Georgia’s St. Simons and Cumberland Islands
See wild horses and discover the area's rich history and beautiful beaches
There are well over a dozen prominent barrier islands off the coast of Georgia, and they come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. But unlike hors d’oeuvres, these islands are best taken in full doses. Trying to explore more than one in a day could lead to burnout, information overload and visual indigestion.
A two-day trip is a sufficient amount of time to visit two islands that are mirror opposites. Cumberland Island National Seashore looks about as it did in 1972, when the U.S. Congress designated it as a national seashore. St. Simons Island, which is just an hour’s drive north, has modernized over time but claims a rich Colonial American history.
Cumberland Island National Seashore
Visitors reach Cumberland Island by ferry — no cars are allowed. (As such, ferry reservations are strongly recommended.) Once on the island, most visitors do one of two things: Take a six-hour, guided van tour that reaches all corners of the island; or visit the island via foot power, tackling all or part of the 4.3-mile, self-guided Southend Loop trail.
The Southend Loop hike can be tiresome for small kids and parents pushing strollers, especially where hikers must traverse soft sand. But there are rewards for those who take it. The diverse landscape ranges from sand dunes to palms to canopies of Spanish moss hanging from live oaks.
Expect to see wild horses. While beautiful to photograph, keep in mind that they are feral, so touching or feeding is not permitted.
The ghostly remains of a Gilded Age mansion once owned by an heir of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie provides another spot for taking memorable photos. And those who make it far enough will reach an expansive, smooth-sanded beach, ideal for beachcombing and sunbathing.
St. Simons Island
If Cumberland Island leans toward rustic experiences, St. Simons Island professes glamour. There are, however, plenty of options for those whose budgets don’t permit a second home or stay at a four- or five-star resort.
The whitewashed, 104-foot-high St. Simons Lighthouse, also referred to as the St. Simons Island Light, beckons those who enjoy a commanding view upon climbing the structure’s 129-step spiral staircase. Perhaps the best way to get an overview of St. Simons Island is by trolley. St. Simons Trolley Island Tours, for example, takes visitors past landmarks sharing tales of nearly 400 years of the island’s history, which includes slavery and time spent on the island by Methodist Church founder John Wesley, who served at Christ Episcopal Church there.
John and his brother, Charles, conducted the first service. Both brothers were Church of England priests who volunteered as missionaries to the colony of Georgia, arriving in March 1736. Although their experiences on the island were difficult, they were able to establish a congregation there that is known today as Christ Church. The current church building dates to 1884, but the congregation was founded in 1736.
In 1742, British troops stationed at Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island defeated the Spanish, ensuring Georgia's future as a British colony. Exploring the remnants of the Fort Frederica National Monument is like walking through a ghost town. When you traverse the dirt paths, you’re strolling through the main thoroughfares of what was once a village of 1,000 colonists.
Historic markers tell the stories of Fort Frederica’s citizens, including details of their personal lives. For example, tavern keeper Samuel Davison and his family left Fort Frederica in 1741 because they disliked living next to surgeon and apothecary Thomas Hawkins due to his erratic and sometimes violent wife, Beatre, who, according to National Parks Service Historic Americans Building Survey, attacked John Wesley with a pistol and tried to kill him.
Raleigh is approximately six hours from St. Simons Island and Charlotte is roughly five hours away. Cumberland Island is an hour south of St. Simons Island. Learn more about Cumberland Island at nps.gov/cuis/index.htm and St. Simons Island at explorestsimonsisland.com.
Award-winning author Michael Schuman has written 46 books and hundreds of travel articles.