Food: There is no place to buy food on the island, so if you are camping you will need to bring your own. Make sure to bring plenty of water. We had hotdogs and sandwiches for our meals, as well as some other snacks. Also, bring something to strap your cooler down with, because the raccoons there know how to open them, and they will!
- Greyfield Inn: Of course if you are staying at the Greyfield Inn, then all your food is provided for (lucky…). It’s not open to the rest of us lowly camp dwellers.
- Captain Seagles Seafood Restaurant: This restaurant is located inside the Riverview inn at St. Mary’s, which always excites me when a historic hotel has its own restaurant. It makes me think of somewhere people traveling by wagon in the old days would stay. Everything I tried there was very good (I stole a little bit off everyone’s plate).
- There is a small entrance fee of $4 per person onto the island, which you will pay for whenever you pay for the ferry ride.
- The ferry costs $25 a piece unless you’re old ($23) or very young ($15). Reservations are recommended, since they can only fit so many people on a boat. You will want to check in, and pay the park entrance fee and any camping fees thirty minutes prior to the ferry ride, but you will pay for the ferry ride at the time of booking (which is made by phone) in order to reserve it. (website)
- Definitely don’t forget the BUG SPRAY! I mean the best you got, and some back ups for when you run out, and maybe hang some garlic around your neck just to be safe. They have plenty of biting bugs, and they still bit me every now and then bug spray or not.
- I would say the best time of year to visit the island would be during the fall or spring when it’s cooler. We went during the heat of the summer, and the humidity just about killed us. It made any walking we had to do seem a thousand times longer, but man I enjoyed that cold shower a lot more than I thought I would.