Intriguing history, beautiful beaches, and great biking awaited us on these two lovely islands. And in the Lowcountry nearby, we got a glimpse of what life was like on a rice plantation in the 1700s.
Exploring Jekyll Island: A Window into the Gilded Age
Arriving on Jekyll Island, it seemed as though we had stepped back into the late 1880s. A grand Victorian hotel stood before us, surrounded by immaculately manicured grounds, and a group of people, dressed all in white, were preparing for a game of croquet.
In 1886, a group of prominent East Coast millionaires purchased Jekyll Island as a winter retreat. Rockefeller. Vanderbilt. Morgan. Macy. Goodyear. Astor. Pulitzer. These are just a few members of the exclusive Jekyll Island Club that gathered for three months each year to hunt, play, relax—and wheel and deal.
Described as the richest, most exclusive, and most inaccessible club in the world, the Jekyll Island clan held one-sixth of the world’s wealth and controlled U.S. banking, railroads, and the industrial complex. (Pulitzer controlled publishing, and he was invited to join the inner circle in hopes that he wouldn’t write badly about the others.)
Personally, I have no romantic illusions about the Gilded Age, even with picturesque scenes of people playing croquet dressed in white. Basically, there was a handful of ridiculously wealthy people (many known as “robber barons” for their nefarious ways of amassing money and power), and everyone else was dirt poor.
Not so long ago, we would never have been allowed on the island. But shortly after WW II, the state bought Jekyll Island. Now, after paying a mere six bucks at the toll booth, we roamed the island to our hearts’ content.
We started our explorations with a tram tour of the historic district. Offered by the Jekyll Island Museum, the 90-minute tour offers a glimpse into life on this Golden Isle at the turn of the century.
~Biking Jekyll Island
One of the best things about Jekyll Island is the 20-miles of biking trails that encircle the island. We biked the entire island, alongside the marsh, on the beach, and then back through the historic district (you can pick up a map at the visitor center). If you go, don’t miss Faith Chapel—it’s a little jewel box of a church built for the Jekyll Island Club members. It’s simple, beautiful, and features a stained glass Tiffany window.
Exploring Another Golden Isle: St. Simons
St. Simons Island is another of the Golden Isles, and you traverse it to get to Jekyll. We enjoyed biking the island (not quite as bike friendly as Jekyll, but not bad). There’s a lot of history on St. Simons, including the fort where Georgia’s colonial fate was decided.
I’m willing to bet your eyes glaze over when a sentence starts with “In 1736…”. Mine do. But a few dates here and there put things into context. (And there’s no quiz!!)
So…in 1736, British General James Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica to protect the new colony of Georgia from the Spanish, who were just down the coast in St. Augustine.
The most interesting part of the story is that Oglethorpe was a social activist. He envisioned a community where the “worthy poor” who had been confined in British debtors’ prisons could start anew. And he welcomed religious reformers, including Methodists John and Charles Wesley.
From all accounts, they built quite a thriving little town. Only remnants of the fort and village remain, and Fort Frederica is now a national monument. Volunteers do a great job of reenacting life in the village. They garden, spin wool, cook over an open fire, and do blacksmithing, all in period costume.
On our biking tour of St. Simons, we stopped by historic Christ Church, just up the road from Fort Frederica. It’s a beautiful setting beneath the moss-draped oaks. Southern cemeteries are so atmospheric.
~One More Thing on St. Simons…
Thanks to a tip from the friendly folks at the Golden Isles Welcome Center, we enjoyed an excellent lunch at Palmer’s Village Cafe in cute downtown St. Simons. It’s a casual place popular with locals and the food is fantastic. Crab salad with marinated black-eyed peas, radishes, arugula and lemon thyme dressing. Southern-influenced, creative, and very delicious!
Visiting a Rice Plantation in the Lowcountry
For our last adventure in the area, we traveled 15 miles north along the coast to visit the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation, a historic rice plantation. It was owned by the same family until 1973 when it was willed to the state, furnishings and all.
In the 1700s, colonists in South Carolina and Georgia discovered that rice grew well in the Lowcountry, the area where freshwater swamps meet the coast. But they had a few problems—they didn’t know how to grow rice and the work was backbreaking. So they brought in slaves from the West Coast of Africa, who knew how to cultivate, harvest, and process rice.
There’s an excellent little museum on site that presents an honest view of what life was like for slaves on a rice plantation. Although the slaves on this particular plantation were supposedly treated well, it was nonetheless a terrible life of drudgery in a hot, mosquito-infested swampland. The only good thing about living on a rice plantation for the slaves is that they were left alone for many months each year when the plantation owners left to escape the heat, humidity, and ferocious mosquito population.
The slaves developed a unique language called Gullah, a mosaic of English and African words spoken with a singsong cadence. More than any other black Americans in the United States, the isolation of the slaves served to protect their cultural heritage—their songs, folktales, crafts, and rice-based cuisine all reflect their West African roots. We learned more about the Gullah in our next stop in Savannah, where we met people who are committed to keeping the culture and language alive.
About the campground
Blythe Island Regional Park is a great location for exploring the Golden Isles (15 miles from St. Simons, 18 miles from Jekyll). The sites are spacious and shaded, and the campground is peaceful. Hard-packed sandy, level, spacious sites; concrete patios; full hook-ups; and walking trails throughout the park. Clean laundry and bathhouse. The park wifi is unreliable, but Verizon is useable.