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.
Are those e-bikes you ‘peddle’ around?
They’re just regular bikes, JC. Eric has a Trek mountain bike, and mine is also a Trek, kind of a hybrid mountain bike with a more comfortable seat and upright handlebars. They’re both kind of old bikes, but we’re still reasonably happy with them for the type of riding we do (10-30 miles, random terrain but not serious mountain biking).
Love your comment about Pulitzer. HA! Those times with control in the hands of a few sounds about like now. I share your opinion of the “Victorian era”. Can you even imagine what they would say about the state buying “their” island? We visited there back in the 70’s. I’ll bet it’s changed a lot. The biking looks great. That picture of Christ Church is fantastic. The Spanish Moss screams “the south”. Crab salad with black eyed peas? Also only in the south. Glad to hear the plantation presents the unvarnished truth about slavery there. We went to the Gullah Festival on the South Carolina coast near Hunting Island State Park. It was fantastic! How do you find these great campgrounds?? Does the save my name etc thing actually work? I checked it last time but had to enter everything again like always.
Sherry, I thought that was pretty funny about Pulitzer, too! The Jekyll Island Club declined in popularity during WW II and the government made them leave the island when a German submarine was discovered off the coast. The government didn’t want too much of our nation’s wealth concentrated on a vulnerable island. I think they were happy to sell the island. :-)
Hunting Island State Park is on our list—I’d love that Gullah Festival! It’s a fascinating culture.
Sorry about the problem with the comment section saving your info—I’m working on it. Thanks for letting me know.
It’s going to be a long while before we find ourselves back on the east coast, so I am enjoying your posts about these interesting places.
Thanks, Erin. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the posts—this was all new territory for us, and we found it fascinating.
Everything looks so perfect and pristine and manicured. It’s impressive how well the historic buildings have been maintained and how much care is obviously taken in keeping this place so beautiful. I’m sure the original owners would be pleased to see it looking so lovely after all these years! Interesting history as well – hundreds of years of it. All I could think of looking at those actors in their historic costumes was they must be seriously dedicated to their craft because from what I know of southern summers, that cannot be much fun! Looks like a terrific place to spend a couple days next time we head down the east coast and that campground looks like the perfect home base. We’ll definitely make use of it!
Laura, we were impressed with how carefully the historic buildings have been preserved, too. There is a LOT of history in this part of the country. There’s no way to absorb it all, but I like the “field trip” approach. :-)
So funny, I didn’t think about the historic reenactors in those costumes in the summer—they must be miserable! I think you’ll enjoy the campground and all of the interesting things to do nearby. (Don’t go in the summer!! But you know that already.)
Thank you guys so much for sharing. It looks like a great place and is now on my bucket list, as we are very close to retiring.
You’re welcome, Chad! I appreciate your comment. And congratulations on being close to retirement—have fun planning your bucket list. We keep adding to ours, too.
What a beautiful picture of Christ Church!!
This is a beautiful area that I have not seen in many years!! Thanks for taking me back there…now I want to return!!
Ahhhh, the few and proud elites!!! They still run the world!!
Looks like great biking too!!
Gerri, we were surprised at just how beautiful coastal Georgia is. The biking on the islands is a lot of fun, especially Jekyll. And so much history! The uber-wealthy do still control the world…let’s hope there are enough of them with strong social consciousness to think of the good of all instead of just amassing wealth and power.
Thanks for the tour! Love the story behind Fort Frederica. Glad someone thought of the “worthy poor.” I can’t imagine working on the rice plantation in the south. The mosquitoes must have been crazy…heat and moisture! But I am sure they enjoyed their months off alone. I’ve never seen a Jeep pulling a tram around. Too funny! Looks like lots of exercise since you could bike around…sweet! Your photos are so beautiful and show the beauty on both islands. Good to “see” you both:)
Thanks, Pam. :-) We found a lot to keep ourselves busy in our travels in the east—so much fascinating history. I like the “backstories” the best—stories of the people, personalities, and less known aspects of the times. And we were happy to find so many good bike trails!
We are so fortunate to be able to get out and travel and see the outside.
Sooooo many friends from our school (& our age group) have passed away or highly sick
and going in and out of hospitals.
May you both remain healthy and continue such a wonderful and educational travel style.
Thanks, Bob. We are fortunate, indeed. Keep on enjoying your adventures and beautiful photography!
We love Jekyll Island and we too followed that bike path. What we did not do is ride on the trolley pulled by a jeep, not sure if it was offered at that time. You heard and learned more than we did then in 2013. That’s the same restaurant I had my first shrimp and grits! Did you go to the refuge?
“Planting rice is never fun…bent from morn till the set of sun…” a Filipino folk song describing the rice farmers. Like in the Phil, most ricefields are own by rich people and tenants do the back breaking job.
MonaLiza, I’m glad the museum offered the trolley tour because the guide told us lots of interesting stories. But biking the island was the most fun part of our day!
The rice plantation on the mainland was fascinating, too. Thanks for sharing the Filipino folk song—I can’t imagine facing that kind of backbreaking work day after day.
The islands are so pretty! The original barons must be rolling over in their graves at the thought of mere commoners roaming their grounds willy-nilly :-)
The little chapel is lovely and feels good even in 2 dimensions. Fascinating that the slaves stayed during the summers to continue working. I’m finding that more and more historic sites are sharing facts that for so many years were denied.
I’m loving this route and hope to see some of these wonderful sites next year!
I too am still having to enter the info each time.
Haha, yes, I’ll bet the barons are rolling in their graves at the thought of us merrily biking around “their” island! Be sure to stop in and take a look at the Jekyll Island Club—they let us “commoners” in even though we were dressed for biking. :-)
You and Bill will really enjoy visiting this area. It’s so rich in history and so beautiful. And don’t miss the rice plantation!
We visited Tybee Island on our last trip through Georgia way back in 2007 I think. This time we will be sure to visit Jekyll Island, maybe stay at the state park you reviewed, and continue on toward Okeefenokee. Hoping the weather will be decent in early March. Loved reading about the islands.
Sue, we didn’t make it out to Tybee Island, but it’s on our list for next spring when we return to Savannah! There is far more to do on the coast of Georgia than we ever imagined. I think you and Mo will enjoy Jekyll Island and the whole area.
There’s a state park on Jekyll Island, but we chose instead to stay at the county park, which is just 15 miles from the island. We biked through the state park on the island, and it looked fine, but the sites were much closer together. The benefit of staying there is that you can bike right from the campground, so we might consider that next time. But we liked the county park. :-)
The reenactments make learning so much memorable and surprising. They just look hot. It is a different world in the east. Can’t beat a ride around an island.
Debbie, we really enjoy historical reenacments—as you said, it makes learning easy. I feel like a grade schooler. :-) We were there in early April, and the weather was beautiful. I wouldn’t want to be in those costumes come summer.
We too biked around Jekyll Island and watched the well-to-do play croquet dressed in white. St. Simon’s Island was fun as well, and while exploring, we took time to bike around and find some of the “tree spirits”, which was quite fun (at least for me). Hope you are enjoying Lopez Island. We are trying to stay cool here in So. Cal and not having much luck at it. Enjoy your summer!
LuAnn, we found only one tree spirit—right outside the visitor center. I wish I had known there were more to discover! We’re loving being back on Lopez for the summer, but are missing you.
As always, it is a joy tagging along on your cross-country adventures! I always learn something—whether about birding, history, geography, or just finding happiness in life. Thank you and Eric for the gift of this blog and your wondrous selves!
I’m so glad you’re accompanying us on our journey, Melissa. Your help with our website makes the blog possible. :-)